Despite Concerns, AP Continues to Form an Integral Part of High School Education

Advanced Placement continues to provide students with the opportunity to challenge themselves academically and get college credit for it.

Advanced Placement continues to provide students with the opportunity to challenge themselves academically and get college credit for it.

Samuel Reich, Staff Writer

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In the confused cesspool of high school’s bureaucratic structure, probably the most crucial indicator of academic standing and general intelligence is the number of Advanced Placement–more commonly known just as AP–classes that a person takes.

Since their creation in the mid-fifties, these classes have really taken off, bringing in increasingly more students every year and becoming a must-have class in high schools around the country.

But despite its general acceptance as a normal part of high school structure, society has not failed to raise plenty of concerns about how good the AP program really is. The list is quite plentiful, and the critics’ tones are worried. Quality colleges are moving away from granting credit to students who pass AP tests. AP classes can’t cover all the material that college classes do, and in the failing attempt to accomplish this, they try to cover too much material too quickly. A huge portion of the students who take these exams end up failing. And–at the forefront of the problems it causes–AP classes take good students and teachers away from regular classes, lowering their quality and making it unfair for those who aren’t at the level of advanced classes.

Despite the reality of some of these issues, I don’t think any of them are huge causes for concern–much less, reasons to do away with the AP program.

Considering the first concern, it is certainly true that many top private colleges are beginning to question how high on the college-level standard AP classes really are, and are starting to refuse high-scoring AP students with college credit for their efforts. This raises the irksome question–actually how high of quality are AP classes?

My answer is, very high–for high school. Asking anyone familiar both with a regular class and its AP counterpart will reveal that the range of material covered in the AP class will be a good deal broader, and the difficulty often higher, than in the regular class–although this gap certainly does widen and narrow from subject to subject. These are rigorous classes, and about as high as the average academically-inclined high schooler can handle.

The reality, however, is that this does not–often cannot–always translate to the huge amount of material and high standards of college classes. AP classes don’t pretend to be exhaustive; they certainly have limits. Therefore if colleges think that these students would learn a lot more from their introductory classes, I think they should go ahead and make them requisite for incoming students, regardless of their AP scores. AP classes weren’t created to let kids skip college classes; they were created so they could avoid covering material they had already learned well in high school. The decision of whether or not to give credit for good AP scores is rightfully up to the college, and not the College Board.

But if you don’t get college credit for taking AP classes–someone could ask–why take them at all?

My response to this is that the learning experience that is reaped from AP classes is far more valuable than getting college credit as a result of a good grade on a test. These classes are rigorous, serious academic workplaces where students are pushed to their full ability, and I think that there is very little that can better prepare a student for college and life after college than an environment like this. College credit is certainly privilege to be hoped for, but, in my mind, the growth and learning gained from AP classes far outweighs this.

The first end of the precarious teeter-totter whose rare balance means we’ve pleased enough educational critics was that AP classes simply can’t cover all the material that college courses can; the second is that they try too hard to try to accomplish this, and end up skimming the surface where they could have dug in deeper–particularly in the subject of history.

Although I have not had the privilege to experience the much-talked of rich learning and extraordinary stress that seems to characterize the lives of the average APUSH or Euro student, what I have heard about these classes confirms this generalization. The sheer amount of material that needs to be covered can cause surface skimming where full submersion would have been preferred. But despite the fact that the get-more-done-more-quickly technique in school curriculums certainly does have the potential of turning sour easily, I don’t think that the College Board has chosen to cover too wide a range of material. This not only allows for covering large spans of world history, familiarizing students with how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together (hence, AP U.S. History, as opposed to AP Presidential History or AP Civil War History), but also gives students the chance to individually research events or people within that broad range that spiked their interest–and which they may not have come across in studying a narrower amount of material. Yes, there are things within the material that would be great to get a closer look at; in a subject like history, you can nearly always dig deeper. Still, there inevitably must be a point at which we draw the line, and say, there is more we could learn about this person or event, but enough is enough. AP classes simply choose to draw the line in a place that allows them to cover more of the era as a whole, rather than more of that individual person or event.

But forget all this wide-versus-narrow nonsense: wouldn’t it be more accurate to make the spectrum doable, versus overboard-too-much?

Yes, these classes are taxing–maybe more so than any other class in high school (if the picture drawn for me by dying sophomores is anywhere near the truth). But they’re supposed to be that way. These classes are meant to push students hard, to challenge them, and make them grow from it, and learn from it. Again, what better preparation for college can you get than full-blown hard work?

This response carries on into the next concern: way too many kids fail AP tests. Averages from the College Board place the percentage of failed tests last year at a stunning 33.6%. My response, which I can’t stress enough: AP classes are meant to be rigorous. This is a well-known, very public fact–it isn’t as though the College Board is duping us all into believing that we can pay $94 to automatically get college credit, or getting payed off by colleges to intentionally make tests harder than they had been the year before so less kids would pass. I would be very dubious to lay the blame of this many failures on anything besides too many kids having bitten off more than they could chew; and if I did (which would be very unlikely), I would sooner credit the overly optimistic recommendations or mediocre teaching ability of individual teachers, than the College Board being corrupt or something being wrong with the AP program as a whole.

And now we come to the crux of the anti-AP argument, the most delicate, and probably, the most serious of any of these issues: the claim that AP classes take good students and teachers away from regular classes, worsening their quality.

This is a tough question, partly because I’ve seen the results. Though such generalizations are never completely true, I can clearly see higher academic motivation in more of my classmates in AP classes, than in my regular classes. This separation of ability (or at least motivation) can create a kind of unhealthy socio-academic strata that can predetermine students’ peer-groups and influence them to say they are “good” or “bad” in school, instead of just trying to get better. This separation is a definite downside of the AP program, and is something that will inevitably result when we remove all the top students from regular classes.

Though this is a very real concern, it shouldn’t have a huge effect on the quality of the regular classes. Even if fewer students in them are grade-A students or strongly motivated learners as in AP classes, we need to uphold the same standards of quality to these classes as we hold to our AP classes. And even though the subject may not lend itself well to studying a similar level of material as AP classes, these classes absolutely still have to push their kids to learn and grow as students and people–just as much, if not more–than AP classes do. We need to have a mindset of growth, not raw GPA.

Another thing to take into account is that the line between “AP students” and “normal students” is exceedingly fine. Although there certainly do exist plenty of peer groups on one side of the spectrum or the other, nothing other than maybe not sharing classes with them or simply clique-culture pressure is keeping anyone from crossing that line. This is where activities like sports, music, art, theater, and even yearbook and newspaper prove instrumental in breaching the advanced/regular boundary and establishing more academically diverse peer-groups.

The main reason for this lack of a clear boundary is that, thankfully, we are not contained to exclusively AP or regular classes. Unlike in Germany–where fifth-graders are placed in one of three major types of “secondary” schools of varying academic rigor and vocational focus based on their academic performance and interests–American high school students are free to choose how many AP classes to take. This not only allows them to predict what will suit them most academically, but lets them change this over succeeding years as they please. To me, this ability to decide for myself what level I study at is what seals the lid on the question of separation of AP and regular students. Even if this boundary does exist, it is one that we can cross without too much difficulty.

AP classes are a valuable part of our school system. They may not be rigorous enough from the college perspective, or too rigorous from the high school perspective; way too many kids may fail them to please critics; and they may pool students into groups of academic ability or motivation, causing unwanted social dynamics. But in my mind, any negative repercussions of the AP program are miniscule compared to the vast amount of learning, growth, and preparation for life that it provides the students in them. This is a great program. Let’s appreciate it as such.