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DA is Advancing Beyond APs with the Upper School's Own Rigorous, Flexible, Advanced Curriculum

Story by Leslie King

For years, the Upper School academic experience at Durham Academy has been defined (for some students) by a magic number, followed by an acronym: how many Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams you could possibly complete before graduation.

Students and teachers already participate in rigorous class at DA even without the AP tag

Photos by Michael Branscom


“I definitely wanted to take APs because I thought it was impressive,” recalled Sanju Patel ’23.

“For me, it was just not even a question, APs were something I had to take,” said Emerson Levin ’23.

“When you go into high school you think, oh I want to take as many AP classes as possible, I think it will look really good on my college application,” explained Arya Kumar ’23. “But as soon as you get out of them, you’re like, well, I didn’t really get a whole lot out of that class.”

The College Board develops and administers standardized tests and curricula for Advanced Placement, the SAT and SAT subject tests, and the PSAT. Over the last two decades, teachers and students at top independent schools and Durham Academy began to find the prescriptive structure of what was traditionally a gold standard for advanced high school coursework limiting — they became more aware of those limitations, and started searching for alternatives, convinced there was a better teaching and learning experience that was as rigorous, if not more so, and could prepare students for college-level coursework with lifelong lessons.

Six years ago, Durham Academy started down the path of imagining an advanced college-level curriculum that wasn’t bound to the College Board by asking two reflective questions as part of curricular alignment and risk management committee work: 

1) What do we want our graduates to be able to do when they leave DA? 

That question guided multi-year horizontal and vertical curriculum alignment efforts. The more DA built and aligned curricular goals, the more it became clear how incompatible those goals were with the goals of the College Board and its AP courses. It also became clear that AP courses were not aligned with DA’s mission or its Strategic Vision, in particular the commitment to prepare our students for both college and their lives beyond that. 

2) What could threaten DA’s success in college admissions?

DA’s reputation for the caliber of its students and the quality of its academic program is nationally known. The threat of a stagnant Upper School curriculum that might fail to evolve to meet the 21st century needs of DA students or capitalize on the talents of DA teachers prompted the formation of an Advancing Beyond APs task force comprising Upper School Director Lanis Wilson, Upper School academic leaders and deans of college counseling, DA’s directors of enrollment management, strategic initiatives and marketing/communications and Associate Head of School Kristen Klein, who oversees Strategic Vision initiatives related to academics.

The task force is helmed by former college professor, former AP grader and current, self-described “proud” AP history teacher Dr. Rob Policelli. 

“I love my AP course", he said. “But as an AP teacher and grader, I know the AP program well and I’m aware of its limitations,” he explained. “Durham Academy can do better. AP courses are really limiting as an educator because it’s all about preparing students for a massive exam, and the College Board is dictating what content will be on that exam. It limits opportunities to connect what [students are] learning to what’s going on in the world right now.”

“There’s really not a whole lot of wiggle room,” added Upper School Science Academic Leader and AP Biology teacher Tara Eppinger. “I am planning down to the day of the AP exam and simply praying that there are no snow days.”

After two years spent researching more than 70 of the most prestigious independent schools in the country that have already led the way in successfully abandoning APs in favor of their own advanced courses, the decision was clear. A timetable was set to give DA a two-year runway to develop standards for Advanced coursework including skills, scope, sequence and prerequisites, and to prepare families, students, colleges and universities for the shift to a post-AP curriculum. 

“I think this is the right time to move in that direction because we have the luxury of having seen other top-tier independent schools having already made this move successfully,” said Senior Dean of College Counseling Jazmin Garcia Smith. “It’s a win-win. Students get to learn more about what they’re interested in, teachers get to teach in a way that feels more engaging in a classroom setting, and it all benefits students in the long run.”

In 2024–2025, Advanced coursework at Durham Academy will only be available through internally designed courses. DA will make testing available for students who want to or need to sit for AP exams to be able to apply to international colleges and universities.

“True academic rigor isn't about consuming content. It's about applying that content to novel situations, thinking in creative ways and working with others to solve problems,” Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner said. “And that's exactly what our new fleet of Advanced courses will require and inspire students to do.”

“A pre-packaged AP curriculum is out of step with our mission as a school,” Upper School Director Lanis Wilson said. “Because of the creativity and expertise of our faculty, we can do a better job of creating an advanced, college-level experience in the Upper School that meets our students where they are and prepares them for the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

When AP courses were developed decades ago, evidence of a half dozen or more of them on a high school transcript was a definitive marker of distinction. Now, due to the prolific number of courses available and in an environment like DA or other top independent schools, where the majority of students take them, that’s no longer the case. 

APs are outdated and inflexible, and universities are increasingly losing faith in APs’ ability to prepare students for college-level work by giving less college credit for them with every passing year. An advanced curriculum with real-world relevance is, in fact, what students demand from their educational experience. DA has seen students satisfy that need with a huge uptick in the number of students enrolling in interdisciplinary, independent study courses. Advancing beyond APs is becoming best practice.

“I think the benefit of going beyond APs in the college admissions landscape is that it’s going to allow our students to set themselves apart in a way that they haven’t been able to do in the past,” Garcia Smith said. “This will allow us to cater to the interests of our students and in turn make them better candidates for highly selective schools.”

“In my experience, the AP classes that I’ve taken aren’t the most rigorous classes at DA, and the AP exams aren’t the most rigorous in terms of content,” Sarah Muir ’24 said. “We can learn more, we can grow more as students without necessarily having to adhere to that curriculum and having to adhere to something that an external body like the College Board has given us.”

In fall 2022, DA’s Office of College Counseling administered two surveys as a pulse check to see if the shift would give colleges pause — one for the 67 college admissions officers who visited DA’s campus and an electronic version sent to schools on DA’s five-year matriculation list (20 have responded so far). Of the 76 total colleges and universities represented, 74 indicated consistent support.

Over 97% of colleges and universities indicated support of the shift from APs.

2022 survey by DA's Office of College Counseling

“We want students who are passionate about their studies and courses. Beyond AP allows students to develop this sense of academic curiosity that will make them successful.”
Boston University

“Duke respects the decisions each school makes concerning its curriculum and how it responds to the interests of its faculty and students. If a school elects to offer advanced-level courses in lieu of Advanced Placement we will certainly take that into account in our understanding of the rigor of the curriculum.”
Duke University

“I have seen more schools make this transition and it has not hurt students in the admissions process.”
Kenyon College

Dr. Paul Friga — parent of a rising 10th-grader who will be among the first truly post-AP students — sees the shift to Advanced courses from the constraints of APs as a “terrific strategic move for the school.”

“We chose DA because of their focus on developing moral, happy and productive graduates,” said Friga, who is an associate professor of strategy and innovation at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “The most important skills that they can learn coming out of high school are critical thinking skills, team problem-solving skills and I would say communication and presentation skills. And those are taught, not through standard AP per se, which are mostly about deep content, but what to do with that content, how to understand it, how to apply it in the modern world.”

The choice and depth of learning promised by Advanced coursework has received a warm response from students. 

“I would have rather spent my time learning more in depth about certain topics rather than kind of brushing over several topics just being able to regurgitate them on an exam and forget all about them,” said Kumar ’23.

“Working on something you’re actually interested in, it’s fun to grow, it’s fun to learn more about, and so I see myself and my well-being definitely improving in classes where I’m curious,” Levin said.

“If you’re offered a choice in your learning, you’re going to buy in more,” Patel agreed. “Talking to my sister who’s two years younger, I’ve been telling her to look forward to it, because there’s going to be classes that I just think are going to be more interesting that you can take.”

“This is an opportunity to teach students how to learn in a way that they’ll always have,” Policelli said, “which is going to set them up well for success in college and for whatever their career is.”

Learn more about Durham Academy’s shift to Advanced coursework at