A Deep Dive into the end of Potomac’s AP-Designated Courses

Ms. Tory Virchow, US Curriculum and Academics Director, sits down with The Current to explain the rationale and results of Potomac’s decision to move away from AP-designated classes

Charlotte Gabriel, Co-Editor in Chief

Since its founding in 1987, Potomac’s Upper School has offered classes designated as AP–until this year. In ditching the AP nomenclature, our school acted in concert with seven other prominent Washington area independent schools, including Landon School, Sidwell Friends, National Cathedral, and St. Albans.

Ms. Tory Virchow, Upper School Director of Curriculum and Academics, spearheaded Potomac’s study of the implications of abandoning AP-titled classes, many of which were mainstays of the US curriculum. While AP classes are no longer offered at Potomac, students continue to take AP exams, while teachers of AP subjects continue to incorporate much of the AP curriculum in their classes, particularly those designated as Advanced courses that correspond to subjects of AP exams. An example would be Advanced U.S. History (formerly known as AP U.S. History or APUSH) and the AP US History exam.

From the student’s perspective, it’s not always easy to see the benefit of taking away the AP label from their classes as they journey through high school: but does the AP designation really affect the decisions of college admissions officers? Is the apparent anti-elitism of jettisoning the APs offset by the understanding that our reputation enables this move?

To clarify all of this, we sat down with Ms. Virchow, who thoughtfully explained the rationale behind this pivotal decision and brought us up to date on how it is playing out.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

Q: Would you please describe some of the information and history about why we, and other independent schools in the area, made the decision to switch from AP to Advanced classes?
A: Yes, absolutely. We made the decision to move beyond AP classes but initially didn’t know exactly what they were going to be replaced with. It looked like the question started to arise in academic circles, including some schools in other areas of the country and in our own region. And so for a year, we formed a task force that had people on it from admissions, advancement, alumni, AP teachers, college counseling, and all sorts of folks. We talked to other schools that had gotten rid of APs, we did surveys of students and faculty, we learned more about what curricula look like when schools move beyond AP. At the end of that year, we recommended to the board that we would move gradually. We gave ourselves a five-year ramp, and we debated a lot. Do we want to keep them for the next five years and then drop them all? Do we incrementally drop them? How do you decide which ones drop first and which will stop later? So eventually, we decided we were just going to drop them off at the end. But before we dropped them this past fall, we added in some new courses. That’s where we start to see things like Advanced courses start to layer in, even before we had moved out of APs.

Q: Has the decision to get rid of AP classes paid off as you hoped?
A: Yes. When I talk with students and with faculty, they are so happy that they can invest in the material and not in “how to take a test.” I hear that particularly from the US history teachers, who used to have to teach towards the specific DBQ [document-based question] style question. Now, they can study historical content and do it in a really interesting way. The other thing that’s happened is some courses have stayed the same, for the most part. You get more into covering different material. We can speed up or slow down, so we can move through some stages a little more quickly because we’re not worried that that content has to be covered for the exam.

Q: Do you think that teachers at the school still feel a pressure to prepare their students for certain AP exams, even if their class is now labeled “Advanced”?
A: If you look in our course catalog, one of the things we did with this year is we added a little italicized part for a course that used to be AP. It says either: this course will prepare you for the AP exam without any additional work, this course will cover much of the same content but needs additional preparation, or this course really deviates from the original AP curriculum. We want to be super clear and give teachers that. I think that it freed the teachers up that they got to decide what area they should fall in. It freed them up to be able to say either that I still want to be able to prepare my students for the exam or to say no.

Q: How do you think students, parents, teachers, college and college admissions officers, and other members of the general community feel about this decision?
A: So prior to dropping AP exams, the exams were required if you took the class. Once we took that away, we were down a significant number of AP tests this year, which tells us that a lot of kids didn’t actually value taking the AP exam in the first place. Why do you take it in the first place? It’s not associated with your transcript for us. Some colleges will accept it for credit, but not all. One of the surveys that we did at one point, one of the students said, “why would you take some of our best teachers and outsource their curriculum?” In other words, our teachers are really good at teaching, and they really know their subject matter. Why would you tell them that they then have to teach a certain curriculum written by the College Board? We would much rather have them diving more deeply.

Q: Do you believe that students feel that Advanced classes are preparing them adequately for the AP exams?
A: I haven’t heard any complaints from students or concerns at this point that they weren’t prepared for the AP exams this year. In our Advanced classes, we don’t think about just preparing for an AP exam just for college. We’re thinking about life beyond college. The AP exam is designed to be a standardized test, like the SAT. But does that actually prepare you to do well in college? So I think that we’re giving students better preparation in life. We gave plenty of time to explain the switch to people and let them know what was coming up. Admissions was really upfront and honest that this is what we’re doing as a school, and here’s why we’re doing it. I really don’t ever get questions about it anymore. Colleges know who Potomac is, know what our rigorous courses are. They’re not judging by AP. We intentionally use the word Advanced, because on a transcript it has the label ADV whether it’s an AP or Advanced course. In the mind of a college, that’s the same level of rigor.