Do We Put Too Much Emphasis on AP Classes?

Educators weigh in.

AP classes

A recent article in the Washington Post reported that a consortium of private high schools in the Washington, D.C., area announced that they will no longer be offering AP classes. Instead, the schools intend to design customized advanced classes for their student population.

Traditionally, AP classes have been viewed as a way to provide students a rigorous academic experience similar to what they can expect in college as well as an opportunity to earn early college credit (thus saving on costly tuition). The popularity of AP classes has doubled in the past 10 years. In fact, a record 1.17 million students in the high school class of 2017 took at least one AP course.

So what’s the scoop? Why are the numbers up if the benefit is supposedly down? Are students simply jumping on yet another pressure-filled bandwagon, hoping to get ahead in life at an early age? Is taking AP classes just about checking off boxes?

First, a look at some of the recent complaints against AP:

  • AP courses have become so popular that taking them is no longer noteworthy and does nothing to enhance students’ résumés.
  • As more and more students take the tests, pass rates have fallen. Some argue that if students are not going to get college credit, why bother?
  • Reportedly, fewer colleges are accepting AP credit for class replacement. So this removes the economic incentive for knocking out college classes in high school.

So what do educators say?

We spoke with two educators, Joanie Carew, a middle and high school math teacher who has taught for 30 years, and Jeannie Tynecki, a veteran teacher and principal, about their experience with AP.

Tell us about your experience with AP.

Joanie Carew (JC): In every community there are capable students that need that little extra and crave it intrinsically. It’s really nice to have AP as an option. It’s great to have options for all levels of learning because we really want to allow kids to reach their intrinsic learning potential.

In my experience with AP calculus, the curriculum is excellent. It’s an amazing resource with a brilliantly designed test. The curriculum is thorough, scholarly, and very well thought out.

Jeannie Tynecki (JT): Speaking from a parent’s perspective, if your child successfully passes an AP exam, it can save you a lot of money. And with the cost of education these days, that is so helpful. Our family was able to save the expense of an entire semester.

As an educator, I would say AP classes are great for kids that need them to stay engaged, who are bored with regular classes. I think the coursework empowers them to want to learn. It gets them excited, and they want to go to class. And the actual skill level—wow! I saw a big difference in the level of writing instruction that I had no exposure to as a child.

But are they a good idea for every student? 

JC: No, I don’t believe they’re for everybody. In my opinion, a very small percentage of students should be taking these classes. You get certain kids in your class that just soak it up, and then there are a whole lot of other kids—they’re great kids, but there’s no passion. It’s not a good idea to push kids into coursework they’re not ready for. 

JT: Maybe. It depends on their motivation. If they have the skill level, I would say go for it. I really think it’s all about the teacher. You need teachers who are passionate about their subjects so they can inspire passion in their students. If you have a phenomenal teacher, they make everything come to life for their students. A strong teacher equals a strong experience for your kids.

Do you think AP classes add to the pressure kids are under?

JC: Kids these days see AP classes as a game changer to get into the big schools. They hear, “If you don’t do this, you can’t get in.” But kids are already under so much pressure with the workload required by mandated state curriculum. I worry about burnout. Kids are super resilient, but eventually by high school it can be too much.

JT: Kids are under pressure to perform instead of learn. And true, there is a greater complexity and volume of material with AP courses. Again, I believe it goes back to the teacher and how the material is presented. 

What role do parents have in all of this?

JC: Parents are concerned. Of course they want the best for their kids. But parents have so much power, and if they as a community demand it, the school district is going to provide it.  

It’s on us as parents and teachers and communities. We’re all playing the game, buying into it. But I don’t think the blame should be on the AP courses or tests, it’s what we’re doing with them that is dangerous. We have to be so careful about making our kids into people that they really aren’t.

JT: This is exactly where parenting needs to come in. AP classes and tests are not mandatory. You have to know your kids and help them figure out if AP is a good fit. 

How would you advise your students who are thinking about taking AP courses?

JC: I would ask them to examine their motives. If they are taking AP courses only as a vehicle to get to the next place, that’s making the experience extrinsic. And the choice should come from an intrinsic passion to learn. It needs to be about more than checking boxes and achieving.

JT: First I would advise them to make sure the classes are really the right level for them. And if they are more advanced than what they are used to, are they willing to do the work to succeed?  Then I would ask them to think about how it works with everything else going on in their life—sports, work, extracurriculars, family obligations. It’s important to maintain that balance.

The bottom line

AP classes are worth it if:

  • Students are passionate about a subject and are intrinsically motivated to learn as much as they can.
  • Students are willing to do the work required.
  • Students can take the class and still have balance in their schedule and life. 

AP classes are not worth it if:

  • Students are only taking them for the future benefit.
  • Students are not passionate about the subject.
  • Students are not intrinsically motivated to learn more about the subject.
  • The course is too difficult and classwork becomes a student’s main extracurricular.
  • The course negatively impacts a student’s GPA.
  • The course causes burnout.  

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, sums it up brilliantly:

AP classes

What are your thoughts about AP? Share your experience with other educators on our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE

And check out 10 Tips for Teaching Kids to be Critical Thinkers

Do We Put Too Much Emphasis on AP Classes?

Posted by Elizabeth Mulvahill

Elizabeth Mulvahill is a passionate teacher, writer and mom who loves learning new things, traveling the globe and everything Zen.

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