A Brief History of Advanced Placement Exams


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.

Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago

Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
The Body
11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.


The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."


The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.


The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.


The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.


The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.


For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.


Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.


You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.


In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.


When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.


On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."


More from mental floss studios