The Dark Side of Advanced Placement

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According to the College Board, AP tests are “standardized exams [that] are designed to measure how well you’ve mastered the contents and skills of the course.” For some, AP’s can provide the chance to study a passion in a college level course. For others, AP’s look great on their transcripts and give a nice GPA boost. But for all, AP’s are stressful, intense, cost money and sleep, and detract from students’ emotional well-being.

AP’s are intended to be taught as college level courses, as they often allow students to get credit for entry level courses (including many requirements) at the university level. In college, most students take about four classes a semester. In most high schools in the United States, students take a minimum of five core classes—math, science, history, English, foreign language—in addition to electives or physical education classes. Many often fill their schedule with academic electives and high level core classes.

Now, take a particularly academically-inclined student, and give them three or four college level AP classes. Add a few extracurricular activities, or maybe even a social life. Try to include five to six hours of sleep to allow them some sanity. While this situation is not utterly impossible, it is impossible to sustain for an entire semester, much less a year.

It used to be that ultimately paying the $93 to take an AP exam meant that you could earn college credits and decrease tuition by limiting the years it took you to complete college. This argument for taking AP courses is a still valid; however, it is growing increasingly untrue. Some very selective universities, including Dartmouth, Caltech, and Harvard, limit the number of APs they accept as credit, or simply do not accept any APs. While only a limited number of schools do not accept AP test scores as college credits or as a way to place out of a class, it is becoming increasingly common for students who took the AP to retake the entry level class upon entering college. The reality is that APs are not college work: though the workload is rigorous and time-consuming, the AP’s standardized format makes them more about memorized facts and a black-and-white grading rubric than in-depth research and complex thinking. Thus, upon entry to college, students are not always prepared to skip the entry-level courses that help them build their researching skills. In a study done by Dartmouth College, incoming freshman who scored 5’s on their AP Psychology exam were then asked to take the college’s Intro to Psychology final. Over 90% failed, in spite of their high AP scores, which indicated they should be able to place out of this introductory level class.

Standardized tests, like AP’s, SAT’s, or ACT’s (as well as many state education tests, like Virginia’s SOLs), serve as a way to level the playing field for all students, showing exactly how students perform on a standardized test, given in a specific way, in a uniform environment, on the same day. The AP program’s structure is supposed to make it so that students all have equal preparation and an equally difficult test. This way, students who have taken APs are comparable to other AP students from completely different schools, as their scores and grades were based entirely in the same program and test. The level playing field, however, is not so level.

The AP program is more available in high schools that serve wealthier students. Low-income districts that decide to fund AP’s in their schools often have many issues resulting from their AP programs. For one, AP classes must have a small class size and be taught by the best teachers, meaning that all the other non-AP classes might grow larger and have less experienced teachers. The cost of AP’s also means other programs, who have already lost the best teachers and students to the AP’s, also lose part of their funding. A study done by William Lichten, a Yale professor emeritus of physics, engineering, and applied science, found successful AP stories in some Philadelphia public high schools serving low-income students. This success, however, was only from selective public schools in the city, while in other non-selective public schools, there was not “a single AP exam score as high as a 3.” Yes, the AP participation rate has increased over the years, making it a “juggernaut of American high school education.” In spite of this “juggernaut” status, minority participation rate still lags, African-American students remaining the most underrepresented group of test takers.

AP classes are often very difficult because of how quickly they move through units, and how much work a student has to do outside of class to keep up with the pace. The AP covers a lot of breadth: it skims over many different topics, allowing students to get the basic idea of each topic before moving on. Recently, however, in a study done by the University of Texas at Arlington’s Marc S. Schwartz, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ Philip M. Sadler and Gerhard Sonnert, and University of Virginia’s Robert H. Tai, breadth was deemed less useful for college preparation than depth. The study, called “Depth Versus Breadth: How Content Coverage in High School Science Courses Relates to Later Success in College Science Coursework,” took 18,000 undergraduates from over 67 colleges and compared the form of their high school science classes with their success in college. It found that those who had taken more time to study fewer topics were more successful in their college freshman science classes than those who had science classes that touched briefly on many topics.

Even at Collegiate, the issue of breadth vs. depth is often discussed. Director of College Counseling Brian Leipheimer says, “I’d love to see the AP Program evolve to a point where it continues to provide academic challenge, but also affords time in its curricula for creativity and innovation, for students and teachers alike.”

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About the author

Ellie Angle is a junior at Collegiate.