This Could Be the Wrong Question to Ask About AP Classes


The College Board released its latest annual AP report this week. You can also see the entire report here:

10th Annual AP Report to the Nation

AP classes are a creature of the College Board so keep in mind that the organization will always spin the AP statistics in a positive way in its report.

One of the great unresolved questions about AP classes is this:  do students who take AP classes in high school do better in college because they’ve taken AP courses? (That’s the College Board’s belief.)

Or do these students fare better in colleges because students who take a lot of AP classes are far more likely to have college-educated parents, who were focused on their education and enrichment from the day they were born. I’d strongly vote for the board

I think parents and students are more interested in AP classes because they view them as a way to boost their chances of getting into the best schools. So AP courses become a means for students to get what they want rather than a way to boost their academic prowess.  And frankly, I don’t blame them.

My daughter’s private girls’ high school — Academy of Our Lady of Peace — had a bizarre policy of only permitting a tiny percentage of the girls to take AP classes. (I believe the school’s new dynamic principal has ditched this practice.) These were the girls that the school believed could obtain a “5” on the AP exam and many of them did.

The education Caitlin received at her school (the oldest high school in San Diego County) was rigorous and nothing short of first rate, but every year a significant number of girls left (most of the Asian girls in my daughter’s class departed) not because they weren’t being extremely well prepared well for college by taking college-level classes (they just didn’t have AP in the name), but because they wanted “AP” on their girls’ transcripts.

The school’s policy was extremely controversial because it had financial consequences for families. I think my daughter would have gotten better awards at some colleges if her transcript contained more than just one AP class.  She got into AP studio art because it was based strictly on artistic ability.

Schools Ditching AP Courses

My son Ben, who will be graduating as a mathematics major in May from Beloit College, didn’t take any AP classes in high school. His charter school – High Tech High – is philosophically opposed to AP classes, which is one of the things that attracted us to the school. In my son’s case, however, my husband and I ended up concluding that his math classes weren’t rigorous enough so he took five classes in our local community college.

Some high schools are rebelling against the AP juggernaut, which I applaud. I wrote a post back in 2010 that discussed this phenomenon and you can see why some schools are bailing here:  Are AP Classes Worth It? Since I wrote this other schools, mostly private institutions, have jumped off the AP bandwagon, but not nearly enough.

Here is another take from the Huffington Post about why some private schools have moved away from AP classes.

A Father’s AP Question

I just happened to get the following AP-related email from a dad this week that represents the sort of questions that tie pecking orderparents, who envision their kids in schools like Harvard and MIT, in knots.

I am a father of a high school sophomore. Someone has told me that being an AP Scholar significantly increases ones chances of being accepted into college. It looks like there are different levels of AP Scholar title. Do you know if having the AP Scholar title really helps and how much. For example, would a person who has National AP Scholar title (8 AP classes + 4 good AP tests results) have more advantage than a person with 7 AP classes + 4 good tests results (not qualified for the National AP Scholar title).

How Many AP Classes Vs. Class Rank

What affluent families aiming for the elite institutions at the very top of the US News’ rankings pyramid tend to fixate on is the optimum number of AP classes to take, but what they overlook is an arguably more important number. Students aiming for the Ivies and others rankings darlings need to be in the top 10% of their high school classes. And the reason is ludicrous yet simple – because U.S. News & World Report’s think it’s important.

To learn more about elite schools’ slavish adherence to the 10% rule, here is an excellent blog post that Parke Muthe, a former admission officer at the University of Virginia wrote:

Dirty Big Secrets, Part 2, Rank and Class and Rankings






Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. I am a junior currently in AP US History and it truly makes me want to cry. I have a 60 at the moment, and not for lack of trying. I am a member of the marching band (color guard to be exact) and have practice or events on Monday’s, Tuesday’s, Thursday’s, Friday’s, and Saturday’s. My mother forces me to go to church on Sunday’s (unless I come back absurdly late from a competition, like one am or later) so Wednesday’s are really my only true “free day”. I’m taking a rigorous art class that I am really trying in, which gives me projects just about every week. I am falling behind on our reading logs, to the point I am not sure it’s worth the effort, and I’m not doing too well on tests. I’ve never been good with remembering names or dates.

    In short, this class actually makes me want to go home and never come back to school. I hate that my guidance counselor convinced me to take this class. I am so stressed out it is physically causing me medical issues, and affecting my other classes. I’m spending so much time on this class my Science is starting to fall behind. I have no idea what I can or should do, as we are just past the first of three grading periods.

    I’m also taking AP Psychology next semester … any advice to avoid this train wreck of stress and to raise my grade?

  2. Hi. I’m a sophomore and I’m taking AP Euro. At this point, we are still allowed to transfer out of classes. I am afraid that I won’t be able to get a good grade in the class. Do you think I should transfer out and take physics instead?

  3. Hello, I’m a junior at King/Drew Magnet High School and I am currently taking 3 AP classes, AP English, AP U.S History, and AP Physics. I’m completely failing APUSH right now, and last semester I didn’t pass the class, my final grade was a D. I can honestly admit that I over did it this school year I assumed that since I did so well in my honors classes that I would be able to do well in all of the AP classes and any other classes I am taking. My question is, do I still have a chance at getting accepted into a good college even though I’ll more than likely have to make up a history class my senior year?

    1. Hi Yohanna,

      Yes, there are plenty of schools that would like to have you as a student. I hope from now on you don’t overload yourself with such a heavy load. There is no reason to do this.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Hello.
    I am a high school junior who has been fortunate enough to have taken a variety of AP course. My sophomore year I took AP Government and Politics, and this year I am engulfed in four (yes, four) AP course, that of which are AP Statistics, AP Microeconomics, AP Psychology, and AP Language and Composition. Neither of my parents completed college; My father dropped out of high school as a freshman and my mother did not finish her fourth year of University. I push myself. These courses are offered at my public school for the kids who are willing to work hard, because there is a huge difference between public and private education. AP helps.

    1. Hey Sally.

      I am a high school junior too but the sad truth is a lot of high school students do not realize is that advanced classes- such as AP- is the new average. AP is not as beneficial as you thought. It does NOT help, for other reasons that this article does not fully cover.

      What you are doing is admirable, but it’s expected if you are planning for a decent college to look at your transcript. A lot of students take AP classes and even taking several AP classes is not admirable as it used to be, although your professors and parents tell you otherwise. I looked at the College board website and from 500,000 students taking AP classes in 2003 it nearly doubled to one million in 2013. So many students are taking it, who isn’t? (Of course, the group behind the LARGE academic gap who doesn’t lift a single finger towards their education).

      AP seems to be a prestige way of learning, and it may not seem that a lot of other students are taking AP classes, but I assure you there are at least thousands of high school students behind the background who are taking actual college courses for free by their high schools. 1 out of 3 juniors in my state are doing that, like me for example.

      AP is a monster because you are practically working your butt off for nothing. While you are sweating under the extra amounts of hw, exams, and material and suffering equally like the student who is taking college courses, he has a promise to get all his credits transferred almost debt free and you don’t- if you get scholarships you’re fine, mostly.

      So in short, AP wasn’t doing you as much good as you thought and it’s not as prestigious either. Neither what I am doing. 1 out of 3 juniors are already taking ACTUAL college courses and on their way to completing their bachelors and associates. The other 1/3 are taking AP so about 2/3 (probably even more like 4/5) are advanced.

      I wish you luck to keep up the hard work. Hopefully, most of your credits will transfer.

      1. Hello,
        Could you please suggest how can High School students take college courses while in High School(NOT APs) and get credits?

  5. I have worked at four high schools as a school counselor. I would always ask students why they have selected the AP classes they have chosen. At least 50% of students who are signed up for AP English or History, respond that “it looks good on the transcript.” This is unfair to the student’s who really want to be there as well as the teacher. Most of these students stress out and receive a low grade and do not take the final test.

    All of the high schools in NJ encourage students to take as many AP’s as possible for one simple reason. One of the evaluation methods of schools by the state is the % of students who take AP classes. I agree totally with the viewpoint expressed by Mallory (previous comment) Evaluations of School Counselors will soon include how many students in their caseload go to competitive colleges.

  6. My experience with my child and AP courses is it isn’t worth the cramming of information for something not guaranteed to pay off. My child has taken both AP and college-level (for credit) courses and prefers the depth and focus on knowledge in the college-level course (taught on-campus by university professors). The AP classes were focused on AP test-taking strategies, fact cramming, and rote memorization. I think students and parents sometimes see AP tests as status symbols, which really doesn’t benefit anyone and perpetuates an unhealthy perfectionist mentality.

    1. Did your kid attend some kind of special High School Academy on College campus like the one they have in Texas called TAMS in UNT Campus ?

  7. Maybe this applies to rich, elite kids who aim for Ivy leagues only. But honestly you’re just saying take the classes that look good, but don’t need as much effort as AP classes so as to improve class rank. Apparently Ivy leagues care only about rank, not the content learned. BS.

    Ap and IB exams helped me so much in my public, state university, saving me a ton of money and allowing me to double major.

  8. There is a senior student at a prominent public high school in Orange County California who has been admitted to Purdue. He just received a D in AP Physics from a high school instructor who teaches the same, and easier, class at community college. He now has to report the D and explain it to the university that admitted him. The teacher won’t consider changing the grade. The teacher failed the student, not the other way around. My son says this student studies 6 hours a day. If he would have taken CP Physics he would likely had received at least a B. fortunately, I talked my wife out of requiring our son to take the same AP class. AP is not what it is cracked up to be. Parents beware. Too much is damaging – to both the spirit of the student and the expectations of the parent. He was never going to be a physics major. So why take it.

    1. There is a test in the spring for each AP course from the College Board. If the teacher were to give a student an “A” for the school, but then the students only scores a 1 or 2 (out of 5) on the test, it would indicate that the teacher is not getting the job done. Thus, they usually don’t give grades that are higher in comparison to that test. Colleges know this. If your transcript shows a D but your AP test was a 5, then they realize you know the material. Likewise, a transcript with an A but score of 2 wouldn’t be good. The question always comes down to whether to take a rigorous course and risk a lower grade, or get a high grade in a less rigorous course. You don’t have to take AP Physics. But, if the college is very selective, like trying to get into engineering at Purdue, you had probably better be able to show some rigor in your high school course work.

  9. Lynn, I think you’re focusing too much on the Ivey schools and wealth. Our daughter is basic middle class, in a middle class town and high school. Few if any students ever think about the Ivies. Most who go to college will be state schools or community college, with some of the smaller LACs thrown in. I think we’re pretty representative of most Americans when I say this. The reasons kids take AP are:
    a. Improves GPA and helps set the college bound kids apart from those who have no college plans. They get extra GPA points for taking AP because an A in Calc 2 is a lot harder to get than an A in Beauty class. These extra GPA points come in handy when competing for the limited scholarship funds.
    b. Scoring well on AP means a kid can get credit for some of the basic core college courses, which means few mandatory courses to take = less load or more options.
    c. At least at our school, the teachers who teach AP really are better teachers and the students who take AP are serious scholars compared to classes with general population. The kids can have serious discussion about sensitive topics, from sex to racial issues, to politics and the economy without the disruption and “giggle factor” getting in the way. Most of the kids who’ve passed the AP math find college math easier than what Mr (name withheld to protect his privacy) taught and the kids love him.
    d. And finally, right or wrong, even if having AP doesn’t gain, not having AP is a negative.

    From my own experience (my high school didn’t offer any advanced courses) even though I was valedictorian, I was so far behind my classmates freshman year in college that I firmly believe better preparation in high school does lead to better college outcomes.

  10. My daughter attended a small private college prep high school and took 11 of 19 available AP classes starting in the 10th grade including all of the math APs and all but one of the available science AP classes. We chose this academic path for her not to shorten her college academic load with the credits but to give her the most rigorous academic course load in high school. She only used one of the available credits in college and has found that the rigorous course load prepared her very well for college. The AP classes also focused on written essays for the courses and provided her with a lot of opportunity to develop and improve her writing skills.
    She ultimately decided to attend a small liberal arts school and is majoring in math/statistics and is in the honors college there. Having such a strong academic foundation helped her get through the major social adjustments that freshman often face without the major stress of academic difficulties.
    I know many families that want the AP credits to lessen the time that the student will attend college but I feel that students using AP credits to meet the freshman requirements does them a disservice. By dropping them into sophomore level classes they struggle especially in writing, they form fewer social bonds with peers in their class and finally they struggle with social adjustments because they have more academic challenges.

    1. Thanks Jeanne,

      I agree with you that the reason to use AP classes is to get a better start academically in college. I also agree that jumping ahead by using AP credits can do a disservice to students, but some schools such as the University of California system pushes kids ahead when they show up with these credits. I never thought about the social aspect of starting college as a sophomore or even junior. Thanks for sharing!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  11. Reason #49 not to go to an “elite” school: Not to share a school with students who think that the number of APs taken and class rank mean much of anything. Ugh, people, have some backbone.

  12. This article overlooks the poor-quality education offered in public high schools today. Non-honors, non-AP courses teach the bare minimum needed to graduate. These classes do not adequately prepare our youth for college courses, and they do not prepare them to be competitive in our global economy. I am grateful my children’s high school offers honors and AP classes, because my children can attend classes with others who want to learn and want to succeed. Rigorous courses weed out the students who attend school because they are required to do so and have no interest in learning. As a society, we sadly have not made education and life-long learning priorities. Education is much more than passing a test or earning credits–it is a mindset of wanting to know and learn more.

    1. Hi Diane,

      I’m all for rigorous high school courses! I am dismayed by the heavy reliance on AP courses, which I think tend to be an inch deep and a mile wide.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. But the point is, public school courses are 1/4 inch deep and 3 inches wide, so which has the greater volume. The majority of kids in our high school could not pass an AP class. It is too hard. Same goes for IB HL classes, especially Math. The real question is, in what course do you learn more?

  13. Excellent article. My friend’s daughter is not continuing in the same private school for 9th grade because the school doesn’t let them take more than 5 APs for the entire 4 years.

    My son who will be a sophomore next year is in public high school and he doesn’t want to take AP European History because his senior friends have already told him that it’s too much work and he won’t be able to score an A. He is interested in STEM so I am okay with it.

    I have the same question as the dad mentioned in the article.

  14. I agree with the author if, in fact, your child has access to a rigorous college prep program in their high school. However, my kids go to a public school where the only way they can get access to classes that are rigorous enough to prepare them adequately is to take AP. My kids are bored and learn absolutely nothing in regular level classes. While I don’t care for the amount of pressure and stress that AP brings to my kids, I am very happy with the academic growth they achieve due to AP. I am the parent of five children, two of whom have already graduated college and gone on to grad school. All three of my kids who have already entered college transferred over 30 units in AP credit, which has been very helpful as well.

  15. absolutely they are. my daughter who is a division 1 athlete, will be graduating a year early due to summer school and AP credits accepted by university and is using her last year of NCAA eligibility and her athletic scholarship to get a Master’s Degree!

  16. absolutely they are. my daughter who swims division 1, will be graduating a year early due to summer school and AP credits accepted by university and is using her last year of NCAA eligibility and her athletic scholarship to get a Master’s Degree!