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Old 02-13-2006, 07:21 AM   #1
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Are AP Courses Worth It?

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A questionable course

Editorial, Los Angeles Times
February 13, 2006


Advanced Placement (AP) courses have long held a kind of magical allure for high school students of a certain clique. What other classes offer the chance to earn college credits? But now, 50 years after the first AP test was offered, AP courses are raising concerns familiar to the College Board, which also administers the exam's older cousin, the SAT. And after an almost inexcusable delay, the University of California is asking a lot of the right questions.

Since the first AP exam in 1956, the industry has become a force unto itself. More than 15,000 U.S. schools offer at least one of the 35 AP courses, according to the College Board, which last week issued a 94-page "Advanced Placement Report to the Nation" detailing how many more students are taking and passing the courses. President Bush has even made AP courses a part of his education policy.

AP courses, however, are now less about students seeking out deeper knowledge than about kids racking up points to impress college admissions committees. Academics are increasingly concerned that, although the courses are more rigorous than average classes, their quality has grown uneven. Too many such classes emphasize memorization over research, analysis and writing. About a dozen elite high schools have stopped offering them, and some top universities have made it harder to get college credit for them.

Now the University of California, which for nearly a quarter of a century has given an extra grade point to applicants who take AP and certain honors courses, is reconsidering its AP policy. The UC regents had noble intentions when they introduced the policy in 1982. Concerned that high school students were avoiding tough courses, the board hoped to encourage students not to shy from challenging coursework. So they decided a student shouldn't be penalized for taking an AP class; a B in an AP course would count as an A in a regular class, a C as a B, and so on. (An A in an AP class was literally off the charts, allowing students to inflate their grade-point average beyond a perfect 4.0.) Since then, AP courses have proliferated as students rack up as many as they can in the nuclear arms race of grade inflation.

In 1999, the UC faculty admissions committee recommended reducing the credit that students receive for taking AP classes, citing studies that found AP courses were a mediocre predictor of UC success. It also was growing increasingly obvious that reliance on AP courses discriminated against low-income and rural students, who attended schools that offered few, if any, AP courses. Despite these solid arguments, the regents tabled the matter.

Since then, an effort to bring more AP courses to low-income and rural schools has made some inroads, although it fell back during bad budget times. And last year, a UC task force found many of the same problems with the AP policy, and pointed out that other elite universities seldom award extra AP credit to applicants.

Now the UC faculty admissions committee is preparing to recommend that the system drop the AP credit entirely. Instead, the idea is to look more comprehensively at whether students took some of the more rigorous courses available at their schools. This time, the regents should listen. AP courses can be a fine addition to a high school curriculum, and the College Board deserves credit for its role in encouraging high schools across the country to offer more high-level classes. But a class well-designed by a teacher or district can be just as valuable. In the end, the lesson should be that higher standards are about learning.
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Push for Advanced Placement questioned

By Liz Bowie
Baltimore Sun, February 13, 2006


A similar complaint was voiced in a 2002 report by the National Research Council, which said AP courses didn't provide enough opportunities for students to debate ideas, and analyze and solve problems. The College Board acknowledged the criticism and has just embarked on a major revision of its course standards and exams.

Local school districts that have fought attempts to create a national curriculum under the No Child Left Behind Act are fully in support of the AP exams, which have begun to dictate what is taught in high schools across the nation. The trend is likely to continue with support from President Bush, who recently announced that he wants to see 70,000 more math and science teachers trained to teach advanced classes.

But some educators are adding a note of caution to the headlong rush toward making AP the standard. The National Research Council report said that AP math and science courses "should focus on helping students acquire in-depth understanding rather than the more superficial knowledge that comes from covering too much material too quickly."

Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program at the College Board, said his office is trying to address those concerns in its revision of course standards. "Rather than try to mimic what is taught in the typical freshman college course, the College Board now is looking for the elements of the best college courses," he said. He said the board began with the science and history classes, which have received the most criticism, but will revamp all 35 subjects offered. "These are huge changes. This is the biggest shift in AP since the program started 50 years ago," Packer said.

The College Board is also attempting to provide better quality control. Within a year, AP will audit high schools for what is taught and provide colleges and universities with a list of schools they certify as being up to their standards. The board is hoping to stem criticism that some students aren't receiving top-level teaching.

For many high school students, the issue of whether to take an AP course is determined in part by whether they think it will impress college admissions officers. But some college admissions departments aren't impressed with students who pile on the AP courses. Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, said he would rather not see a student place too much emphasis on AP courses to the exclusion of other things.

As more students enter college having taken multiple AP classes, the most selective colleges are giving fewer students credit. So students are not guaranteed that they will save time or money by taking AP classes. Only students who get a 5 on their exams (on a scale of 1 to 5) will be given college credit at Penn, Stetson said.

For students in urban high schools, the AP courses can provide an opportunity for advanced study that they would probably not have otherwise. In Baltimore and Baltimore County, moves are being made to increase the AP classes offered. But nationally, the percentage of African-American students who take the exams was far below their representation in the population. Blacks represented 13 percent of graduating seniors in 2005 but 6 percent of AP test takers. In Maryland, the gap was just as wide. African-Americans were 33 percent of graduates and 14 percent of test takers. Often the scores of black students lag behind, possibly a result, educators say, of their lack of exposure to the most rigorous classes in elementary and middle schools.

Bush has announced plans to try to encourage schools to offer more students higher-level classes earlier so that by their high school years they will be ready for AP courses. But Severna Park HS senior Stacy Biddlecomb says she thinks many students are ready now. "The difference between honors and AP isn't intellectual ability," she said. "I think it is just dedication."
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Old 02-13-2006, 09:46 AM   #2
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In my own experience, the AP courses I took have greatly prepared me for college. I can't imagine how I would be doing had I not taken AP courses in high school. They were much more difficult and strenuous than regular or honors, so as I came to college there weren't many surprises, and I have been well prepared. But that's just my experience.
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Old 02-13-2006, 11:05 AM   #3
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I think there are two separate issues at play. First, the UC system is struggling with the true value of grades of applicants. AP courses were an initial effort to help separate the elite students to make college admissions an easier process. Now, with the number of students who can achieve a GPA over 4.0 is significant. What use to have great value is now very common place.

The second issue deals with college credit. Many take AP courses to get into a better college. Sufficient AP credit will help students graduate from college earlier. That is a significant cost savings.

A good friend of mine has a daughter who will graduate from UCLA in 3 years. She was able to do this due to her AP credit.
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Old 02-13-2006, 11:15 AM   #4
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i took mostly all AP classes or their equivalent ... often just called "honors," which weren't geared specifically towards the test, but the material got covered, and the teachers in my high school thought their Honors classes were better than the AP courses. and in many cases, they were right. still, in my experience, i was grateful for the AP classes i took -- as a freshman, i was able to slide right into several 200-level courses.

however, there was a big push by the parents (starting just after i graduated) to dump these arguably more enriched, teacher-led Honors classes and simply teach AP classes geared towards the test. the logic was simply. if you wanted to have a remotely good shot of getting into the 10-20 New England-ish area top tier liberal arts colleges and universities, you simply had to take them, and do well on the tests.

yet another example, i think, of how the intensely meritocratic process of applying to colleges is inadvertantly killing off the ability to learn for the sake of learning, and to learn to love to learn.

but, colleges need some kind of way to measure students so it isn't entirely subjective.

and there's intense pressure to try to quantify something that seems entirely resistant to quantificaiton -- education.
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Old 02-13-2006, 04:07 PM   #5
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I didn't take any AP classes because I couldn't afford the $400 per class... but I didn't have any trouble in college.

Though I don't really understand how this AP credit thing works. Does it mean that if you get a certain score on the AP test a college will grant you credit in an equivalent course?

I went to Purdue and they didn't even accept credit from other colleges most of the time... well, at least in the sciences. I don't know about liberal arts. If you wanted out of a class you had to take their test.
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Old 02-13-2006, 04:26 PM   #6
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AP classes are not particularly popular in Canada, and while I'm not sure about humanities courses, I know that no math or science AP course was recognized for credit at the University of Toronto when I attended it, and this is the #1 ranked school in the country. I asked one of the Deans of Arts&Science about this just before accepting an offer to study there and he said he felt they were not particularly rigorous and definitely not worth a credit at an elite institution, but perhaps at lower ranked, less competitive universities they would feel differently about crediting you with the work.

IMO, it's watered down from the material I've seen. If you want to have true AP, it should take the top 5-10% of students, maximum. Anything below that, and I think you're diluting your field.
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Old 02-13-2006, 04:37 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally posted by U2democrat
In my own experience, the AP courses I took have greatly prepared me for college. I can't imagine how I would be doing had I not taken AP courses in high school. They were much more difficult and strenuous than regular or honors, so as I came to college there weren't many surprises, and I have been well prepared. But that's just my experience.
I'm glad to hear this...it's funny this was posted because I registered for my first AP course today.

I was told that colleges, at least around here, will add half a point to your GPA for AP classes. I know people who've gotten 4's on the test and not received college credit...I don't think too much weight should be placed on these classes, but rather on if you've taken the most challenging courses offered at your particular school, in general.

I guess this would be specific to schools, but at mine I take all "honors" courses and they're honestly not much more difficult than on-level; my upperclassmen friends have told me that's true for pretty much all 4 years. According to other people's experiences, the AP courses really are significantly harder...then again, some of them like World History (which I'll take next year) are known for being much more difficult than others. I guess colleges look at all AP classes as being equal though.

I do think people should be rewarded for taking challenging courses when available, but putting too much emphasis on how many AP classes sort of takes away from the point...I would hope colleges are looking for well-rounded people, not only people who are so focused on a 5.0 average that they lose sight of reality.

$400/class Kristie?! That's very strange...we have to pay a $70 fee to take the test, which is sort of a lot, but I'm hoping it will be worth it.
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Old 02-13-2006, 04:38 PM   #8
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I didn't take AP in high school. Our HS is the best in this area and tough enough without added coursework and pressure! Most of my high school classes were more work and more difficult than many of my college courses today (though college work is far more applicable and relevant for my career).

Also, the AP classes met at inconvient times (with a normal schedule I was done by 1pm and had time to work before gymnastics).

Based on the people I know from my high school and where a lot of them are academically in college, I don't think AP gave them any advantage besides possible additional credit. Most of us went to the same private college because it's one of the best in the country in it's class and it's a very good liberal arts school. Since it's liberal arts, there's core curriculum we're all required to take, even with AP courses. The people I'm thinking of aren't doing any better than me in college. It's not the AP courses that help you in college, it's being able to adjust to an entirely new standard of accountability, responsibility, and how grades are assessed (like two exams and a paper for an entire course grade as opposed to a high school grade being composed of tests, homework assignments, labs, and projects).

Price wise, it still would not have been worth it. Even with zero AP credit, my grades, GPA, application essays, and ACT scores were enough for me to secure good scholarships so after financial aid and government loans, I'm only paying about $2400 for this year for a possible total of 35 credits (the total cost before any financial aid or scholarships here is $20,000 per year). Again, this depends on my financial aid and the named scholarship I won, so circumstances are highly variable.

I guess if your AP courses aren't that challenging and your college doesn't require you to still take courses on the same type of material, it could be worth it.
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Old 02-13-2006, 04:48 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally posted by anitram
AP classes are not particularly popular in Canada, and while I'm not sure about humanities courses, I know that no math or science AP course was recognized for credit at the University of Toronto when I attended it, and this is the #1 ranked school in the country. I asked one of the Deans of Arts&Science about this just before accepting an offer to study there and he said he felt they were not particularly rigorous and definitely not worth a credit at an elite institution, but perhaps at lower ranked, less competitive universities they would feel differently about crediting you with the work.

IMO, it's watered down from the material I've seen. If you want to have true AP, it should take the top 5-10% of students, maximum. Anything below that, and I think you're diluting your field.


i think this is true with most top-tier US schools as well.

it might get you out of introductory classes, but it's never considered worthy of equal credit to a university class.

but you've got to take them to prove that you're working hard to admissions committees.

i do know of one (oustanding) high school teacher who used to teach International Baccalaureate classes -- he LOVED them because he got one class for two years, and felt as if he really got to see them grow as students, and that it was simply a more enriched, less results oriented program than the AP.

stopping to think about this, i find it really sad how this whole demand for "results" and "accountability" is destroying individual intiative and curiosity for many, many students. how many 4th graders get to sit at the end of the day and listen to the teacher read, say, The Indian in the Cupboard? how much time is there for open discussion in a 5th or 6th grade class about current events?

many (rightly) bemoan the killing off of innocence in the media through increased sexual content in the media. fair enough. but turning school into a series of standards and tests, especially in the younger grades, seems to do the trick just as well.
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Old 02-13-2006, 06:01 PM   #10
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I think we would be willing to accept individual initiative and curiosity if we were also will to accept student failure in the system.
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Old 02-13-2006, 06:04 PM   #11
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To answer the original question, yes, AP courses are worth it. The only reason at all that colleges would complain is because they want more money. Period. They've done a great job turning a 4 year degree into a 5+ year degree for a lot of students, and they are always looking for excuses to charge more tuition. It all boils down to money.

I ended up with 8 credits for AP U.S. history. Got a waiver for AP U.S. government (that I ended up not using anyway), and didn't pass the AP English test. In the end, though, it worked out perfectly, because MSU charged more per credit hour for third and fourth year students, and if I'd gotten the AP English credits, I'd have actually spent more money in tuition.

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Old 02-13-2006, 06:13 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally posted by nbcrusader
I think we would be willing to accept individual initiative and curiosity if we were also will to accept student failure in the system.


i think this poses an interesting question -- based on my experience, not all students are cut out for school. is failure to pass certain exams necessarily a social failure? maybe we should accept that not all students are going to meet certain academic standards, and we shouldn't punish them, or the teachers. instead, why can't we expand our notions of what school can be and what school does?

school, at least how it is taught now, is not for everybody. in fact, i would say the majority of students don't do well having to sit quietly and take notes, study, and then take an exam.

i am a big fan of the liberal arts. i love finding points of commonality between math and english, science and history, and eonomics and philosophy. but just because that's good for me, doesn't mean it's good for everyone.

i wonder if we wouldn't all be better if, say, by high school, students were given more ability to choose what they wanted to study, or start in apprenticeships in fields that interest them -- everything from automotive mechanics to physical therapy to the culinary arts to stage management?

it's my understanding that in Europe, students tend to be tracked ealier. by junior high school, you will of course take some literature and history, but more of your courses will be math/science oriented if that's your natural inclination. and then, to get your degree, you'd have to show a high degree of proficiency in your more specialized field of study, no matter what that might be.

i wonder if this might be a good idea -- you'd probably have less resentful students -- and it might also apply to people who aren't academically inclined. and this is not the same as saying that someone isn't smart, or intelligent, or anything. is that school, and academics, don't work for them -- so let's find something that does work.
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Old 02-13-2006, 06:31 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511
i think this poses an interesting question -- based on my experience, not all students are cut out for school. is failure to pass certain exams necessarily a social failure? maybe we should accept that not all students are going to meet certain academic standards, and we shouldn't punish them, or the teachers. instead, why can't we expand our notions of what school can be and what school does?
Good points. Perhaps we need different types of high school diplomas – meeting different levels of accomplishment or accomplishment in different fields. We also need to accept children not graduating if they don’t meet any of the standards.

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Originally posted by Irvine511
school, at least how it is taught now, is not for everybody. in fact, i would say the majority of students don't do well having to sit quietly and take notes, study, and then take an exam.
Here, I’ll disagree a bit. To sit, listen, take notes, study, demonstrate understanding are all skills children should learn.
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Old 02-13-2006, 08:09 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally posted by melon
The only reason at all that colleges would complain is because they want more money. Period. They've done a great job turning a 4 year degree into a 5+ year degree for a lot of students, and they are always looking for excuses to charge more tuition. It all boils down to money.
As a professor this is certainly not my main concern. I am more worried, first of all, about the inequality of access to whatever leg-up APs do provide (consider Kristie's inability to afford the fees, or the students coming from underprivileged schools like the ones I went to, where no such thing is even available). And secondly, I haven't seen much evidence as a teacher that students with AP background are more motivated to really push themselves, more thoughtful, or more excited about intellectual discovery than other students--though I'll grant they are generally better prepared to write a well-structured essay. Perhaps I'm unduly biased by my sympathies towards students who never had such opportunities to begin with, nevertheless, I find *so much* truth as a teacher in this:
Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine 511
however, there was a big push by the parents (starting just after i graduated) to dump these arguably more enriched, teacher-led Honors classes and simply teach AP classes geared towards the test. the logic was simply. if you wanted to have a remotely good shot of getting into the 10-20 New England-ish area top tier liberal arts colleges and universities, you simply had to take them, and do well on the tests.

yet another example, i think, of how the intensely meritocratic process of applying to colleges is inadvertantly killing off the ability to learn for the sake of learning, and to learn to love to learn.

i find it really sad how this whole demand for "results" and "accountability" is destroying individual intiative and curiosity for many, many students.
I can't really begrudge anyone the time or money savings AP classes may have earned them, but I hate to watch higher education being roped into the whole eyes-on-the-prize achievement treadmill. I understand students have their own career goals and preparation needs that don't always fit into my Plato's Symposium fantasies of what a liberal education should be like, but it is depressing and at times demoralizing for professors to see so many students who appear to have lost the ability to conceive of education as anything beyond a series of incremental hoops to jump through. ("So as long as it's 5 pages and my bibliography cites at least 10 sources, I'll qualify for an A, right?") If this is what eliteness is, then give me the plebeians any day.

The problem with European-style tracking systems is that they tend to prematurely foreclose the possibilities for disadvantaged students to pursue non-vocational goals. In principle it may be a nice idea for a "non-academically inclined" 16-year-old to be able to focus on something "practical" like auto mechanics or culinary school instead. But in practice, too often "non-academically inclined" has far more to do with poor preparation than native interests. In a way, this is but the reverse side of the achievement treadmill mentality.
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Old 02-13-2006, 09:07 PM   #15
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I was able to graduate college in 3 years partly b/c of AP credit and save a whole year`s time/money so it seemed worth it to me! But it also pushed me and helped me develop good study skills (well for undergrad anyway... )
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