Students and faculty freed from an Inflexible Curriculum as Potomac says goodbye to AP Classes

Ethan Norton, Executive Editor

For nearly 70 years, colleges and high schools across the nation supported and participated in the College Board’s Advanced Placement program. In recent years, however, many colleges and especially independent schools have begun re-thinking the value of the AP program in the learning process.

Many schools have traditionally offered AP classes to students in the past because they believed that their rigorous and standardized curriculum would help students in their college application process. Since 2018, Potomac has been in the process of investigating the actual implementation of the AP program and how much it truly helps.

In conjunction with seven other DC-area private schools, Potomac announced its intention to take its advanced courses in a new direction: removing all AP classes from the school’s curriculum by the fall of 2022. 

“Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty. We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning,” said Potomac and seven other schools in a published statement on June 19, 2018.  

The college counselling office sent out a survey to approximately 150 colleges and universities that have enrolled Potomac students in the past. 

“I had about 20 or 25 conversations in person with admissions people and asked them if it matters if Potomac’s courses say, for example, ‘AP chemistry’ or if we call it ‘Advanced Chemistry,’” Heather Deardorff, director of college counselling explained. “One of the great responses was from Greg Roberts, the dean of admissions at UVA, who said: ‘We don’t care what you call your courses. As long as you explain them to us and tell us what you’re doing with your curriculum, we’ll take your word for it,’” Mrs. Deardorff said.

The school assembled a task force of faculty members, admissions officers, advancement team members, senior administrators, and college counselors to consider the merit of APs. They found that most colleges did not care if students were in specific “AP” classes. Instead, they simply wanted schools to explain the class’s difficulty within the context of the institution. The task force also discovered that students and teachers are prepared to step away from AP classes to pursue a deeper education.

Ms. Tory Virchow, Upper School director of curriculum and academics, told us, “We were tasked by Mr. Kowalik with investigating why other schools removed APs from their curriculum, what it might be like to get rid of APs, and what it would change about our curriculum and our courses.”

Ms. Virchow further explained that “The tipping point for me came when we polled the current students in AP classes about how they would feel if APs went away and overwhelmingly they said that they do not want to get hung up on how to take a certain type of class. They said that they get very tired when, for example, they are having an interesting class discussion in history and everyone is engaged and involved but they have to stop to go over the DBQ format. Our teachers have more interesting passions and have a more interesting curriculum to teach than this thing made by the college board.”

Teachers and students at Potomac feel restricted by the inflexible curriculum of AP courses, so to pursue a more engaging, and interesting curriculum, Potomac is backing away from AP courses to allow for new classes.

To do this, the school initiated a four-year program called “Vision 2022” that tasks the curriculum committee with creating a new lineup of advanced classes to replace APs by 2022.

“In a curriculum committee meeting, made up of all of our department chairs, college counselors, student support faculty, learning support faculty, and grade deans, I gave them all index cards and I said ‘if you could design any course that Potomac could teach, what would it be?,’ and they came up with amazing ideas,” said Mrs. Virchow.

As a sneak peek, one course that might be offered in the future would study the geography and history, specifically of native Americans, on Potomac’s campus.

Free from the rigid format of AP classes, Potomac students can look forward to delving deeper into what genuinely interests them. If colleges really don’t care, it’s a huge win for everyone.