A Breakdown of AP Classes

The Pros, the Cons, and the Downright Nefarious

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A Breakdown of AP Classes

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Let’s face it: unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard of AP classes. As of now, Boulder High School offers one of the most comprehensive AP curriculums in the state, with 30 different AP courses on offer and over 1600 individual subject tests given in 2018.

It’s not just BHS either. College Board (the company that manages the Advanced Placement system) has been pushing AP for years now, with nearly 5 million tests administered in 2017. Self-reportedly, its goal is “to expand access to higher education… [and promote] excellence and equity in education.”(source)

And in some respects, they’ve done that. The “All In” initiative in particular managed to sizeably increase the number of minority/low-income students taking AP tests within a ten year span, and their AP Computer Science program has been drawing greater numbers of black, female, and Latino students to the class, all minorities in the field.

In other respects however, College Board does just the opposite. As of 2018, each AP test goes for over $90 a pop, with some schools requiring students to pay additional fees for administration of the exam. And while “significant financial need” can get students a fee reduction of $32, many state governments have had to step in to mark down the price to a more manageable level. However, these state-funded initiatives aren’t all-encompassing either, with Colorado’s AP Incentive Program supplying AP cost reductions to a maximum of 475 rural district students each year.

And it’s not as if College Board can’t afford to make testing more affordable. Despite its status as a non-profit organization, College Board sported a 2009 profit margin of 8.6 percent —a hefty figure even by for-profit standards. What’s more, David Coleman, the current CEO, makes an annual salary of nearly 900,000 dollars.

In addition, with most AP courses conglomerating in wealthier school districts like Boulder Valley, one starts to wonder if, rather than curbing the income-related elitism in U.S. education, College Board is inadvertently furthering it.

But let’s put aside the obvious issues with College Board and ask ourselves the real question: are AP classes actually worth taking?

According to AP World History teacher Markham Carr, the answer to that question is a definite yes. “I think there’s a lot of critical thinking that has to occur on the students’ level in order to be successful on the AP test in May,” says Carr. “And those are much more challenging classes than even the regular World History class I teach, and that kind of rigor, I think, does prepare students for college.”

However, the curriculum puts a lot of pressure on the students themselves, offering few breaks or opportunities for downtime. When asked, Carr described the whole experience as akin to sprinting a marathon. “It’s a race. I mean, the whole time it’s just a sprint, just go, go, go. Students always ask, after we take a quiz, ‘Are we doing anything else today,’ and I want to laugh. I’m like, yes, we’re starting the next chapter. We don’t have a spare thirty minutes almost in the entire year.”

His colleague Dr. Laura Duncan, who teaches AP Chemistry, agrees with him. “It’s a lot of pressure on the students, frankly. I feel like we have enough time to cover it, but there’s no downtime.”

And while both teachers agree that AP classes are excellent at preparing kids for college-level courses, Duncan also made sure to stress the need for regular and weighted non-AP options. “They [College Board] want everybody to take AP classes, and I personally do not feel like it should have to be AP to be challenging for students,” she says. “I think everybody’s in a different place. Advanced Chemistry is a great college prep class … [and] you shouldn’t have to take AP to be ready for college. Regular Chemistry is great for kids who are challenged in math; it’s harder for them, so we go at a slower pace, and they’re still learning things, [so] it’s not just sponge time.”

But even with other options available, many students who are not passionate about the subject in question still feel compelled to take AP. “If I take classes that aren’t weighted, then my GPA drops,” said one student who wished to remain anonymous. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute confirms this sentiment, with nearly 90 percent of teachers surveyed attributing AP classes’ rise in popularity to “more students [wanting] their college applications to look better.”

BHS senior Keeley Garland describes herself as feeling pressured to take AP courses even though she felt no desire to. “It’s just such a whack system, ‘cause you’re pressured so much when you’re going into high school, by teachers and stuff, to take them when they may not even be for you. I was suggested to take AP classes, [and] I’m not into school at all, and people are like ‘you should take some AP classes,’ and I can’t do that.”

Dr. Laura Duncan, BHS Chemistry teacher. “I think the AP provides a challenge for the kids who are really ready for it and want to do it, but I don’t encourage kids to take AP Chem if they’re not really into it, because it’s hard. And Advanced Chemistry is a great college prep class, and I think that you shouldn’t have to take AP to be ready for college.”

A lot of this reluctance on Garland’s part comes from the workload expected of AP students. For most of the year, many AP classes go through material extremely quickly — a pace that might even be affecting how well students retain the material in question. “I think they are learning so much so quickly it’s hard for them to put it into their long-term memories,” says Carr. “Hopefully they have the big concepts. But it’s a tremendous amount of information to distill down to what’s really important.”

Our anonymous student summed up the experience on the student’s end quite succinctly. “I know that AP classes are supposed to be fast-paced and stuff, but we’re going into so much detail that you kind of want to go slower, so you can retain all that detail. And well, that [is] kind of ironic.” Carr believes it’s this rapid-fire hale of information that is behind College Board’s cuts for the 2020 AP World History test — scrapping anything pre-1200 C.E.

Finally, while high scores on AP exams have been linked with success on the college front, according to a 2010 study, “there is no evidence from methodologically rigorous studies that AP experience causes students to be successful in college.”

Coming back to the question at hand: is it worth it to take AP classes? Well, perhaps Dr. Duncan put it best: “There’s a reason to go to college and that’s to go to college,” she says. “High school should be a chance for you to try out different classes, do different kinds of things, not be focused on a specific major. And that’s what I like about the AP curriculum in general is it allows students to pick and choose. So they can take the AP in what they’re interested in, or they don’t have to take any AP. They can just take a regular high school curriculum, and if it’s done properly, it should prepare them for college.”