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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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Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD
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History
Inside the Never-Before-Seen Scrapbook of the Rubber Skin Lady, a 1930s-era Sideshow Star
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Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

As a young girl growing up in Milwaukee, Dr. Dori Ann Bischmann loved exploring her parents' attic. One day in the early 1970s, she discovered a mysterious trunk that piqued her curiosity.

Inside, there was some children's china, an antique baby doll, a beaded hat and bag from the 1920s, and an old scrapbook. The book had a picture of two puppies on the cover.

But the images between the covers weren't as cuddly as advertised.

Dori had found the scrapbook of her great aunt, Agnes Schwarzenbacher, also known as Agnes Higginbotham and Agnes Schmidt—but more famously as Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady. On the inside cover of the book a title marked in pen read, "Scrapbook of Show Life."

The newspaper clippings, photos, and signed pitch cards (promotional postcards featuring individual performers) that filled nearly 90 pages gave Dori a glimpse into the life of one of the sideshow's biggest stars of the 1930s. It also unlocked a family secret.

Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori had never met her aunt, who passed away in 1962. Nor had she ever heard about how Agnes drew crowds to watch her exhibit the excessive, elastic skin that covered her legs. Agnes could stretch the rubbery flesh anywhere from 15 to 30 inches, although from the waist up she looked completely normal. There are no reports of a diagnosis, but she may have had a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Agnes, who was born in 1902 in Germany and came to America three years later, had shared her unusual skin on stages across the continent. In Toronto, she even performed before royalty. In one of the scrapbook's clippings, she spoke of the event as being one of the greatest thrills of her life on the road: "The audience was a very distinguished one and most famous of all was the Crown Prince of England, now the Duke of Windsor. I was most thrilled when he applauded vigorously."

With each turn of the book's pages, Dori encountered many of the extraordinary people Agnes performed with, particularly at the Ripley's Odditorium at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. At the time, Robert Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" cartoon was extremely popular, and the Odditorium was the first public exhibition of unique performers and curiosities Ripley had gathered during his travels around the world. More than 2 million people visited his collection at the World's Fair and witnessed live acts like Agnes.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Top: Crowd gathered at an oddity show capitalizing off Ripley’s success at the World’s Fair. Bottom: Agnes is featured in a newspaper clipping, between two photos of unknown performers.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori was enthralled with her discovery. "I have always been fascinated with people who are unique," she tells Mental Floss. Today, she works as a psychologist and often counsels people who have genetic disorders.

"I see a lot of amazing people overcoming many hurdles," she says. "At the same time I see people who are depressed. I wonder how all of the circus freaks felt on the inside. Were they hurting and depressed and putting on a show outwardly? Or did they find contentment in giving something of themselves to help others?"

While it's hard to know exactly how Agnes felt, there are glimpses in some of the scrapbook's clippings.

"I would like very much to be normal in every respect," Agnes says in one newspaper article. "Don't misunderstand me. I said I would like to, but simply because my skin is rubber doesn't mean that I have become morbid. Far from it. I am, perhaps, one of the most pleasant persons you ever met. And why shouldn't I be? I don't consider myself seriously handicapped. I realize that my skin when stretched isn't exactly normal, but I don't allow the presence of such skin on my body to make me self-conscious."

A page of promotional images from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
A collection of performers from the 1933 World’s Fair, and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoon.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Indeed, Agnes's skin ailment proved to be quite profitable—several articles in the scrapbook claimed that "The salary paid her is the highest ever paid a freak." No numbers are given, and like many sideshow claims, this may have been an exaggeration. But many sideshow performers were paid well, especially for the Great Depression.

"She used a circumstance she was born into to become an independent woman with a high-paying career (for the day)," Dori says. "She traveled and experienced many things other women might not have been able to experience."

Photos of Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her family
Top: A photo featuring Agnes Schwarzenbacher with her father and siblings: Mary, John, Rose, and Carl. Below: A portrait of Agnes dated 1926.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

The Schwarzenbachers, however, weren't as self-confident as Agnes. Her family would have preferred that she covered her legs with long dresses and kept her anomaly to herself. They wanted nothing to do with her performances.

"The family was embarrassed that she was in the circus," Dori says. "I was also told that Agnes went to doctors to see if the tissue could be cut off. Apparently they couldn't in those days because it was too vascularized." (In other words, the tissue was too filled with blood vessels.)

The family's shame lasted well after Agnes's death. The scrapbook had originally been stored in Dori's grandparents' attic. When her grandmother passed away, no one in the family wanted the book except for Dori's mother, who had married Agnes's nephew.

"My mother was a person who was accepting of all people," Dori said. "She wasn't embarrassed about Agnes. She thought it was a shame that Agnes's flesh and blood did not want her scrapbook. The scrapbook is the story of Agnes's circus years, but also of her family."

Of course, it wasn't unusual for people born with anomalies to be treated in such ways. The sideshow, which had its heyday from the mid-1800s to the 1940s, offered them a rare chance to escape a life of seclusion, earn a living, see the world, and—perhaps most importantly—to enjoy a sense of camaraderie.

In a 1959 article from the New York World-Telegram and Sun, longtime showman Dick Best expanded on this thought more colorfully: "For the past thirty years I have been able to give employment to scores of [sideshow performers], give them financial independence, and companionship. You realize this when you see a mule-faced girl, a guy with three legs, and a girl weighing 500 pounds playing poker with a guy who shuffles and deals with his toes. In a crowd like that nobody sits around feeling sorry for himself or anybody else. You could be accepted there if you had nine arms and ten heads."

The "mule-faced girl" that Best referred to was Grace McDaniels, who Agnes worked with and featured in her album. McDaniels was afflicted with a condition that caused tumors to grow on her lips and mouth. In addition to being called "mule-faced," she was also billed as the Ugliest Woman in the World. Agnes's photos show her with McDaniel's teenage son, Elmer, who traveled with her.

The "guy with three legs," as Best called him, also appears in the scrapbook. His name was Francesco Lentini, billed as the Three-Legged Wonder. He also had four feet, and two sets of genitalia.

Agnes's friend Frieda Pushnik, the Armless, Legless Girl Wonder, is featured more prominently. Born in Pennsylvania in 1923, Pushnik had only small stumps at her shoulders and thighs, with which she learned to sew, crochet, write, and type. At the age of 10 she joined the Rubber Skin Lady at the Chicago Odditorium during the World's Fair. In addition to having collected several of Frieda's pitch cards, Agnes also had personal photos. One of these captures another companion, a dwarf named Lillie McGregor, holding little Frieda. Without legs, Frieda is about half the size of Lillie.

Lillie appears in other photographs with her husband, Harry. They are each seen pulling a person in a wagon with their eyelids. Agnes even saved the Ripley's cartoon that illustrated the stunt.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Spread of newspaper clippings, including articles about Agnes and a Believe It Or Not cartoon starring her friends Lillie and Harry McGregor, who could pull each other in a wagon with their eyelids.
Dori Ann Bischmann PhD

Lillie McGregor pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Lillie McGregor, a friend of Agnes, pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

While Agnes's adventures in show life surrounded her with many kinds of unique people, one photo is of a man who shared a similar ailment. Arthur Loos, the Rubber-Skinned Man, had skin that hung loose beneath his chin, much like a basset hound's. He could stretch the flesh 8 inches. If they bonded over their sagging skin, Agnes made no mention of it in the scrapbook.

The man she did bond with was not a performer in the sideshow at all. He was a foreman who operated rides at a fair, a man named Jack Higginbotham. Their marriage is mentioned in one of the book's clippings, which states they were wed in Rockford, Illinois. However, the Rubber Skin Lady's love story was a mere subhead to another sideshow romance that earned the paper's headline: "Bearded Lady and ‘Elephant Man' on Midway are Newlyweds."

Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her husband
Agnes with her husband, Jack Higginbotham.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Although her family may have stayed far away from the sideshow stage, Agnes kept them all close. Photos of her with her father, brothers, sisters, and other family members populate numerous pages of the scrapbook.

Had Dori only seen these particular family photos, with her aunt's dresses covering her legs, she would have never known Agnes was different in any way—or what an amazing story she had to tell.

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Michael Fountaine
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fun
12 Amazing Items From the World’s Largest McDonald’s Memorabilia Collection
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Michael Fountaine

Since 1969, Michael Fountaine has been obsessively collecting every piece of McDonald’s memorabilia he can get his hands on. His collection, which he says is valued “in the millions of dollars,” features 75,000 pieces in total.

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