AP overload?

“Some parents, educators and even university admissions officers are rethinking the role of AP classes,” reports the Baltimore Sun. Achievers are overloaded, while poorly prepared students at low-performing schools often “flounder and fail” when pushed into AP, writes the Sun.

“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 and the parent of two recent county graduates.

Dulaney High offers 25 AP courses, but fewer honors classes. The remaining honors classes “often are too easy and are taken by students who are struggling to pass,” say AP students. 

Sixty percent of applicants to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have taken 10 to 12 AP classes. Freshmen-year grades go up for each AP course up to five, then level off, the university found. It’s telling applicants they’ll get no advantage from taking more than five APs.

(Admissions director Steve) Farmer hopes the new policy will encourage students to be more thoughtful about their high school education, taking advanced courses they care about while leaving time for “reading the newspaper or learning to play the banjo or becoming a healthier or more interesting person.”

The top reason for taking AP classes is to raise admission odds, not to save on college tuition, said students in a College Board survey. 



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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    So back when I was doing the college thing, at a lot of high-end schools (Brown, Wesleyan, etc.) there were no required courses for graduation, so AP got you *absolutely nothing* except maybe an admissions boost.

    I’ve no reason to think things have changed, though perhaps they have.

  2. I always encourage my students and family members to only try to AP out of classes that are not in their major (English if a science major, languages, math if an English major). I saw several students skip the first class in a series, only to find that the high school AP didn’t cover certain details that all of the students taking the class at the college would see. It’s not a big deal if you don’t need that class to build on, or if you AP out of 2 classes but choose to only skip 1, but it can be a problem when all of the other 100 students in your micro class learned material in Bio 101 that you missed.

    For me, skipping 2 English classes left me taking only 15 hours each semester my senior year, which gave me a lot more time to spend in the lab. Students who came in with a semesters worth of credits didn’t seem to graduate any faster, and were mostly unable to help those of us taking the classes that they had skipped because they didn’t know it well enough.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I think the problem comes from replacing honors with AP. When I was in school, regular chem was a prerequisite for AP chem. Regular US History came before AP US. AP English was for seniors only. The local HS has FRESHMAN in AP. If it’s a freshman class, it’s not true AP.

    • Absolutely; at my oldest kids’ MoCo HS, all APs had honors prerequisites. Period. They were true college-level classes and all sciences were double-period, every day and the test results showed that. I also think that the AP designation on transcripts should be limited to those who had at least a 3 on the exam. I would also say that any kid who takes the exam, without taking the class, and gets at least a 3 should receive AP credit on the transcript. The purpose of the class is supposedly to enable passing the exam – or should be.

  4. Ann in L.A. says:

    I agree that taking a mass of AP’s is silly. Much better to take the ones you are really interested in.

    But, don’t they factor into your GPA, and thus, your class rank? That can be critical for getting into the college you want (though, which college and what price is a different discussion.) If AP’s A’s count as 5’s and the top 10-20% of your class is loading up on AP’s, taking only a few will dramatically lower your GPA with respect to your peers. Last year at out kid’s school one student finished with a 4.5 GPA, which pretty much means getting A’s in everything and taking half of all high school classes AP.

  5. What would actually be more interesting is the number of students who take AP classes and have a score on the AP exam of 4 or 5, which is what is required these days for college level credit (the 3 was at one time, in the 80’s) a standard for earning credit, but many colleges stopped accepting scores of 3, due to the fact the student in question hadn’t mastered the material.


    • My kiddidnt bother studying for one of his exams. The teacher was a dud, expected them to learn by memorizing the bank of past test questions. (AP Gov) The course is not one that is accepted for elective credit in his major at state u. So, exam score didnt matter. He put his time into the classes where score did matter. Took the course because it was interesting and the school doesnt allow disruptors in ap…by senior year, students get tired of the juv. delinquents constantly disrupting.

  6. Jerry Doctor says:

    I was the science chairman at the largest high school in the state. Our whole school had a strong AP program but I was particularly proud of our AP Bio/Chem/Physics classes. For many years we had more students get 5’s on those AP exams than all other public and private schools in the state COMBINED.

    Why did our students do so much better than others? One big factor was they knew from the first day of class that they were expected to take the AP exam.

    A very large percentage of the AP classes in this state are a fraud. Students are actually told NOT to take the exam. “It’s too hard.” The curriculum in these classes is pretty much whatever the teacher (and kids) decide it will be. It is little wonder that kids come out of these classes unprepared.

    The problem is that the colleges grant admission based on a phony “AP” listing on a transcript. They don’t know the student failed the AP exam or didn’t even take it until much later.

    • Make it so that the transcript reflects the fact the student took the course, but either DID not take the exam, took the exam and failed, or took the exam and passed.

      • Jerry Doctor says:

        Unfortunately we don’t get the results for the AP exams until well into summer. Too late for the transcripts. And while there might be a course grade for the AP class, phony AP classes also have phony grades.

  7. My 9th grader is currently taking AP US history in a Montgomery county public high school. AP is the only way to get high quality and rigorous classes from what I can tell in our particular case. Honors is now the level for kids who don’t curse at the teacher and will more or less do their homework (occasionally at least according to my daughter). The exception would be her honors 9th grade physics that has provided her with a challenge. The AP class is 100% at the correct level – she has an excellent teacher who has no problem with kids failing/dropping if they refuse to do the work. Otherwise her honors classes are quite easy for her given she had a much more rigorous algebra/grammar/writing middle school education at a local Catholic school than most of her public school peers. My purpose behind having her take AP classes to a degree that makes sense for her is to ensure high school results in a quality education; she’ll earn some college credit, but it is not our main motivating force especially since many universities are now limiting how many AP credits students can receive. I don’t think Deirdre is in a position to know whether freshman AP classes are “true AP” unless she happens to be auditing all of them. Just like anything else in life – some classes will be “true” and taught by a good teacher and some won’t.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      I’m a product of MoCo schools– nearly 20 years ago, BUT..

      At the time, AP level assumed that you had already taken, and excelled in, the honors or magnet level of a class. The AP classes were actually as rigorous as freshman-level classes at a SELECTIVE college. If your 9th grader is already prepared to excel at a selective college, why do you have her in high school at all?

      Realistically, it’s a rare freshman who has the maturity to read, analyze, and write at an AP level. The problem is that ‘honors’ is no longer reserved for top students, and they have to go somewhere. BUT in the past, AP was for students who were even at a higher level than the honors kids. (When I was in HS, we had 5-6 levels in most classes.)

      AP means less precisely BECAUSE Honors has no meaning anymore.

      • In my district the high schools were informed that they could offer an AP or an honors class for each subject, but not both. So If we offer AP Spanish, we cannot offer Honors Spanish.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Just a thought: it’s not “Advanced” if everyone going to college does it. It’s just “Placement.”

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      True. And it’s not ‘Advanced’ if you’re taking it as the introductory high school class.

      • Jerry Doctor says:

        Totally agree they need the first year class before taking the AP. that was why we required students have credit for Biology, Chemistry and Physics before allowing them to take ANY AP science class.

        Of course, that was then. Now prerequisites like that are not allowed in our district. They can’t even require students pass first year algebra before enrolling in a CALCULUS based Physics course. (Everybody knows math prerequisites are just a way to keep minority students out of the AP classes.)

    • Even worse, Prince George’s County, MD, requires at least one AP course for graduation, never mind college prep. According to a county teacher who often comments on the WaPo website, his “AP” English classes are ground zero for lots of kids who read at a 5th-grade level and write even less well. Idiocy.

      • Pushing to get all the kids into at least one AP course has to be the result of hiring administrators who do not understand that, “All the children at Lake Wobegon are above average” was a joke.

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    The AP people now give awards to schools with a lot of kids taking AP courses. The schools then brag to the school board and the local papers. It’s a great marketing tool …

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      To be fair to the AP people, it’s not quite that simple. This is from the website of one local high school:

      “State education officials announced today that 33 Massachusetts school districts were named to the College Board’s 2013 AP District Honor Roll for expanding access to Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum and maintaining or improving the percent of students scoring a “3” or higher. I am happy to announce that [ ] was one of the 33 named!

      “Last year we increased our AP enrollment by 38% and our average AP score rose from a 3.1 to a 3.4! We are extremely proud of our students and staff and this just further goes to show that [ ] is a top notch educational facility!” (school name redacted but exclamation points left in place)

      Since students are not required to take the AP test, I assume that “maintaining or improving the percent of students scoring a ‘3’ or higher” means increasing that percentage of the students taking the test. So the school can get on the District Honor Roll by opening the courses to people who won’t do well and then discouraging them from taking the test–which may not be too difficult because it costs over $80 and won’t get you any college credit if you score below 3 anyway.

      • Jerry Doctor says:

        That is exactly how many schools play the game. Look at the school’s promotional materials. Do they brag about the scores students received on AP exams? Rarely. On the other had most are screaming about how many students they have in AP classes.

        I taught the AP Chem class for many years. As with the teacher before me, 90% of the AP Chem students took the exam and 80% of those got at least a 3. Meanwhile my daughter took AP Chem in another school. None of the students in her class took the test. Good thing too. From what I saw helping my daughter with her homework, none would have passed.

        The College Board needs to go after schools that label classes “AP” and then don’t follow the AP curriculum. They don’t seem to realize their credibility is at stake.

        Even at my own school there was a music teacher that wanted to attract more top-level students with an “AP Marching Band” class. Fortunately his proposal was shot down.

        • On the official school profile that was sent to colleges with each transcript, my older’ kids HS had the number of kids enrolled in each AP course AND the number of kids scoring 3, 4 and 5 on each test. It was assumed that everyone would take the test. At the time, calc BC had about 100 kids spread over 3-4-5, and the AP sciences (capped at 36) had about 85% of the kids scoring 4 or 5. Non-math/sci scores were also strong. IOW, a real AP program. The last time I looked, the school still has honors prereqs for all APs. In the sciences, that means honors bio before AP bio, honors chem before AP chem and honors physics before AP physics (and concurrent AP calc BC).

  10. I gather that AP today is very different from AP in the 80s. I took multiple APs my senior year, and it wasn’t a problem. On the other hand, all the students taking APs had had previous courses to prepare–math, language, English, science, etc. Freshmen and Sophomores weren’t catapulted into APs, so they weren’t trying to learn Chemistry AND adapt to a shortened and intensified curriculum.

    I see some problems at present. First, parents and students trying to take more APs than humanly possible. What’s the point of self-studying for an AP exam? The overall AP load may not be solely the school’s fault–a certain percentage are going overboard on their own time.

    Second: Due to pushing students into AP, teachers are being deputized to teach AP courses who have no idea what they’re doing. Our teachers were often grading and/or helping to write AP exams. They knew the tests inside and out. We were not memorizing textbooks; we were learning themes of history, practicing replying in foreign languages to new prompts, learning the concepts which would be covered on the exam. Less grunt work, but more complicated concepts.

    Third: I think students are reading much less for their own enjoyment than they once did. The culture is less literate, on the whole. This means classes often start at a lower level of student sophistication, unless the class is offered at an exam school or top independent school. The humanities build on knowledge acquired over years. It’s hard to build up a knowledge base of books appropriate for AP English Lit essays, when the school summer reading list tops out at the biography of a pop star.

    • I agree with your points but do think that schools are contributing to lower literacy levels by their refusal to group kids by instructional need (by subject),starting in early ES. Many kids who could handle more advanced material are not offered the opportunity because of the insistence on heterogeneous grouping (let alone full inclusion). Just as the ES programs are not establishing a solid foundation across all of the disciplines, they are failing to challenge the most capable and motivated kids. The latter is also likely in MS and in many high schools. Kids can’t handle real AP courses without proper preparation. In the humanities, that means not only knowledge of the subject but also the ability to write grammatically correct, clear, logical, properly-cited essays.