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High school students are working overtime to take AP classes. But is it even worth it?


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When high school students head back to class this month, many will be loading up on Advanced Placement classes covering a range of subjects: macroeconomics, environ-mental science, and European history, to name just a few.

They will read college-level texts in AP English literature, ranging from Beowulf to Milton to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” In U.S. history, they will travel a chapter per week from precolonial America to George W. Bush’s second term.

Although that may sound like a terrific intellectual challenge for motivated high school students, many educators say the classes don’t provide the kind of learning considered most valuable in college, are too time-consuming for kids who are already overly pressured, and are neither necessary nor even helpful to many students as they apply to and enter college.

Critics blast the classes for often being overly broad, and requiring students to memorize textbooks’ worth of facts. Some elite private high schools have dumped the program altogether in certain subject areas, and replaced the classes with their own curriculum, which they say better prepares kids for college and higher-level thinking in those areas. Locally, private schools, including the Athenian School in Danville and Bentley School in Lafayette, are offering their own higher-level seminars and courses, which are luring students away from the broader AP classes.

“At Bentley, we want kids to discover things they are passionate about,” says Brian Thomas, upper school head at Bentley. “We focus on passions and peak learning experiences, not drudgery and rote learning.”

The College Board, which administers the AP program, has acknow-ledged the criticism and is revamping its courses. The board is cutting the amount of material students must memorize for tests so that they can focus on bigger concepts and more college-level thinking.

“We really believe that the new AP needs to be anchored in a curriculum that focuses on what students need to be able to do with their knowledge,” Trevor Packer, the College Board’s senior vice president for Advanced Placement, told the New York Times.

In the meantime, students continue to be caught in a catch-22 of taking as many AP classes as they can to boost their GPAs and impress college admissions officials.
 

The AP Arms Race

The College Board, which also runs the SATs, helped design the classes in the 1950s to mimic introductory-level English, history, math, and science classes at universities.

Students loved the classes because the weighted AP grades could boost their GPAs above 4.0 and help them get into better colleges. School administrators liked them because they were a way to show the school had raised standards.

Public schools along the I-680/24 corridor have more than doubled their number of AP classes in the past 10 years. Across six East Bay school districts—Acalanes, Mt. Diablo, San Ramon Valley, Pleasanton, Dublin, and Livermore—the number of AP classes went from 237 in 2000–01 to 520 in 2010–11.

Meanwhile, students often try to take more APs than their classmates to impress college admissions officials. Unfortunately, unless the student is headed to the Harvards of the world, that can be a recipe for burnout and exhaustion. In the 2009 education documentary Race to Nowhere, Lafayette filmmaker and mom Vicki Abeles showed the effects of crushing high school pressure on teenagers.

“Students are encouraged—by their guidance counselors, by college admissions officers, and by each other—to take as many AP courses as they can, even when the piling on of such courses brings many students to the point of exhaustion and anxiety,” Abeles says. “AP courses, especially when taken to the extreme, fuel a high school culture of burnout, cheating, cutting corners, and academic anxiety that is the antithesis of true learning and college preparation. Most college students are limited to four classes, so why do we encourage high school students to take five to seven classes, including a number of APs?”

Students who take multiple AP classes complain about stress, burnout, and not taking classes they are interested in. Teachers and students also say that cheating is a problem among students just trying to make the grades in the classes.

Taking the classes can also backfire if colleges don’t accept the AP credits. Many colleges are picky about granting credit for AP classes and require freshmen to take prerequisites in certain subjects regardless of whether the students arrive with AP credits.
 

What’s a Student to Do?

AP teachers have tried to make their classes more valuable by assigning special projects. For example, when Northgate High Principal John McMorris taught AP history, he had students spend a week reenacting an 1832 Supreme Court battle over Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.

Other educators try to moderate the number of AP classes students take. Dublin Unified Superintendent Stephen Hanke said his district recommends students limit their AP course load to two a year so they can try to enjoy a balance of school, extracurricular activities, friends, and family. (AP classes generally have twice as much homework as other classes.)

On the other hand, Hanke believes all college-bound students should take at least one AP class during high school, so they learn time management and how to master the rigors of an intense workload.

Students should also know that the highly selective colleges are mostly the ones that expect a student to have taken AP classes. Hundreds of other schools in California and out of state don’t put much emphasis on AP participation. The selective schools include the Ivies, the UCs, and the more popular California State University campuses, such as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

“As for other out-of-state and private schools, it’s not so much of an issue,” says Jennifer Roush, a counselor at Foothill High, who also works privately.

Educators recommend that students check with colleges about whether they give credit for AP classes. When they do, students can save money. College freshman Janette Danielson will get a full semester of credits at Loyola Marymount University, after taking six AP classes at College Park High in Pleasant Hill. That saves her a semester in tuition.

Mostly, educators agree that students should take AP classes in which they are truly interested. California High teacher Scott Hodges has non–straight-A students take his AP U.S. history class because they love the detailed material. “As long as students want to be there, it will be a good experience for them,” Hodges says.

“We counsel students: Don’t just take an AP class to pad your résumé or to get weighted grades,” says Northgate’s McMorris.

 

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