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A Brief History of Advanced Placement Exams

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In 2013, more than 2.2 million students sharpened their No. 2 pencils and sat for an Advanced Placement exam—and if growth trends are any indication, even more will do so this year. [PDF] But with eyes on their futures (and noses deep in their textbooks), today's students don't think of the decades of test-takers who came before them. While current college admissions pressures have put increased importance on the AP program in recent years, the College Board has been torturing—uh, enriching—students since 1955.

So, who started the AP program? How has it changed since the 1950s? And—the million dollar question—is it effective? Read closely—there will be a quiz.

Bridging the Gap

Following World War II, American educators sought a way to bridge the widening gap between secondary and higher education. [PDF] The Ford Foundation created the Fund for the Advancement of Education, which supported two studies dedicated to figuring out how, exactly, to make that happen.

According to the College Board, the first study was conducted by educators from three prep schools—Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville—and three colleges—Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. The study urged high schools and colleges to view themselves as "two halves of a common enterprise" and recommended that "secondary schools recruit imaginative teachers, that they encourage high school seniors to engage in independent study and college-level work, and that achievement exams be used to allow students to enter college with advanced standing" (namely, some completed scholarship). Sound familiar?

In the second study, the Committee on Admission with Advanced Standing worked to develop college-level curricula that students could jump into during their final year (or years) in high school. Their challenge lay in creating high school courses and accompanying assessment tests that colleges would deem rigorous enough to be worthy of credit toward a degree. Both studies made one thing very clear: high schools and colleges needed to work together in order to avoid coursework repetition and to provide motivated students with a challenging curriculum that will allow them to transition easily to college.

In 1952, a pilot program consisting of advanced courses in 11 subject areas was launched. And in the 1955-56 school year, the College Board (a "mission-driven not-for-profit organization" founded in 1900) took over the program's administration, renaming it the College Board Advanced Placement Program.

The AP Program Grows

That first year, 104 high schools and 130 colleges participated in the College Board's AP program, with 1229 students taking 2199 exams across the 11 disciplines. In the following decades, the College Board worked to expand its program. In the 1960s, they focused on training high school teachers in the new curricula. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the College Board worked to get more minority and low-income students in AP classes. Their efforts must have worked, because more and more students across all income levels took AP classes every year. [PDF]

By the 2012-2013 school year, 18,920 high schools and 4027 colleges participated in the AP program. And the number of students ballooned to 2,218,578 taking a total of 3,938,100 tests across 34 subjects. That's 33.2 percent of high school students, as compared to 18.9 percent in 2003.

The Ford Foundation and the College Board set out to create a curriculum that would make the transition from high school to college easier for students, and, more than five decades later, they've established a monstrosity of an institution. But they did achieve their original goals?

The College Board, for one, seems to think so. In the 2007 study "AP Students in College: An Analysis of Five-Year Trends," [PDF] Rick Morgan and John Karic found that students who scored a 3 or higher on their AP tests achieved better grades in intermediate college courses than students who had taken an introductory course but did not participate in the AP program in high school. And students who scored 5s on their AP exams did much better than their non-AP-taking peers. Morgan and Karic also found that AP students graduate earlier than non-AP students.

Similar studies, however, have proved less conclusive. In "The Relationship Between AP Exam Performance and College Outcomes" (2009), Krista Mattern, Emily Shaw, and Xinhui Xiong had similar results to Morgan and Karic, but also found that, when controlling for both SAT scores and high school GPAs, AP students did not earn higher first year GPAs than students who did not take AP exams. They chalk this up to one of two things: Either high achieving students (quantified by SAT scores and high school GPAs) will get good grades in college regardless of AP participation, or non-AP students enroll in less rigorous college courses (which are easier to get good grades in).

"In sum, these results suggest that participation in an AP Exam may better prepare students for the more rigorous academic demands of college-level work," Mattern, Shaw, and Xiong conclude. "Nevertheless, it is possible that other factors beyond prior academic performance contribute to the group differences." [PDF]

The AP Program Today

While it's obvious the AP program's popularity—meaning its participation stats—has grown exponentially since its inception, critical reception of the program varies. Educators, parents, and students (much like the program's founders and the aforementioned researchers) ask whether "teaching to an exam" is an effective mode of education. Therefore, in an attempt to stay ahead of the criticism, the College Board constantly reevaluates and changes its offerings.

The AP courses and exams are developed by committees of college faculty members and AP teachers. Keeping in mind the findings of the founders' initial studies, the high school and college faculty work together to define scope and expectations of the courses, the curriculum framework, and the knowledge and skills students will need to acquire in order to score well on the exam. And if a course or exam needs revision, the committees work backwards from their achievement goals (what do we want our students to take away from this?) to make changes.

With tests available in 34 subject areas in the 2013-2014 school year—and two new Physics exams planned for next year and changes to the Art History and European History exams set to roll out in 2015-2016—the AP program's offering has tripled since the 1952 pilot program. And seeing as enrollment has doubled in the past 10 years, it seems safe to say that your children's children (and their children, and their children) will be loading their high school schedules with AP classes. 

Because nothing says "I'm ready for college" like a year or two's worth of Red Bull- and candy-fueled cram sessions.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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