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

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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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