Goodbye APs, Hello…?


Tess McLafferty, Contributing Writer

In the wise words of pop-icon Lizzo, “all the rumors are true.” Advanced Placement (AP) courses and tests – one of the most ubiquitous parts of the high school experience– are being phased out here at Pingree School. 

Starting in 2018, Pingree’s curriculum committee began evaluating the effectiveness of this advanced, standardized curriculum through a process of extensive research, surveys, and discussions with other independent schools that had recently eliminated APs. In 2020, by a unanimous vote, Pingree decided to take the steps to officially transcend APs with the class of 2025. 

Before considering what’s next, let’s examine what Pingree’s current AP program looks like. APs are among the most rigorous classes that high school students can take. Students past and present bond through the material they learned; the labs, projects, and papers completed; and the few (or not so few) tears cried while creating a study guide for the class’ final exam. AP courses follow a College Board curriculum, and while an individual teacher can shape the atmosphere of a class, the content is pre-planned and intensive, necessary to be taught in a specific order leading up to the exam. This means that students and teachers do not have much influence over the direction of their courses. But APs have also been a key ingredient in the college process, showing a prospective school that a student can handle a rigorous, college-level course load. 

This begs the question: what would a world without APs look like? What would it mean for the school’s teachers, the overall curriculum, and the college prospects of future Pingree students?

From teaching classes to facilitating study sessions, AP teachers are at the forefront of this shift. They are there behind the scenes, understanding the “why” of this change and how it will shape their classrooms. Many see the change as an opportunity. “This shift will allow teachers to create courses that are better tailored to their students’ interests, passions, and inquisitiveness,” says Emily Einhorn, a current AP teacher and science department chair. Einhorn is confident that Pingree teachers will be able to keep the best aspects of their current classes while also now having the room cater to student interest, facilitate interdisciplinary research, and adapt to current events as they come up.

Lunch crowds, breaks, and library bean bag circles are great places to hear lots of opinions. Yes, they’re mainly about English homework, Jake Gyllenhaal, or the newest Marvel movie, but the shift away from APs is a conversation starter nonetheless. While many students echo Ms. Einhorn’s hope for future possibilities, there is also an underlying feeling of unrest.

Some students voice concern about losing the academic deep-dive that APs allow for. Many others feel frustrated because they want to push themselves in the same classes that students across the nation can take. Another source of apprehension is the impact this shift could have on the college application process. Students worry that new advanced classes won’t look as good to colleges as an AP course; that without APs on the transcript, it will look like the applicant just chose not to fully push themselves. Another student worries that once they do arrive on that college campus, they won’t be at the same level of academic readiness as their fellow peers who did take APs in high school. 

While many carry apprehension for this shift, as with any big change, many fall in between support and opposition, simply entertaining both fear and excitement in their minds. Upperclassman Mackenzie Holian, a current AP student, comments that “while I am sad to see some of my favorite classes go, at times they can be really overwhelming and stressful.” It is a common feeling that in courses as fast-paced as these, students can’t afford to be curious. So while voicing worry about losing college-like rigor and the national benchmark that APs provide to schools, students also agree that with the rigid curriculum shifting, there will now be more time to truly dive into interesting material. One hope for this shift is that the intensity of the application process for these advanced classes may decrease, meaning that these rigorous courses may become more accessible for students whose past grades are not an indicator of their passion for the subject. Similarly, the transcendence of APs will allow for more curiosity, conversation, and classes where the grade a student receives expresses their investment in the course rather than feeling that the total weight depends on their test-taking skills.

Apprehension, excitement, and cautious optimism are common threads found throughout discussions around this shift. Agitation is mainly sourced from a point of confusion, especially around how this transcendence will affect the college process for current and future Pingree students. According to Pingree college counselor Jong Kwan Park, “students need to know that colleges will not penalize them for not taking classes that Pingree doesn’t offer… Advanced courses designed by our faculty at Pingree will challenge our students to maximize their potential, pursue their curiosities and passions, and showcase their talents and strengths as a learner.” Which, in the end, is the root of what colleges had used APs to look for in a student.

The beauty of an independent school is that innovative teaching and learning are possible, and transcending APs will only increase these opportunities for innovation. Pingree’s website states it concisely: “Pingree’s students aren’t standard; why should their curriculum be?” 

Research from other independent schools that have completed this shift has shown that Pingree’s transcendence from the AP curriculum will not affect students’ chances of being accepted into higher education. In fact, it may even help distinguish Pingree students in the wide pools of competitive applicants. The college office will support students throughout this process, providing background to a student’s transcript, giving context to schools around the reasoning for this change, and explaining the equitable advanced classes that are offered. In addition, the college office and scheduling advisors will provide students with adequate support so that they can pick best-fit classes in this new realm of offerings that will showcase their determination and drive accurately.

The Pingree community is evolving, and while transcending means leaving something behind, it also is a path to something new. By the Class of 2025, Pingree will have shifted away from the traditional AP curriculum into a new advanced class system. Feelings are that of curiosity, apprehension, excitement, and unease, but as Mr. Park says, “consistent with any change in life, there will be ‘growing pains’ with the transition for all involved.” This move away from APs will certainly be a change for all current students, parents, and prospective families, but it is also a tremendous opportunity. We can finally afford to be curious.