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The Story Behind the AP Program

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The AP program is a 20th century development, but the concepts of advanced placement and accelerated study have been part of the American landscape since the 18th century.

Consider Alexander Hamilton. In 1773 at the age of 16, he tried to obtain advanced placement at Princeton, but his request was denied. The next year he entered King’s College (now Columbia University) where he was designated a “special student” by President Myles Cooper and allowed to pursue accelerated coursework that would allow him to graduate in 1776.

Hamilton tackled science, history, mathematics and philosophy and hired college professors as private tutors when necessary. He also produced pamphlets supporting the Continental Congress, spoke out in support of the Boston Tea Party and became active in the Revolutionary cause. He left college in 1775 to join the army, but his education paid off and by 1777 he was working as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington.

Clearly, determined individuals like Hamilton could sometimes negotiate advanced placement or accelerated arrangements, but such agreements were the exception, not the rule.

That began to change in the early 1950s. A collaborative study conducted by three renowned prep schools (Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville) and three ivy league colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) found a notable disconnect between the typical high school curriculum and rigorous college programs. As the headmaster of Andover observed, “It appears obvious that school and college programs, especially during the important years from 11th through 14th grade, have not been planned as coherent wholes.”

The study recommended high schools close the gap by encouraging seniors to participate in independent studies and college-level courses, and use achievement tests to provide a means for students to gain “advanced standing” when they entered college.

These findings prompted the formation of the Committee on Admission with Advanced Standing and the development of a pilot AP program. In 1955, the initial program was launched with 11 subjects and the committee asked the College Board to step in and manage it.

The AP effort gained momentum in the 1960s. The College Board began conducting ongoing training to help teachers deliver college-level content with confidence and consistency. More schools began offering AP courses and enrollments climbed slowly but steadily.

In 1976, nearly 75% of the 75,651 students in the program took just one exam. By the mid-1980s, more than 200,000 students were involved and close to one-third took two exams or more.

By the late 1990s, the program was expanded to help more students aspire to and succeed in AP exams. Pre-AP courses were developed and a vertical strategy was implemented to coordinate content and teaching strategies from middle school through high school.

These strategies helped ensure steady growth for the AP program. Today, more than 132,500 teachers offer AP courses at nearly 14,000 high schools, and more than 1 million American students take more than 3 million AP exams each year.

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