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Three Myths About Advanced Placement (AP) Classes

“You have to take five AP classes a year if you want to go to a good college.”  As a sophomore at Wilcox High School, I hear something like this constantly from my worried friends.

Many of my peers are stressed with the AP class workload and the high costs associated with taking AP tests. They memorize material at a hectic pace for multiple choice tests. It’s the ultimate “teach to the test” system, one administered by the College Board, the company that engineers this system.

These “college level” AP classes contribute to the incommensurate suicide rate in the Palo Alto School District, the Atlantic Monthly reported in Dec. 2015, The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High School. Does this seem to you like a desirable preface to college?


The average GPA of the high school students accepted to the top 100 colleges has risen to an average of 4.8, largely due to weighted grades. Since each Advanced Placement (AP) class can add an extra grade point, they boost GPAs—“B” becomes “A.”

Students also see taking AP classes as an edge in college admissions because they can also earn college credit if they do well on the official AP tests. These tests are written and administered by the College Board and not part of the school’s regular AP curriculum. Counselors encourage students to take AP classes to gauge their college readiness, as these AP classes are supposed to represent “college level” material and pace.

Standardized testing is big business. The College Board is a non-profit organization originally founded in 1899 to expand access to higher education.

However, College Board is not affiliated with any colleges and determines the content on its own. While it’s a non-profit, it’s also a money maker, with revenue of $750 million in 2014 according to a March 2014 Business Insider article, The SAT May Have Been Changed to Help The College Board Maximize Revenue.  It has a near monopoly with no transparency and no external accountability.

The main source of revenue is the $60 fee for each of the 1.8 million SAT tests (2017) and the  $94 fee charged for each of 3 million AP exams (2017) taken yearly, plus the fees to send official score reports to colleges.

But how much is all this really worth educationally?


Myth 1: AP Classes Boost GPAs

Not all AP and honors classes are created equal, and colleges have become selective about awarding extra points for AP courses. Hence, a student’s effective GPA varies from college to college.

University of California schools accept only four AP classes for extra credit on freshman applications, and these courses must be UC-approved.  For example, the popular AP U.S. History is not UC-approved. For those non-approved AP classes, a “B” is really a “B.”  Getting a “B” in an AP class usually equals A-level work in a regular class. So that extra GPA boost is not a sure thing.


Myth 2: AP Classes Give Students College Credits

In general, to qualify for college credit, an AP test must be taken with a score of 4 (out of 5) or better.  AP tests cost $94 for each student. Only an average of around 20 percent of students who take the exams get a score of 5, according to the website Total Registration.  The College Board, Kaplan Test Prep and other businesses provide specialized textbooks for each subject, ranging from $30 to $150.

AP tutors are also readily available and fees range from $30 to $200 an hour. A student spends an average of $500 for each AP class and test, according to an April 2013 Stanford News article, Are AP courses worth the effort? An interview with Stanford education expert Denise Pope.

This puts lower income families at a disadvantage, and further segregates the rich and poor in the race for higher education. It’s not just a financial burden to  the individual students.  AP classes also cost school districts at least $2,000 to initiate, according to the College Board itself.

However, colleges exercise discretion about accepting the AP class and its associated test as credit. Some competitive colleges are beginning to refuse AP scores. Leading this charge is Dartmouth College.

After a campus study in which 90 percent of students scoring a perfect 5 on the AP Psychology exam failed the college’s own test, Dartmouth stopped accepting AP credits, according to a January 2013 New York Times article, Dartmouth Stops Credits for Excelling in A.P. Test.


Myth 3: AP Classes Offer a College-Level Curriculum

High school teachers only need a degree in the subject and an eight hour seminar to teach AP classes, said R.B. Smith (pseudonym), a Southern California high school administrator.

These seminars, run by the College Board, primarily teach how to grade assignments and format the syllabus for the class, but leave out how to actually teach the AP subject. Smith emphasized that AP teachers are trained to teach to the national administered AP test.

In contrast, college classes are typically taught by professors with advanced degrees and years of post graduate work, and who are actively conducting research in the subject. Classes include specialized projects and free response exams. Professors tailor curriculums to reflect current trends and advancements. It is no surprise that Dartmouth College concluded that AP students do not necessarily become high-achieving college students.


Stressing Less, Learning More

As a sophomore, taking the right AP classes can help me get into an elite college and launch me into a successful career and life.

Well, that is what the College Board wants everyone to believe so they will buy into the AP system and become paying customers for College Board and a host of ancillary businesses.

But we—the targeted customers of this advertising—need to separate fact from fiction and determine for ourselves the value of maximizing AP classes.

Without AP pressure, high school would be much more enjoyable. Perhaps it’s time to be brave, to venture out and build new paths, and to define educational success on our own terms.


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