Advanced Placement classes were created half a century ago to give students a chance to skip entry-level college courses, but APs are now considered a quasi-requirement for ambitious teens en route to college — around 175,000 students nationwide take more than three AP exams a year. Principals have encouraged students to take AP classes to boost their schools’ rankings, and colleges have favored students with AP classes in the admission process.
Liz Bowie of The Baltimore Sun writes that education leaders across the country have embraced AP classes, which they see as a way to raise success and provide an equal education to students in low-performing schools. AP teachers say that having these classes pushes students to a higher level of achievement, and students who take the classes say they are glad to have challenging classes that prepare them for AP exams. Martin Stranathan, Boltz’s AP biology teacher at Dulaney, a top-performing high school says:
“When taught properly, the richness of Advanced Placement courses allows students to experience content at a depth normally unavailable to them in other high school courses,” said Martin Stranathan, Boltz’s AP biology teacher at Dulaney.
Superintendent of Baltimore County Schools Dallas Dance agrees saying that universities want AP classes on transcripts. Students at schools like Dulaney take 10-12 AP classes during high school, and they feel these classes look good on college applications and add bonus points to their weighted grade point averages.
Many are starting to criticize the practice though, saying that it causes students unnecessary stress and puts too much pressure on high school students. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is now advising applicants to not take more than 5 AP classes in high school.
“The relentless marketing effort by many principals to place a greater number of kids into a greater number of AP classes — all in a single semester, as early in a student’s career as possible — is backfiring,” said Mary Ellen Pease, a co-founder of Advocates for Better Course Choices in Baltimore County Public Schools
The change at UNC came after staff began challenging the number of AP classes students were taking. Studies done at UNC found that a freshmen’s GPA increased for each AP class the student had up to five classes, but after that there was no difference. Steve Farmer, University head of admission, hopes this change will give high school students more time to make healthy choices, relax, and that it will help them take the edge off.
Trevor Packer, who leads the AP program for the nonprofit College Board, wants members of the board to take a stand that “”higher education supports students taking a more reasonable number of AP courses than some are taking.” So far no one else has signed on. Admission officers around the country acknowledge that AP classes signal that the student is used to more challenging work.
Some critics blame the College Board for having too much influence. If the College Board changes AP curriculum then some school curricula change overnight.
The College Board is “big and powerful and has a lot of money, and I think when they come out with a philosophy or strategy of getting AP in everywhere, that can be counterproductive,” said Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and dean emeritus of admissions at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. “Why have we assigned to it such import that it distorts what you do in terms of educating your students?”
As an alternative, some schools like Scarsdale High school in New York are bucking the AP trend by no longer offering the classes. They are instead collaborating with college professors and offering advanced topics classes.