Are AP Classes Worth It?

Are AP classes really worthwhile?

There is no doubt that advanced placement classes are popular.  Last year, nearly 1.7 million students worldwide took more than 2.9 million AP exams. Twenty five percent of high school graduates have taken at least one AP exam.

With teenagers returning to the classroom grind soon, I thought this would be a good time to share the experience of a wealthy suburban school that questioned the wisdom of Advanced Placement courses that ambitious teenagers feel compelled to take. A story in The New York Times explored the decision of a wealthy suburban high school to phase out AP classes.

An AP Dropout

A year after Scarsdale (NY) High School decided to begin shutting down its AP courses, the bright students were still getting into the nation’s top colleges and universities. Imagine that!

The knock against AP classes is that they promote learning that is an inch deep and a mile wide. Teachers can’t slow down to linger on any worthwhile topic — whether it’s the essays of Virginia Woolf or string theory in physics — because there are too many facts to cram down the kids’ throats.

A student at the University of Chicago’s University High School wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times complaining about the pace of AP courses and their superficiality:

The problem with the AP program is that we don’t have time to really learn U.S. history because we’re preparing for the exam. We race through the textbook, cramming in the facts, a day on the Great Awakening, a week on the Civil War and Reconstruction, a week on World War II, a week on the era from FDR to JFK, a day on the civil rights movement  — with nothing on transcendentalism, or the Harlem Renaissance, or Albert Einstein.

There is no time to write a paper. Bound by the exam, my history teacher wistfully says we have to be ready in early May.

Sometimes I feel as if the College Board, which administers the AP program, is haunting our history class — a long, gray, flat board with a clock on it looming over us. Like an oracle, it tells us what is worth learning and how long learning should take.

What the AP tests do quite well is help with the College Board’s bottom line. The College Board generates about a third of its revenue charging for the AP tests.

With any luck, more schools will follow Scarsdale’s lead.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for and CBSMoneyWatchUS News & World Report.

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9 Responses to Are AP Classes Worth It?

  1. Julia August 11, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Many state universities give actual credit for having taken an intro-level class if a certain score is achieved on the AP exam. If one is good at taking tests, it may be deemed worth spending $85 (or whatever it’s up to now) to avoid spending $900 and a semester of precious college schedule time later on a class that is required but not of interest. But it is darned difficult to get a credit-worthy AP score in any class except junior-level AP English composition.

  2. Kim Muse August 12, 2010 at 7:38 am #

    Too often we can breeze through life, even look intelligent, knowing a little about a lot. It’s too bad because we miss out on things that make a differance. To make a diferance we must have the kind of input that inspires and this must come from depth and variety not just vague variety.
    It is easy to come to the conclusion these classes, AP, aren’t adding to our youth what they need to do well in college. Also that more time in deeper study will benefit our youth both further and farther in life.

  3. Rose August 12, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    I’ve written a (very lengthy) response to your post on my own blog, but to summarize here:
    If it weren’t for AP classes, I wouldn’t be starting university with 32 credits. It’s only a matter of researching beforehand which college you want to attend and which AP credit they accept. I’ve achieved 5′s on all my tests, mainly due to my excellent teachers–and an AP teacher that never delves deeply into the topics taught shouldn’t be teaching AP classes, in my humble opinion. While the class pace is fast, all the AP classes I took explored topics much more deeply than their regular counterparts.

  4. Eileen August 13, 2010 at 8:14 am #

    I like the fact that there are known standards for these classes. Teachers “trying to cram facts” into kids’ heads is a good thing. Things like string theory, while interesting, are not the most important thing for students to learn in an introductory level college physics course. AP test scores are one of the few objective measures of content taught in school. Maybe too many students who are not prepared for these classes are taking them, and they should be counseled to take other courses. For those students who are prepared, the beauty of the test is that these courses can’t be surreptitiously dumbed down. Also, a school that is serious about its AP program will work to make sure that its “pre-AP” courses do a good job preparing students for AP level work.

  5. On-level is worse October 24, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    For most public schools, on-level and honors courses are an absolute joke, and are designed to be ridiculously easy so anyone can get a B.

    • Lynn October 25, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

      I’d have to agree that at some schools, the rigor of AP classes is a joke. I think kids are primarily interested in taking these classes because they can “earn” an inflated GPA, which will impress colleges. The big winner is the College Board that charges students to take the AP tests in the spring.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. Richard Donaghey April 13, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    AP courses will become the dinosaurs of education. The paradigm is changing. Many students in more progressive school districts are now using Concurrent Enrollment or Dual Enrollment. This is where a high school student enrolls in college courses while still in high school. Most districts pay for the tuition and books for the students. It has been demonstrated that by the time a student graduates from high school they will have also completed their freshman year of college with 30 plus college credits in hand. If recieving college credit is the main idea here? Then why bother with an AP classes, and take the test which you have to pay for also. Then who knows? The college you want to attend may not accept AP coursework. In my opinion every high school in the nation should be offering this option to deserving academically motivated students.

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