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Curriculum & Instruction        < Previous        Next >



Advanced Placement Courses


Q. Are Advanced Placement courses all they're cracked up to be?


If they're not, that's news to most American high schools. The Advanced Placement program, run by the College Board, started over 50 years ago to give elite high school students a head start on college work. But in recent years, its reach and importance have exploded, and programming for disadvantaged and minority students is improving statistics for those formerly under-served student populations.


At last count, 60 percent of U.S. high schools were participating in the program, which offers courses in 37 subjects, from art history to world history. More than a million students take A.P. exams each year, and the number of students taking A.P. courses has increased tenfold since 1980. More than one-third of American students take at least one A.P. exam.


A.P. courses are said to be more rigorous than honors courses at the same high school, and are geared toward an end-of-the-year exam. If the student gets a top score on that exam, the student is likely to earn "free" college credit for that subject. At an expensive college, that can be worth a lot of money.


But more than the head start on college credits, A.P. is lauded for introducing students to college-level work expectations, improving study habits, polishing their writing and problem-solving skills, and helping them stand out on college applications and scholarship competitions as someone who will take on a challenge and values education.


On the other hand, critics have said that A.P. course work might not really give students a leg up on college academics. They say A.P. course work forces teachers to teach too much, so the learning is not deep. Critics also say the A.P. system forces teachers to focus on preparing the students for the tests instead of having the flexibility to veer off into subjects that the teachers and students would like to.


Two economics professors, Kristin Klopfenstein and Kathleen Thomas, reported that based on research on students in Texas, those who took A.P. classes in high school were no more likely than those who didn't to have higher grade-point averages after one semester at college, and were no more likely to come back for a second year of college than their non-A.P. peers. The professors suggested that the program might be expanding too fast to guarantee quality, though the College Board said there weren't enough students in that study to make it a reliable indicator overall.


Still, the pressure is mounting on most high schools to offer a lot of A.P. options. According to news reports, at some schools in Dallas, students get $100 for every test on which they score 3 or higher, in a partnership with Texas Instruments; their teachers also get $100, in addition to $20 an hour for tutoring them.


In New Jersey, Hackensack High School attracted 300 students to a new summer-school program to help move students into A.P. classes.


Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina pay for all their students' exams, which would otherwise cost $82 per test, and Minnesota recently joined that list.


Ironically, the elite high schools where A.P. got started as now not so enamored of A.P. since it has become so popular with middle-class schools, and a few have done away with A.P. programming. They cite burnout due to overcompetition among students to try to impress college admissions officers, with students cramming A.P. courses into their schedules to "look good on paper" but not enjoying their high school careers or finding time to think deeply and broadly because of all those A.P. assignments and "busy work."


Teachers and counselors at some top-rated high schools say they don't like how A.P. programs tend to hijack the curriculum and interfere with their power over shaping classes the way they'd like to.


Critics point out that, if you ask your state education department to report statistics from your school district on how many students actually got college credit from year-end exams vs. how many took the tests but didn't get college credit AND vs. how many took the A.P. classes but didn't take the year-end test, you would see that the actual payoff per school from A.P. is fairly small in most districts.


A compromise plan being used by some schools is to limit the number of A.P. courses that can be taken in any given school year to three. That way, the students will still get that "bling" on their college apps but have time to take art class and hang out with friends at least a few nights in the school year.


Homework: For more about Advanced Placement, see


By Susan Darst Williams Curriculum 15 2008

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