Going Beyond AP

Building on the AP Program and Making it Better

In order to offer the most challenging, engaging, creative and inspiring courses possible, beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, Tower Hill moved beyond the Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum for its most demanding courses.
Q. What does Tower Hill like about the AP program?
A. AP courses were originally created to help students acquire the skills and habits needed to be successful in college. The program provides a higher level curriculum to challenge the brightest and most motivated students. For teachers, it establishes a foundation of content material for the college-bound student.

Q. What are some of Tower Hill's concerns about the AP program?
A. In recent years, many public schools turned to AP as a means of strengthening their curricula. The number of exams and the students taking them ballooned at the expense, many believe, of the quality of the original program. While many colleges and universities grant advanced credit and or placement for high scores on exams, many offer limited or no credit, or have some restrictions in the credit that will be accepted. At Tower Hill, teaching to external, test-driven standards limited the ability of our talented teachers and forced them to "teach to the test." Finally, the AP audit process, which is required every year for every course labeled AP, greatly standardized course work nationally and significantly confines the flexibility and creativity teachers may bring to the classroom.

Q. Is Tower Hill unique in moving beyond the AP program?
A. While Tower Hill was certainly not the first to forego AP, we do feel that we are at the forefront of a movement to improve the student experience. It was not as a result of trying to be fashionable or different, rather in an earnest desire to provide the most meaningful education possible for our students. Some of the most respectable schools in the country have done likewise in an effort to strengthen the student experience. Schools include Exeter, Lawrenceville, Haverford, Westtown, St. Paul's (NH), University Laboratory School (IL), Brearley, Fieldston and many others.

Q. Do colleges look at this approach negatively? What about college admission offices?
A. Because many prestigious schools like those mentioned above have applied similar methods to advanced curricula, colleges are familiar with this approach. In addition, Tower Hill's surveys of dozens of selective colleges and universities have confirmed that as long as our most rigorous courses are clearly designated, our students will not be disadvantaged in the college admission process by not taking AP courses. In fact, many colleges praised this approach in our surveys. Since making the change several years ago, students have continued to be accepted at the country's top universities.

Q. Do Tower Hill students take AP exams? How does Tower Hill prepare them?
A. Tower Hill continues to offer students the opportunity to take AP exams, and they receive support from their teachers and college counselors. Students may sit for AP exams in any subject they study, but courses are not taught with AP subject test material as a focus. Some advanced courses retain significant portions of material found in traditional AP courses while still offering the teacher and students the freedom to engage in the course material in other ways. Other advanced courses require supplemental work on the part of students with guidance from their teachers outside of class to prepare for AP exams.

Q. What is the difference between Tower Hill's Advanced/Accelerated courses and the AP?
A. The advanced and accelerated courses in the Tower Hill curriculum enhance opportunities for deeper learning, exploration of current advances and creativity of instruction. These courses differ from AP courses in that teachers have the ability to modify a traditional AP course syllabus and emphasize depth of research and study or specific areas of study not prescribed in a typical AP syllabus. It also provides our talented faculty the opportunity to create high-level courses in areas that the AP curriculum does not cover.

Q. How has the Tower Hill faculty been involved with the College Board in the AP program?
A. To be clear, Tower Hill values many aspects of the AP program. In fact, a number of Tower Hill faculty actively participate with the College Board as consultants, instructors leading workshops for teachers, readers for AP exams, authors of student preparation guides and participants on test development committees. This is a main reason why we feel our teachers are so qualified to identify the best parts of the AP program without limiting ourselves to the prescribed curricula.

Q. What are specific examples from Tower Hill teachers of how moving beyond AP benefits our students?
A. The European history course skips briefly over events of secondary importance but likely to appear on the AP exam in order to consider a book on a particular theme or topic written by a master historian. Time has also become available for a sophisticated research paper.

In the AP Art program, collaborative works are unacceptable; sculpture is not accepted in a 2-D portfolio or a drawing portfolio, just as drawing and painting are restricted from a 3-D portfolio. Because of these restrictions, students are deprived of developing massive areas of study and interrelationships. By moving beyond AP, we can bring challenges to our students that relate to a broader, deeper life experience and that are more personally meaningful.

The move beyond an AP curriculum has opened the doors to much more exploration of foreign languages and cultures. More time is spent in class using the target language to communicate among students, within the classroom or with other schools via webcam, watching foreign news programs, welcoming native speakers to talk with our classes, hosting school exchanges and reading recent periodicals or texts.

Our English department dropped the AP curriculum nearly 20 years ago. AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition have long since been replaced by courses such as The Literature of Social Justice, Love and Mystery in American Folk Literature: Old Weird America. The quality of engagement and the work done by our students has only improved, and alumni responses overwhelmingly indicate that our students are exceptionally prepared for college level work.

Q. Why doesn't Tower Hill offer Advanced Placement courses?
A. Over many years, Tower Hill studied the effectiveness of AP courses. The foundation of the success of the Tower Hill program has always been knowledgeable, dedicated and creative faculty. It was faculty who initiated a movement to go beyond the AP program—that is to take the best of the program and supplement it with enhanced content to engage students in active, hands-on learning and research that takes advantage of the school's unique educational environment. In place of AP courses, Tower Hill offers advanced and accelerated courses designed by faculty which better accomplish our educational aims and prepare students for the kind of in-depth self-directed learning that is expected at the college level.

"Delinking with the AP program allows Tower Hill to offer courses that place emphasis on critical skills that often get too little attention due to the time constraints imposed by the need to discuss and memorize factual material when 'teaching to the test.' We can delve into topics in greater depth and use teaching materials of high quality that do not directly prepare students for the AP exam. At the same time our courses give students the analytical thinking and writing skills necessary to do well if they do chose to take an AP exam. We also provide them with review materials that enable them to perform successfully, if they are interested in pursuing an AP offering."

Dr. Ellis Wasson
History Department Chair
Involved with the AP Program for 25 years

Founded in 1919, Tower Hill School is a private, college prep school in Wilmington, Delaware, serving students in preschool through Grade 12.
Tower Hill is regarded as one of the best private schools in the U.S. Many of Tower Hill's students attend top universities and colleges.

  • Tower Hill School
  • 2813 W. 17th Street
  • Wilmington, DE 19806
  • 302-575-0550