An independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, DC

Beyond the Advanced Placement Program

At The Potomac School, our curriculum has evolved over the years, guided always by a commitment to provide a rigorous, vibrant, and relevant educational program. As part of Potomac’s ongoing curriculum review process, we have spent two years examining the place of AP courses within our academic program, considering their value for our students and how well they align with our mission and educational philosophy. After extensive research and thoughtful discussion, we have determined that Potomac will phase out Advanced Placement courses over a five-year period and focus on the development of rigorous offerings that more directly address our students’ needs and the school’s educational goals. We see this as an unprecedented opportunity to enhance our curriculum and ensure that Potomac students benefit from courses that fuel their intellectual curiosity, foster their love of learning, and prepare them for success in college and beyond. To learn more, take a look at the resources below.


Letter from the Head of School

Joint Announcement from Eight DC-Area Schools

Potomac FAQs

What spurred reconsideration of Advanced Placement courses?

Since 2002, leading independent schools across the nation have been reassessing their reliance on the AP program, with many ultimately deciding to move beyond the AP and develop their own advanced courses that more closely address their students’ needs and interests. The reports from schools that have undertaken this transition are positive.

At The Potomac School, our curriculum has evolved over the years, guided always by a commitment to provide a rigorous, vibrant, and relevant educational program. As part of Potomac’s ongoing curriculum review process, we spent the past two years examining the place of AP courses within our academic program, considering their value for our students and how well they align with our mission and educational philosophy. After extensive research and thoughtful discussion, we have determined that Potomac will phase out Advanced Placement courses over the next five years and focus on the development of rigorous offerings that more directly address our students’ needs and the school’s educational goals. We see this as an unprecedented opportunity to enhance our curriculum and ensure that Potomac students benefit from courses that fuel their intellectual curiosity, foster their love of learning, and prepare them for success in college and beyond.

What is the rationale for eliminating the AP designation?

Believing that colleges expect them to take AP courses, students are less apt to register for other courses of equal or greater rigor that may, in fact, provide better opportunities for exploration of ideas and development of knowledge and skills. By their very nature, AP courses often compel faculty to “teach to the test,” condensing a significant amount of content into a short period of time. In-depth exploration of issues and thoughtful discussion may be sacrificed to get through all of the material expected to be on the test. Such courses can limit teachers’ and students’ ability to fully explore complex subject matter; worse, they may encourage students to view performing well on a standardized test as the ultimate goal of the academic endeavor. It is also important to point out that this type of course is not analogous to – or especially effective preparation for – college-level coursework, which generally demands in-depth analysis and original thought.

It makes little sense for an independent school that prides itself upon the quality and commitment of its faculty to outsource its top-level curriculum, delivering courses that do not fully align with its educational philosophy or best serve its students’ interests. This is the realization that many independent schools – including Potomac – have come to, and it is the impetus for the trend among such schools to move beyond AP courses.

What was Potomac’s process for making the decision to move beyond the AP?

We have been assessing the role of AP courses within our curriculum for the past two years. An internal task force was appointed to advance this discussion; its members included Potomac’s K-12 director of teaching and learning, Upper School head, Upper School director of curriculum and academics, director of college counseling, director of advancement, and director of admissions, as well as a number of Upper School faculty members. This group gathered relevant information from a variety of sources. Their work included

  • talking with independent schools, both locally and across the nation, that have moved beyond the AP or are considering doing so, to understand their rationale and process;
  • conferring with admission officers at public and private colleges and universities, especially those to which Potomac graduates typically apply;
  • engaging in conversation with our full Upper School faculty; and
  • discussing this subject with our trustees, parent representatives, Upper School students, and alumni representatives.

Simultaneously, over the past two years, Potomac’s head of school, K-12 director of teaching and learning, admission director, and communications director participated in a series of meetings with their counterparts at the other seven DC-area schools that were considering moving beyond the AP and have now announced their decision to do so – Georgetown Day, Holton-Arms, Landon, Maret, National Cathedral, St. Albans, and Sidwell Friends. These meetings provided valuable opportunities for school leaders to share experiences, observations, and constituent feedback to support informed decision-making.

What kinds of courses will replace AP offerings at Potomac?

As always, Potomac is steadfastly committed to offering rigorous, relevant, meaningful courses. We strive to foster learning and personal growth that prepare our students for success at the next academic level and beyond. To these ends, we aim to offer advanced courses that

  • are academically challenging and promote depth of understanding,
  • respect and nurture students’ intellectual curiosity,
  • encourage interdisciplinary perspectives,
  • provide opportunities for experiential learning and independent research, and
  • develop skills in critical analysis and argumentation.

Not all advanced courses will be entirely new; rather, some will be adaptations of Potomac’s current AP offerings. For example, we anticipate that our advanced courses in Calculus and Physics will probably not look much different from the AP versions. Other courses, in subjects like U.S. History or Comparative Government and Politics, may also be similar to their AP predecessors but will be redesigned to allow teachers and students to take a deeper dive in key areas. In still other cases, our faculty will embrace the challenge of creating new advanced courses that offer opportunities for independent research, interdisciplinary perspectives, and the in-depth exploration of ideas that AP courses often do not allow.

How will Potomac define rigor and vet these new course offerings?

In conversations with independent schools that have moved beyond the AP, our task force identified several methods of vetting new and revised course offerings. Most often, these hinge upon developing internal metrics to define rigor and testing courses against those metrics. In some cases, schools have involved outside reviewers. Our five-year timeline allows an adequate window to define and implement a process to ensure that Potomac’s advanced offerings are appropriately rigorous and designed to achieve specific academic outcomes. This timeframe will also provide ample opportunity to educate college and university admission officers about the changes to our curriculum and the rigor of our courses.

Will the absence of AP courses on transcripts affect Potomac graduates’ college-admission prospects?

Independent schools that have already moved beyond the AP indicate that this shift has had no negative impact on their graduates’ college admission results. To gather our own input related to this question, Potomac’s AP Task Force interviewed admission officers at a number of colleges and universities, including many of the institutions in which our students typically express a high level of interest. The consensus of these admission officers was that the AP designation itself has little relevance. Institutions of higher learning are interested in knowing whether students have taken – and excelled in – their high school’s most challenging courses. Given the large number of high school students nationwide now enrolled in AP classes, the AP designation no longer carries the weight – the distinction – that it once did.

Below are representative responses from college and university admission officers to Potomac’s query:

  • University of Pennsylvania: “Not having APs is never a disadvantage. I would say that half of all admitted students come from schools that either do not have APs or offer a limited number of them. We really trust how independent schools define rigor.”
  • University of Virginia: “We look at everything within the context of the school. We read applications with rigor in mind and also look at the creativity of the courses offered.”
  • Cornell: “We read by school and really dig into the curriculum. We actually prefer noncookie cutter curriculums. We love any evidence of research that students are doing on their own. AP is not that important at a school like Potomac.”
  • Harvard: “We would never dictate what you are doing at your high school. As long as you make it clear, we defer to you. Just explain it well.”

Potomac is committed to both “doing it well” and “explaining it well.” The five-year period when AP courses will be phased out and new advanced courses introduced will provide adequate time to clearly communicate the rigor of our curriculum to college admission officers, prospective Potomac students and families, and others who are rightfully invested in the quality of a Potomac School education.

Will students lose the opportunity to receive college credit by not taking AP courses?

AP examination scores, not the presence of AP courses on the transcript, determine what, if any, academic credit a student may receive. It is worth noting that a decreasing number of colleges are awarding credit on the basis of AP test scores.

Will Potomac continue to offer AP exams? Will the school provide AP exam prep?

We will continue to offer Potomac students the opportunity to take AP exams if they so choose.

Potomac’s advanced courses will serve as solid preparation for those students who wish to take AP exams. Prior to the addition of the AP English Literature course to Potomac’s curriculum in 2017, our junior English courses were rightly considered both rigorous and comprehensive, and students in these courses felt well prepared to take the AP English Literature exam. Even when the AP English Literature course was not being offered, our five-year records show that Potomac students consistently received an average score of 4 on the AP English Literature exam. We will continue to offer advanced courses that prepare students for success on AP exams, should they elect to take them, and – most importantly – position students for continued learning and growth in college and beyond.

Potomac's Mission

At The Potomac School, we believe that intellectual development, love of learning, and strength of character are complementary, and equally essential, educational goals. With a firm commitment to our core values and a rigorous academic program, we prepare students to lead lives of purpose, achievement, and generosity of spirit.

PHILOSOPHY AND PRACTICE

We achieve The Potomac School’s mission through our educational philosophy and practice. At Potomac we

  • foster a diverse, inclusive learning community where all voices and viewpoints are valued
  • provide a balanced educational experience that integrates academics, athletics, and the arts
  • empower our students to become independent thinkers and learners by emphasizing the rewards of inquiry, initiative, and reflection
  • emphasize appreciation for the natural world and each person’s responsibility for environmental stewardship
  • call upon all members of our community to act with compassion, civic conscience, and a commitment to serving
    others

Portrait of the Potomac Graduate