“We’re not going to be able to do all this.”

When Christine Weatherby started teaching AP English at East Chicago Central High School in Indiana, students worried they could not handle a class where the readings ranged from Plato’s Allegory of a Cave to the screenplay for The Matrix. The course was unlike anything her Black and Latino students from low-income families had ever taken. But Weatherby pushed back. “Who told you you’re not going to be able to do this?” she demanded. Now, says Weatherby, an AP teacher of the year, the students are pushing themselves and succeeding. “It’s exposing them to ideas and getting them to express themselves. They’re not used to doing that.”

What are AP classes?

The AP program was not created with students like Weatherby’s in mind. Instead, the program was created in 1952 to engage academically advanced students at elite schools and prepare them for college. Over the years, though, AP has changed and expanded to reach 2.8 million students each year.

Run by a nonprofit entity called the College Board, which also gives the SAT, the AP program offers year-long classes taught by high school teachers. The College Board outlines the material for each course and “authorizes” classes to ensure that teachers know what material to cover. Identically named AP classes at different schools vary because teachers select the readings, projects, and other assignments. Overall, though, there tends to be more consistency from school to school among AP classes than other high school classes. That’s because at the end of the school year, the College Board creates and gives a standardized AP exam and grades it on a scale of 1 to 5. Taking the AP exam isn’t required to pass the class, but students take the test because those who receive a 3 or above on an AP exam can qualify for college credit at most colleges. In theory, kids taking AP English at East Chicago High School are learning similar material as students at the top high schools across the country.

A sign of rigor

Studies (many funded by the College Board itself) have found that, compared to students who don’t take AP classes and exams, AP students are more likely to attend college, get higher grades in college, and graduate. It’s important to note that research not funded by the College Board has returned more mixed results. Some studies find that students who take AP have more academic success, but when studies control for important variables like socioeconomic status, the link between AP classes and college success is not nearly as strong. A 2009 research report by the College Board found that even if students pass the AP class but fail the AP exam, they are still more likely to attend more selective colleges and to return for their second year of college. Students applying to selective college get an extra boost from passing AP classes because most high schools and colleges weigh AP class grades, so that an A in a regular chemistry class may earn a student a 4.0, but an A in AP Chemistry will count for a 5.0 when that student’s GPA is calculated. It’s important to note that none of the studies, regardless of who funds or conducts them, can show that participating in the AP program causes academic successes — only that the two are correlated.

Beyond the statistics, supporters of AP say the demands of the classes prepare students for the work they will do in college and give them an opportunity to study subjects, such as macroeconomics and psychology, that aren’t included in the standard high school curriculum.

Over the years, with more jobs requiring college and more students wanting to go, AP has broadened its reach to more high schools and a wider range of students. And some states have mandated that all high schools offer at least one AP class. Today, about 75 percent of U.S. high schools offer at least one of the 38 AP classes available. Each year, AP administers more than 5 million AP exams.

A problem of equity

The College Board promotes AP classes as a way to make high schools more equitable because the classes provide students in poor communities with the same opportunities for challenging work as those in affluent areas. AP classes in math, science, and particularly computer science, are attracting more — and more diverse — students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The College Board says students who take AP Computer Science Principles are more than three times more likely to major in computer science in college. But when schools offer AP classes, they are taking resources away from other classes. As a result, AP classes may get the best teachers while also having fewer students — and the high school ends up not being able to offer other supports, like tutoring, that may benefit non-AP students.

Also, which classes schools offer — and to which students — can create inequities. Some schools offer one or two AP classes, others have dozens. Some schools limit who can take AP classes by requiring prerequisite classes, GPA requirements, teacher or counselor recommendations, or other restrictive factors that can disproportionately result in students of color or from low-income households not taking the AP class or exam. Similarly, the nearly $100 fee for each AP exam can mean qualified students are priced out. Some schools pay for all students’ AP exam fees, others offer fee waivers for students from low-income families, but many offer no financial assistance at all. (Individual students can apply for fee waivers from the College Board.)

While an increasing number of Black and Latino students take AP classes, there are gaps in pass rates. Overall, about 60 percent of students who take an AP exam get a 3 or higher, but for Black students the number has been half that — about 30 percent. In New York City, which several years ago launched a major effort to get more kids to take APs, slightly more than half of all students who took an AP test passed in 2019, but among Black students, only about 26 percent did.

“Just offering [AP] classes does not offer access,” explains Kristin Klopfenstein, who has done independent research on the AP program and is now director of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab. “Access means you actually have to support students to be successful in that class.” She likens the distinction “to just throwing a kid in the swimming pool and saying go swim and teaching a kid to swim.” Several programs, including one run by the College Board, now seek to prepare younger children to take — and pass — AP classes in high school.

The (sometimes broken) promise of college credit

Getting a 3 or above on an AP exam does not guarantee a student will get college credit. That’s up to each individual college — and individual departments within colleges, Klopfenstein says, and there’s no central place to find out who accepts what. And while college credit is nice, most students won’t earn enough AP credits to significantly reduce the amount of time or money they’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree. A student planning to attend an in-state, public university may be better served taking dual-enrollment courses at a local community college, so long as those course credits will transfer.

The stress of taking AP classes and AP exams

The fact that AP classes require a lot of hard work, topped off by a demanding make-or-break exam, is part of their appeal. But there’s a downside, say critics: teen stress and anxiety. At many high schools, what was once a way for students to challenge themselves and taste college-level coursework has become a relentless race to take as many AP classes as possible. This level of pressure isn’t right for everyone, nor is it backed by the research. One study found that taking AP classes boosts a student’s college grades but that the benefits levels off at five AP classes — taking eight or 10 AP classes does not increase the student’s grades even more. Instead, many experts now believe, taking large numbers of APs contributes to stress. This has raised concerns even among the AP’s biggest boosters. In 2018, College Board President David Coleman said students shouldn’t take more than five AP classes in high school. “There is no evidence that excessively cramming your schedule with AP classes advances you,” Coleman said in his speech. It does, however, inflate GPAs due to grade weighting, making college admissions more and more competitive.

”[Teens] have to think about what’s doable,” says Denise Pope, founder of Challenge Success, a program that promotes balance in students’ lives. She is particularly concerned that many kids, facing competing pressures, sacrifice sleep.

Some schools have policies to protect students. Alice Lian, a senior at Brooklyn Tech in New York, says her school has limits on homework, which helps, but the AP exam still adds to the pressure.

Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick and Shannon Saldo of the South Florida College of Education study how AP students can cope with stress. Parents may instinctively advise their children to cut back on commitments, but Shaunessy-Dedrick says, “Kids involved in a healthy number of extracurriculars actually perform quite well.” Instead, balancing students’ schedules by cutting back a bit on AP classes — and keeping extracurriculars — may be the best bet.

What to look for

A good AP class, like any challenging or honors class, should do more than have students reading and regurgitating a textbook via endless quizzes and tests. The classes should be academically challenging in a number of ways: students should engage in intellectually challenging discussions, analysis of ideas and material, and critical thinking. By the end of the year, the student should be able to demonstrate mastery of the subject. A group of experts wrote recently that an AP science class should teach students how scientists work, the skills needed for scientific inquiry, and “big picture” concepts and include student-led experiments.

That sort of approach is a departure from what AP did for much of its history when critics charged that the classes stressed memorization rather than understanding. The College Board in 2012 began revamping its classes to change that. Two years later, it launched the AP Capstone program, where students do independent research projects and give presentations on them. More than 300 colleges and universities grant course credit for students who successfully complete the AP Capstone.

Questions to ask

  • What APs are offered in this high school and in what grades?
  • What prerequisites do students need to take in order to enroll in AP classes at this school?
  • Who teaches the AP class(es)?
  • How does the AP class reflect the interests and concerns of students in this community?
  • What is the AP exam pass rate for students in these classes?
  • Which AP classes — and how many — are the colleges my child is applying to looking for?
  • Does the college my child is likely to attend give credit for passing AP tests?

Key takeaways

For parents:

  • Various programs prepare middle and even elementary school students for the demands of AP classes. Check whether your district offers any of them.
  • Talk to your child about his/her goals and priorities before deciding whether he/she should take AP classes and, if so, which ones.
  • Talk to your child about balancing academics and extracurricular activities.
  • Make sure the advanced academics your child may be interested in will be accessible to them.

For teachers:

  • How can you cover the material while also helping students learn organization, time-management, and social-emotional skills they’ll need to thrive?
  • Although the AP exam is a standardized nationwide test, reading, assignments, and specific topics can be adjusted to meet student interests. How can you offer material that will engage your students while preparing them for the AP exam?

For administrators:

  • To advance real equity, AP classes must be open to a range of students — and provide realistic chances for all students to do well.
  • Many students need extra encouragement and help to handle the workload. What academic, skills-based, and social-emotional supports can the school provide to all students?
  • AP classes require strong teachers and extra resources, so principals need to weigh whether they are the best use of that time, effort, and money.

This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.

 

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Updated: June 3, 2021