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How Good are Advanced Placement (AP) Courses? Are They Worth Taking?

Several recent client questions have centered upon the value of Advanced Placement (AP) tests and their importance in the college admissions process.

Conventional wisdom holds that AP courses are excellent preparation for college. They are considered to be rigorous. The general idea is that they are the equivalent of college-level, introductory survey courses.

(The Advanced Placement program, created by the College Board, does have its critics who decry the amount of rote memorization or brute calculation that the exams tend to emphasize. I do not necessarily disagree with these critiques. For today’s purposes, however, I’m going to set aside these criticisms.)

The second value of the AP program is that the tests provide a norm. Or a standard. A score on the AP test is a relatively accurate assessment of a student’s relative performance. The tests themselves may not be perfect; but a student’s score does provide admissions officers (among others) to usefully compare a student’s abilities with those of his peers across the country.

So much for the test. What is the value of an AP course?

In my opinion, the value of an AP course can be measured only by how well the course prepares students to take the AP test. If most students in the said course pass the test, the course must be good. If the majority fail the exam, the course is not all that great.

Across the country, the curriculum for an AP course is consistent: the aim is to “teach to the test.” (I hear the criticisms, but I’m ignoring them.)

So if the curriculum is held constant, what’s the variable?

We have only two possible answers. Either we blame the students or we blame the teacher.

I work on a pro bono basis for several students at an inner-city high school in Denver. One of my students is ranked second in her class of over 500 students. Academically, she is a stand-out. She is beloved by administrators, teachers, and peers. She has been singled out as a rare talent in a school with more than its fair share of problems.

She is enrolled in AP classes. And she even got to take one during her sophomore year.

She received a score of 1 out of 5 on the AP test.

How did that happen?

And whose fault is it? Perhaps students at this school are simply not as bright as the students across town in the wealthy suburbs, where it’s relatively routine for students to score 4 or 5 on the same test. Perhaps this poor girl simply doesn’t have the same preparation, so there is no way she—or any of her peers at this school—could perform on the same level as her peers across the city boundary.

Or is it the teacher? Is it that the teacher of this class in this school does not have the content expertise or the teaching skills to push the students hard enough and far enough to pass the test? How many inner-city high schools are full of Jaime Escalantes, who “stand and deliver” advanced calculus to black and brown students? (Answer: precious few.)

Or, is this young girl’s failure on the AP test a symptom of something more insidious at work in our educational system? It is simply the culture of low expectations that allows us to offer a course with an AP label, and then neglect to push poorer, browner students in the same way we push their richer, whiter peers?

I have my opinions. But for now, I want to focus on what parents can and should be asking about their students’ AP courses.

To the question, “are AP courses valuable?” my answer is “absolutely.” But the questions should not stop there. Parents should be asking administrators and teachers some better, tougher questions about those AP courses.

For example:

  1. How long has this course been taught in this school?
  2. How long has this teacher been teaching this course?
  3. Has the teacher received special training to teach this course? If so, what kind of training, and from whom?
  4. Are students who take the course required to sit for the AP exam? If not, why not?
  5. What percentage of those who take the course attempt the test?
  6. What is the teacher’s pass rate? If the teacher taught the course at a different school, what was his or her pass rate there?
  7. Of those who passed, how many received a 4 or 5 on the test?
  8. Are the teacher’s grades for the course related, in any way, to anticipated performance on the AP test?
  9. What sort of assessments does the teacher use in the course? How similar are those assessments to the actual AP tests?
  10. How much is writing emphasized in this AP course? (Many of the tests require substantial writing, not just multiple choice questions.)

These sorts of questions will help you better assess the value of a particular AP course at a particular school.

If you find that the answers to these questions are unsatisfactory, there might actually be better options for your college-bound student. Perhaps one of the best is to seek out dual enrollment options at a local college or community college, where your student can take a bona fide college course—at no cost in most states—and be guaranteed of receiving college credit if the student passes the course.

As with most everything else in this world, you cannot judge something merely by its label. The AP brand is generally pretty good. But you’d better look carefully at that individual course before you encourage your student to sign up.

Mark Montgomery
Independent College Counseling

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Comments

  1. Hello, Katie,
    The decision to offer AP classes is one your school can make. If you don’t have the option, then you don’t need to worry about it, as college admissions officers will judge your grades and curriculum in the context in which you are learning. Many schools do not offer AP courses

    Those that do, however, are looking for ways to increase the academic rigor of their course offerings, and to provide college level instruction and learning while in HS. As I have written, just because a course is labeled “AP” does not mean that it is rigorous, or that the teacher is well-prepared to deliver the content, or that you will perform well on the end-of-course AP exams. But success in an AP course–and on the exam–does demonstrate that you are able to perform at a high level in comparison with your peers around the country who are taking the same exam.

    Again, if your school does not offer AP courses, you need not fret.

    Best of luck, and thanks for visiting my blog!

  2. Hi Mark, this question may be a little bit unrelated to the page topic but her it goes. I am currently taking 4 AP courses as a junior with a 96.25 unweighted GPA in those AP courses. My Freshman and sophomore years I had a 94 unweighted and a 98 unweighted respectively. I play 2 varsity sports and tutor but that is it for extracurriculars. Will this lack of extracurriculars hurt me in the long run?

  3. Hello, Ted.
    It’s not the number of extracurricular activities that matters. It’s the quality, the level of excellence, and the commitment. If you are making positive and lasting contributions in your current activities, if you are pushing yourself to the max, and if you are excelling, then maintain your current commitments. Deepen them. Improve your performance. Expand your impact. That is what most colleges will be seeking: students who excel and who make a difference.
    I hope this helps. Good luck!

  4. Dear mark,

    I am a high school senior,and i am wondering;whether colleges look at your G.P.A for junior and senior year,or, all 4 years.What grade in AP iss the best grade to make.

  5. Hello, and thanks for the questions, Deron. Most colleges look at all the grades at their disposal. Most prefer to see grades from first semester of senior year, unless you are applying under one of the early decision programs. The bottom line: all your grades count. You should always assume that they count, and never try to manufacture reasons to slack off.

    With regard to AP tests, the tests are graded on a 5 point scale, 5 being the highest, and 3 generally considered a “passing” grade. So as for what is best, 5 is best. But your personal best may be something different. Also, keep in mind that just because you get an A in an AP course does not mean that you will necessarily pass the AP exam. Some schools have policies that require teachers to grade classwork in a way that reflects an anticipated AP exam score; others do not.

    I hope this is helpful. Best of luck to you!

  6. Hi Mark,
    I see this thread will not die. That’s good.
    I have written before of my kids who have taken their fair share of AP classes, and benefits accrued as a result thereof. I want to add my slightly unusual view of the connection between AP classes and college selectivity:
    My son has been ‘accelerated’ in coursework since grade 6, which let him finish the AP treadmill in math, chemistry, and physics by grade 10 with ‘5’s. From his junior HS year he has split his days between his HS and our local University. Now in his senior year in HS, he is taking quantum mechanics and diff Eq’s at the Uni. He will enter Universtiy next year as a Junior by credits, and be about 18 months away from BSc in maths or chemistry. If he stays motivated, he will finish masters level graduate coursework around the time he obtains a bachelor’s degree.
    All well and good, but here is my point: my son finds his coursework demanding enough, thank you very much, and would be quick to judge his classmates a rather selective bunch of kids. Odd, since this is a 2nd – 3rd tier University. Actually not odd at all, once it is realized that *every* university in the country has a cohort of profs who are at worse only extremely bright; while any graduate student in the sciences is easily in the top 1% ranking of the population.
    AP classes in HS let appropriate students jump as quickly as they are able into this bright, highly self-selected group which exists in every University town in the country.

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