Are AP classes worth it?

Published 5.1.2017
No one knows. “It” in that title question could be money, time, opportunity costs etc., and AP stands for advanced placement. AP courses are “college level” classes offered to high school students, which require passage of a end of year test to receive college credits. Very little research data exists to show AP tests benefit the students who take them.

The NPR (National Public Radio) article that inspired these words stops short of calling them a “scam” as The Atlantic did, which I discussed previously. Doing a randomized test of the effect of AP exams is impossible. You can’t force a population to take the exams, nor can you arbitrarily forbid a population from taking them.

What you can do is turn the “anecdotal evidence” that fewer schools are accepting the credit into actual data. Survey colleges and learn if they accept the credit or not. Fewer students are achieving passing scores on the final exam, but that’s a function of a broader population taking the courses. That is a tidbit, though, that might convince a few parents that it’s not worth the pain.

It can’t be said that the experience is without worth at that point because the student will have been exposed to and learned the information. But to slog through the coursework and wind up with nothing for the stress and effort has to be frustrating.

In contrast, the article suggests that merely having the opportunity to take the class is a boon for students. Students thrive on high expectations, and simply being allowed to take the course at all means that the school believes you have the ability to pass the test. I can accept that premise, so long as the status of being an AP student, which I associate with parents more than the kids, doesn’t outweigh interest in the subject.

Students taking three or four AP classes, and I have parents on my Facebook list who boast of just that, are not taking all those classes due to interest. They are taking them because, regardless of interest, they are expected to climb on that treadmill. For some it will work out fine and that should be celebrated. But for some, they will wind up taking courses, that even if they are capable of passing them, they hate.

My view on this is colored a bit because I have listened to high schoolers complain bitterly about being “stuck” in demanding higher level courses because of decisions made in earlier grades (by their parents), which left them with limited choices of how to meet state mandates for courses. If you take high school courses in middle school, then you can’t take them agains to fulfill the state mandate for math courses. The same would be true for science courses, but it’s advanced math, in my experience, that really gets pushed at younger kids.

Math, more so than English, history or even the sciences is progressive, with each level building on the last. Once you pass algebra, you don’t take it again. Whereas English/literature courses seem to be cover the same skill set over and over again, just with different readings. The same history gets presented repeatedly.