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All about Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams

The AP program gives students the opportunity to take college-level courses while they are still in high school.

By GreatSchools Staff

Does your high school student want to get ahead and do college-level work in high school? The Advanced Placement program provides that opportunity.

The AP program is run by the College Board, which develops the curriculum, creates and administers the exams, and provides support for teachers. The AP program gives students the opportunity to take one or more college-level courses while they are still in high school, and to receive college credit if they receive a score of 3, 4 or 5 on the AP test.

What AP courses and exams are offered?

The AP program currently offers 37 courses and exams across 22 subject areas. Schools vary in which AP courses they offer. In 2008-2009 the College Board offered AP Exams in Art History, Biology, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Chemistry, Chinese Language and Culture, Computer Science A, macroeconomics, microeconomics, English Language, English Literature, Environmental Science, European History, French Language, French Literature, Italian Language and Culture, German Language, Comp Government & Politics, U.S. Government & Politics, Human Geography, Japanese Language and Culture, Latin Literature, Latin: Vergil, Music Theory, Physics B, Physics C, Psychology, Spanish Language, Spanish Literature, Statistics, Studio Art, U.S. History, and World History. Due to under-enrollment, the College Board will be eliminating Computer Science AB, French Literature and Latin Literature after the 2008-09 academic year.

The number of students taking and passing AP exams is rising. In 2002, close to 12 % of U.S. high school students scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP test. In 2008, that number rose to 15% of all high school students.

Many schools offer college-level AP classes to prepare students for the AP exams, but students can take exams without completing a specific course. Taking AP courses helps students develop the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for a successful transition to college, and increases a student's likelihood of graduating on time. AP courses are generally demanding, and require a certain level of maturity and dedication for students to succeed.

On GreatSchools school profiles, you can see which exams were given at each high school. If an exam is listed, it means that at least one student at the school took the exam. This information does not tell you which AP courses are offered at the school. To find that information, contact the school directly.

How much do the exams cost?

Students are required to pay $86 per exam. For those who demonstrate need, financial aid is available from the College Board, as well as from some states, cities and school districts.

Issues to consider

  • Students who receive good grades on AP tests can bypass introductory courses and enter with college credit at many colleges and universities. Each college sets its own policy on college credit and advancement to high level courses for successfully completing AP exams. To find specific credit information for colleges you are interested in, check the College Board's AP Credit Policy Information.
  • Although there has been a national debate over whether high school students are feeling pressured to take too many AP courses, several studies have shown that good grades (3, 4 or 5) on AP exams correlate with better grades and graduation rates in college.
  • A recent University of Texas study found that students in 10 subjects who used their AP credits to take more advanced courses in college had better grades in the advanced courses than students who took the introductory courses in college instead of AP courses in high school.
  • Some critics argue that high school AP courses cannot match the depth and rigor of courses offered by colleges. But others counter that students are more likely to get attention in a smaller high school AP course than in a large lecture college introductory course.
  • Many selective colleges and universities look for students who have successfully completed the most challenging courses offered at their high school. That means AP or International Baccalaureate (IB). (IB is an international diploma program with high academic standards offered at some high schools where students take a prescribed course of study for two years in high school. Then, if they pass the IB exams, students receive an IB diploma.)

Questions to ask at your high school

  • Find out what AP courses are offered at your high school. Ask what prerequisites are required to take these courses.
  • Ask what scores students have received on particular tests, and if the same teachers are teaching these AP courses. Beware of a large number of low scores on a particular test. It may indicate that students are not being sufficiently prepared to pass the AP exam.
  • If your child is interested in a particular course, have her talk to the teacher ahead of time to find out what the workload is and what preparation will be necessary to take the course. Some teachers require that students complete work (summer reading, for example) prior to taking the course.
  • If your child is interested in a subject offered by the AP program but the course is not offered at your school, find out what support he can expect to receive at the school to prepare for the test. Some states also offer online AP courses.
  • Check to make sure that your school is offering the AP curriculum aligned with the AP test. Beware of courses labeled AP Philosophy, AP Astronomy or AP Botany. These subjects are not part of the College Board Advanced Placement program. You can find out which subjects are part of the official AP program here.

Comments from readers

"Thanks for sharing nice information. "
"Easy answer for all of you if you hate your AP class. Just take the same class at your university. You will get valuable college experience and it will most likely automatically transfer in as a prereq or gened if you pass as long as its not a pathetically easy college class, so when you go to another college your ahead of the game. You don't have to worry about wasting a semester just to learn at the end of the year it didn't transfer because you didn't do good enough and you don't have to risk your high school GPA. I think there should be a requirement also that if they are offering the same class in your highschool at a college and you take the college version it automatically applies towards you high school progress and graduation as well. AP is just a real joke and weighting it, is not the answer. A high school gpa should be calculated by high school classes anything above should be separated all AP classes should be separated as a spearate GPA and not ever apart of your high school GPA. Then even if you do get a D in an AP class instead if it hurting your high school GPA it will help you because you still got that high High school GPA plus the extra 1.0 GPA for your AP GPA which is better then the kids who does not try AP classes and gets a 0.0 AP GPA for not trying at all. Still AP classes should have their own field separated from college classes because usually they are not college level difficulty. Yes there could be the typical high school teacher jerk, like there is the freshman college professor, but at least this method will motivate students to take the class because it automatically improves their transcript while the alternative weighted method or even worse no weighted method does not. In my final opinion I think AP classes are a waste of money, you know what schools did before they had AP classes they sent the kids to a college class. In my opinion they should get rid of all AP funding and fund intelligent kids to go to college classes and get early experience. Its a win win, also if you fail the class before you get accepted as an undergraduate you get to choose if you want to apply it to your gpa or transcript giving you a freebee if you mess up as well. AP classes are a joke and a waste of students time."
"Homeschooled children can take the AP Computer Science test by contacting the College Board. They will arrange for your child to visit a local school to have the test proctored."
"How can I get my district to provide the AP curriculum alignment information? I have asked for similar information in the past and have been unsuccessful. "
"I had a question, if im in world history honors in 9th grade, when will i be able to give the AP exam. "
"I believe this is great for students to know they can move ahead quicker. there is so much time and money wasted on these prep courses in the colleges. why not just do it in high school. this day and age i believe that college general education should just be part of free schooling to kids coming out of high school. "
"Based on past experience, children that are exposed to 'very early' learning will do better throughout their lifes. They will be better in their schooling, careers and personal lifes. Rita (from Colorado) "
"I teach middle level full-time gifted and talented and am in the process of writing curriculum for reading and language arts. Would you please direct me to where I can locate the standards, benchmarks and the topics for grades 6,7,8th so that I can prepare my students for high school AP classes? Thanks so very much. Warmly, Karen"
"How does one become an AP College Board teacher? "
"Can a student take an AP course on-line in the state of Florida?"
"Many public libraries offer a free online test prep service for the AP Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, History and English exams. Students can take timed practice tests from their home computers, and get feedback on where they need to improve. The service is called Learning Express Library; look for it on your local library's website (use to find it)."
"The AP Program is a sham, along with the College Board and their so-called 'educators'. Fort Bend ISD (State of Texas) is particularly obsessed with promoting this ridiculous program, since district funding is systematically linked to the number of AP classes offered by the district's schools. Our children continue to suffer greatly, due to the district's greed in conjunction with their inadequate teaching and administrative capabilities. Overall, most colleges and universities ignore and totally disregard the AP program and their contrived, manufactured tests and grading systems. Again, the AP program should be permanently dissolved. Instead, high school classes and school districts nationwide should focus on solid curriculum, appropriate for 14-18 year old development. Of course, their are always exceptions, but the overwhelming increase in the percentage of AP classes being offered, clearly illustrates that the system is seriously flawed and the College Board continues t! o shine as a bogus, harmful institution, which warrants a thorough investigation. Recommendations from local teaching organizations, counselors, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians in our community, strongly advise keeping children out of any AP class whatsoever. If the College Board's AP Program is shunned and opposed, the quality of teaching will have to change. "
"thanks this is very helpfull"
"I am moving to NC from CA and I have tried to find out what date school starts at Independence for 2008/2009 school year(s). I have yet to get a reply. Can anyone help me? "
"My school doesn't weight by difficulty either, or publicly rank - but does use a pointless 5.5 scale instead of the standard 4.0, without publishing a way to easily convert them. "
"In my high school, the valedictorian did not take AP classes because she wanted to maintain her status and high GPA. Those who took the challenging AP classes received lower grades thus jeopardizing their top positions in the class. I had to fight the principal to get the AP classes weighted to make everything fair. Otherwise, no one would take the more difficult AP classes because it was well-known that most AP teaches never gave out more than a B+ for a grade."
"Not all AP classes are equal even in our own school district. My son got a D the first semester in a class with a teacher who had nothing but a ego. He got a ** 5 ** on the exam. All it did was mess up his GPA. We have another teacher who takes a full class so he can offer the class. Then proceeds to weed kids out so by the time the AP test comes around he has only the cream of the crop take the test. Then goes around the school with posters bragging about his high percentage of passes. We have seniors that are very bright. Have to repeat the class their senior year because of a bad grade on a core subject. What is worst. Our school knows that this is done and allows it. AP - Think twice. What good are they if they bring down your GPA and prevents you from getting into the class of your choice."
"My son is homeschooled, 9th grade, how can he take advntage of this program?"
"Would like to get information regarding testing for my middle school child. How would a student prepare for these AP classes?"