The century-old independent girls school in Palo Alto joins about 50 private schools across the country that have opted out of the College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) program in favor of curricula designed by their own teachers.
The most prominent public school to have done so, Scarsdale High School in New York, replaced its AP curriculum with its own "advanced topics" classes in 2007.
Castilleja's shift away from AP classes so far applies only to the sciences, but Head of School Nanci Kauffman said it could extend to other departments in the future.
"This has to be a pedagogical decision, not an anti-College Board decision," Kauffman said in a recent interview.
The impetus came from the science faculty's desire for a program that would "ignite that passion for inquiry, not memorization," she said.
"It's not science to get you into college — it's science to love science and consider pursuing it and going on to become a scientist."
Nonetheless, before moving ahead, the school tested its concept in a poll of hundreds of college admissions officers from across the country — and specifically those from Stanford University. Admissions officers were overwhelmingly supportive, according to Castilleja's Director of College Counseling Susan Dean.
This fall, Castilleja science teachers will continue to teach the traditional AP classes while at the same time working to design the new curriculum in biology, chemistry and physics, to be launched in the fall of 2012.
"Ever since the school made this decision, there have been no questions, challenges or concerns about the pedagogical rationale behind it," Kauffman said.
"The only concerns are whether colleges will understand what we're doing and be able to adequately assess our students."
To that end, Kauffman convened a May 2 discussion on the topic for Castilleja parents. Panelists included Stanford Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Rick Shaw and Stanford Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam Jr., who is also a Castilleja parent.
While saying the AP system "has made a huge contribution to public education" by providing a large-system structure for evaluating applicants, Shaw said Stanford does not endorse any particular system and works to gauge every applicant in context.
Castilleja "certainly has the wherewithal to move forward with assessing what might work for these young women, and for the school itself," he said.
Shaw pointed to San Francisco's independent Lick-Wilmerding School, which already has moved away from APs, saying the school's new, faculty-developed courses aim to "foster authentic engagement, thoughtful inquiry and in-depth analysis rather than outdated approaches that rely on rote memorization and inch-deep coverage."
However, he said, standardized tests "will continue to be important" as Stanford assesses applicants, mentioning the SAT, ACT and SAT subject tests.
Elam said many highly accomplished students arrive at Stanford still needing to be taught a certain flexibility of mind.
"We have to train them for college-level thinking, train them to move to a different mode that there isn't just one right answer," Elam said.
Castilleja's move toward project-based learning parallels some of the thinking behind a study of Stanford's undergraduate education that is currently in progress.
Kauffman said technology makes it possible for students to master basic content online, reserving class time for collaborative, project-oriented learning.
"Now, the teacher gives a lecture, and you learn the content in the classroom, and you're supposed to find time to do projects outside," she said.
"That puts too much burden on kids and families, and you're not in a position to mentor them on the teamwork and collaboration skills people say are critical."
Castilleja's curriculum change aligns not only with the school's strategic-plan goal of producing "innovative problem-solvers" but also with the latest research in how students learn, Kauffman said.
"Modern neuroscience has shown unequivocally that fast-paced, serial coverage of topics is unlikely to produce durable understanding," she said.
By press time, the College Board had not responded to a request for comment.