Why Was the AP Program Created? A History of AP Exams and Classes

The AP program grew out of Cold War fears. But do the controversies surrounding the program's history mean students should avoid AP classes today?
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An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D., has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a writer and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern...
Updated on August 15, 2022
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Hannah Muniz is a senior editor with BestColleges, specializing in college planning, test prep, student life, and sponsored content. She previously worked as a freelance writer, composing articles on the SAT/ACT, higher education, language learning, ...
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  • The AP program grew out of Cold War fears that American students were falling behind.
  • AP exams promised a route to prestigious colleges for high-achieving students.
  • Equity and diversity issues drove the program to expand access.
  • Today, a record number of high school students take AP exams.

The Advanced Placement (AP) program dates back to the 1950s. But why was the AP program created? And how has it evolved in the 70 years since its inception?

From the beginning, the AP program served a particular group of students: high-achieving, typically white learners at elite high schools. Over the years, the program has expanded its reach with a focus on equity and diversity. But some critics claim the AP program still falls short.

Today, as some independent schools close down their AP programs, many public schools push for more AP classes and expanded access.

The History of AP Exams

The College Board, which was founded over a century ago in 1900, became known for administering the SAT before the AP program even existed.

AP exams were initially a response to the Cold War. The academic program grew out of research into America's brightest students funded by the Ford Foundation. A study at three prep schools found that many elite high schoolers demonstrated readiness for college-level work.

However, few resources existed to train these high-achieving students and ensure they would not repeat the same coursework in college.

Amid fears that American students lagged behind their Soviet counterparts, the AP program was created to give U.S. high schoolers a leg up. Through the AP program, students could take college courses and exams to jumpstart their postsecondary training.

According to the 1952 report announcing the program, AP exams would "offer an opportunity and a challenge to … the strongest and most ambitious boys and girls."

The pilot program for AP exams was launched in 1952 and tested high schoolers in 11 subjects. In 1954, around 530 high school students took AP exams. They paid $10 to take the test and received scores on a scale of 1-5.

A year later, the College Board took over testing and launched the AP program as we know it today.

Early on in the history of AP exams, just a small number of students participated in the program. In 1964, nearly a decade into the program, the College Board administered fewer than 38,000 exams.

In its early years, the AP program treated exclusivity as a benefit rather than a drawback. "The basic philosophy of the Advanced Placement Program is simply that all students are not created equal," declared David A. Dudley, director of the AP program, in 1958.

The Prestige of the AP Program

AP exams quickly became a prestigious tool to gain entry into highly selective colleges. By the early 1960s, half of incoming Harvard students had taken AP classes.

"As pressure to get into the prestige colleges has increased, it has not taken students long to learn that college admissions officers are impressed when they see Advanced Placement courses on a candidate's record," noted Phillips Exeter faculty member H.W. Bragdon in 1960. "The very fact of having taken such a course is as good as a 700-800 [SAT] score."

But that advantage primarily helped already privileged students. For many years, very few high schools offered AP classes. In 1969, just 14% of high schools had students taking AP exams.

Through the end of the 20th century, even as the AP program expanded, it largely served affluent, predominantly white high schools.

In 1999, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Inglewood High School students. The largely Black and Latino/a high school offered three AP classes in contrast with the 45 AP classes offered at Beverly Hills High School. In response to the lawsuit, the state of California agreed to increase access to AP classes at all high schools.

The AP Program Expands

From its early days as a program for elite high school students, the AP program expanded. In 1997, around half of public high schools in the U.S. offered AP courses. By 2017, 70% of high schools offered the classes.

The number of students taking AP exams also skyrocketed, from around 75,600 students in the mid-1970s to 750,000 students in 2000. In 2006, 1.3 million students took AP exams — a number that just 10 years later would double to 2.6 million.

As the AP program exploded in popularity, a larger percentage of students of color began to participate. In 1988, fewer than 20% of AP test-takers were students of color. That number crept up to 26.3% by 1994 and 31% by 2002.

Some states addressed issues of access to the AP program by mandating a minimum number of AP classes at each high school. By the late 1990s, the federal government began offering subsidies to help low-income students cover exam fees.

As the program expanded, critics claimed the quality of AP classes and the expectations on AP tests declined. In response, the College Board declared that high schools needed official authorization to be able to call their courses "Advanced Placement" starting with the 2007-08 school year.

Still, many contend that a program designed to serve an exclusive body of students has failed to adapt quickly enough to prioritize equity and access.

Controversies Around the AP Program

The College Board has faced criticism for the SAT for years. Decades ago, opponents argued that the standardized test unfairly penalized minority students. Similar criticisms have been levied at the AP program.

While students of color make up a growing percentage of AP students, their test results often lag behind those of white students. In 2016, over 70% of Black test-takers did not pass their AP exams compared to a 42% no-pass rate among all test-takers.

The AP program has also been very lucrative for the College Board, raising questions about the program's ultimate goal. In 2015, the College Board earned $916 million in revenue, with $408 million, or around 45%, stemming from AP test fees and instructional materials. Today, domestic students pay $96 per AP exam.

Do AP students perform better in college? A 2005 study determined that after controlling for high school course offerings and personal characteristics, AP students do not have a higher GPA or a higher college retention rate than non-AP students.

What, then, is the benefit of taking AP exams? Demand remains high — today, the College Board offers 38 AP exams, with plans to expand the program. They also recently rolled out an AP Capstone Diploma program to compete with the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

Recently, some independent schools have ended their AP programs. At the same time, a growing number of schools are adopting an "open enrollment" policy that encourages all students to take an AP class.

The AP program was designed for high-performing students, and for many years, it exclusively served those students. But these days, many more students participate.

What's more, the AP program offers several benefits for students, even those who do not earn passing scores on the exams. Learners engage with complex material, and having one or more AP classes on your transcript could boost your admission chances.

So is the AP program the best way to prepare for college? Evidence remains mixed. But the program clearly offers benefits to students who understand the value and history of AP exams.

Feature Image: Maskot / Maskot / Getty Images

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