Today’s post is all about AP courses. For those who don’t know, AP (Advanced Placement) courses are high-level courses offered at the high school level. They are intended to be more difficult and intense than regular courses, or even most honors courses. Teachers go through a certification process that helps them develop syllabi and find course materials. If you’re familiar with the IB (International Baccalaureate), AP courses are often compared to IB courses, though the IB is much more all-encompassing and interconnected. The AP are courses, the IB is a curriculum.
When I was in high school, I took two AP courses: Physics B, and Calculus AB. I liked both of them, though this probably had more to do with the teachers than with the course material. I almost took AP Chemistry my senior year, but dropped it in favor of an independent study in particle physics. (Wouldn’t you?)
Despite my own good experience in AP courses, I argue against them these days, and wouldn’t want to teach one. Here’s why.
First, the level of difficulty in many AP courses is achieved not only through increased depth, but through increased breadth. The number of different topics covered in AP Calc (for example) is very large, and has been expanding for years. I’m a fan of deep coverage and improved learning through review and reuse, and there’s a lot less time for that. The sheer breadth of topics in a single AP course goes against some of my educational philosophy. It also proves to be a problem for students who think well but not quickly, as they get swamped by having a new topic every two weeks. I’d much rather teach a course that covers fewer topics in greater depth, because I think that students learn better then.
Second, partly because so many topics are included, and partly because of the high-stakes test at the end, AP courses are restrictive. Teachers have little opportunity to do things that don’t fit into the standard set of topics. Would you rather take that extra week you’ve squeezed out and learn about something outside of the required material, or do something that’s relevant to the test? Perhaps a science fair or a history project that uses primary documents? I love cool and unusual things like that. I also understand the need to do well on tests. As a teacher in my own courses I can strike the balance I want; in an AP course that balance is set for me. Everything has to go toward the test, or you might be cheating your students.
Third, AP courses aren’t considered as strong as they once were. Many, many more students take AP courses than did ten years ago. Those who do take AP courses take more of them. When I was in high school, students were warned seriously against taking more than two AP courses in a year. Now it’s not unheard-of for someone to have three or four AP courses at once. I’ve run into students taking AP History in their Sophomore year; APs used to be primarily for seniors. I have to suspect that the courses are less intense than they used to be. Because of this, fewer and fewer colleges are accepting AP credit, either as just numerical credits or to substitute for required courses.
Unfortunately, APs are still valued in the college application process. If you’re applying to selective schools, having AP courses on your transcript has gone from being a really good idea to being completely vital. I worry that this is a left-hand-doesn’t-talk-to-right-hand issue, where folks who work in college admissions and high school college offices don’t know how the view of AP courses is shifting. Perhaps instead it serves as a way to numerically differentiate students with nearly identical GPAs and SATs. Regardless of the reason, the fact that high school college offices encourage students to take more APs in order to boost their transcript makes removing AP courses an uphill battle.
Nevertheless, some schools (including some fairly big names in the private school world) have removed AP courses from their curriculum. If you’re curious as to how, there’s a page here that has things like FAQs, some of which include responses from college counselors in those schools. The short version is that students coming from schools without AP courses are generally not penalized for lacking them on their transcripts. Very much worth reading.