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AP Classes: Typically not worth it … and even less so at SLOCA

February 8th, 2018

{photo by Alberto G on flickr / CC BY 2.0}

Thoughts on the AP system from a Cal Poly Statistics Professor

American families and students are increasingly baffled, frustrated, and stressed out by the mystifying processes and procedures of college admissions, along with the ever increasing price of education. There is a perception among the public that AP courses and exams provide some kind of antidote to these dilemmas. The positive inclination toward AP exams by parents and students seems to stem from the following beliefs: first, that AP courses are valued by the college board and university admissions departments for their rigor; second, that they can boost students’ GPAs; and, third, that successful scores on the AP exams can help students graduate faster and reduce tuition costs by providing college credit in the place of GE or 100-level major courses. In this blog post, Dr. Steven Rein, a statistics professor at Cal Poly & SLOCA High School geometry and statistics instructor, unpacks these perceptions and offers us a new perspective on how AP is viewed by real world college professors.

By Dr. Steven Rein

Every year I meet college students.  Lots of them.  This is not surprising as I am a faculty member at Cal Poly. One interesting thing I hear as a complaint from many of the students I interact with is that “AP doesn’t count.”  (This is at least five students every year, and they’re not even referring to Statistics, the course that I teach.)  What these students mean is that while they took the AP test and got college credit for a course, they did not get “degree applicable” credit for the course. Sure, the students get some units, but the units the students receive credit for are not the ones required for the degree. While some of the students “get out of” a particular math course, like the first two quarters of Calculus, they still need to take a certain number of units in the area to obtain their degree. This means that the “college credit” promised by AP courses does not always have applicable value toward a real university degree.

There are exceptions, of course. But quite often the Mathematics faculty members I chat with say that the course they most dread is the 3rd quarter calculus class during fall term.  That is the class where the majority of the freshmen who have taken AP Calculus end up in their first year.  Why do they dread this particular course/quarter combination? Because the students who were taught their earlier Calculus in AP high school courses quite often bring with them two undesirable characteristics: a sense that mathematics is only good in that it gets you to an answer of a simple and often inauthentic question, and a unpredictable set of misunderstandings that the high school teachers have given the student --  tools that perhaps help students “pass the test” but that don’t really help students gain any true mathematical understanding. Worse, what these students learn in AP math often cause later misunderstandings that college instructors must work hard to untangle.

{photo by CampusGrotto on flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0}

That said, there are some cases when AP courses do allow students to test out of general ed classes. But that isn’t always the best course of action, even when possible. Way back when I was in high school (an unusually good public school it seems in retrospect), I ended up taking a few AP exams including European History, US History, and Studio Art, and I got some college credit for them. I also took some college-level classes at UCSB (Physics, Economics, Chemistry, and Calculus) and at Santa Barbara City College (English) while in high school. Ultimately, I ended up with two years’ worth of college credit before heading off to UCLA. What actually bothers me the most about this is that the courses that I passed out of due to my AP exams and community college credit (the history, the art, English) are courses that I wish I had taken at UCLA as an undergraduate. UCLA is known for its impressive faculty and resources in the liberal arts, and the experience would have been far richer had I taken a high school version and the college level version of the course.  I don’t blame my parents at all for this deficiency in my education because they truly believed that “getting ahead” was the most important thing. Heck, we all want our kids to do well, and when society tells us that to “get ahead” we feel the need to push our students as much as possible and that we need to make sure that they have every advantage; it is easy to fall prey to promises of success. But the question remains -- in pushing ahead, what are students missing out on?

One of the selling points for the AP program that parents and students seem to love is that schools which offer these advanced classes more often than not give the students additional grade point boosts for taking the advanced course. In other words, students who earn an “A” have five grade points for that course instead of four, allowing them to rise above the standard "perfect" 4.0. While high schools do this, colleges usually recalculate students’ grade point averages based on a specific set of their own specifications. In most cases, admissions departments do not go off of school-reported GPAs, but calculate their own algorithms based on the rigor of the curriculum that each student has completed. AP may play a factor in how admissions departments evaluate a students’ preparation and level of curriculum; however, it is not the only metric that universities value. They also calculate additional value from Honors and IB (International Baccalaureate) courses, as well as college credits, and they also consider the level of rigor of the institution itself. All of this is communicated on each high school’s academic profile. In order to address that concern, and to reassure families and colleges that our curriculum truly does prepare students for college, we are introducing SLOCA Honors courses in 2018, where highly motivated students can showcase the rigor of their course load on their transcripts. Honors courses (as opposed to AP) allow students to receive additional consideration from many colleges without SLOCA’s being beholden to teaching to the restrictive AP exams, which, frankly, are not in line philosophically with our model, and which we believe feed and fuel a very misguided, anxious, (and dubiously profitable) college admissions process.

The College Board that runs the SAT, Common App (for college admissions), and the AP exams is a “non-profit” with the goal of helping streamline and standardize our college admissions process here in the states. But with an annual revenue of over $200 million dollars and an annual profit of $62 million on record, the College Board corporation has had their non-profit “charitable” status called into question repeatedly by the press, families and bloggers, and universities themselves. We now have a culture of students and parents who believe that they need to take AP classes and AP exams to “get ahead.” It is such an ingrained view in American educational culture, we’ve stopped questioning its factual basis. But where did this idea come from? It is almost as if someone were trying to figure out how to convince parents and their students to sign up for AP classes and exams (at the cost of $94 each). Compare that with the fact that the exams for private university admissions in other areas of the world are often completely free for students, and it calls into question not only the necessity of this fee, but the function and guiding purpose of the College Board itself.

While we should be careful about the College Board and its messaging, this doesn’t necessarily mean the AP program is terrible, or poses no value to students. Certainly, in schools where there is not a rich or rigorous standard curriculum or culture of learning, AP courses may be the very best choice for college-bound students who want to be academically challenged and to learn alongside peers that have similar goals. However, at SLO Classical Academy High School, we strive to put together courses which prepare our graduates for college and an even more advanced, sophisticated, and rich look at the material in context across all our subjects. With the addition of an Honors program, we can even further distinguish ourselves as an advanced and rigorous school that prepares our students for college life and beyond. But perhaps most importantly, more than the rat race or college admissions mania, we value a culture of presence, a culture of learning, a culture of relationships and mentorship and growth and character. For these reasons, we take pride in the integrity of our curriculum and believe that our instructors should feel free to choose material that matches student needs and is rooted in classical tradition, instead of their being forced to conform to standards set by a corporation. We teach classes which are designed to get students to the level where they will be able to benefit from and thrive in their college-level classes once they are there, and we’ve seen that our students have done well, gaining both admissions and scholarships to their dream schools every year. In fact, we currently have a 100% college enrollment rate among our graduates.

It may take a little bit of a risk to adjust our thinking on AP. But as a professor, I can answer the following with confidence: can students get into great and competitive colleges without AP courses? Yes. Can students thrive in college once they are there without AP courses? Yes. Do AP students still often need to retake courses in their major? Yes. Do AP students still often need to retake courses for General Education requirements?  Yes.  Can students graduate on time or even early from university without AP exams? Yes. Do classically educated students rise to reach their full potential in university and career life, even without AP courses? Yes. Yes. Yes. (And, do students from AP classes often fail to benefit curricularly from their AP tests?  Yes.)

There may be very good reasons that a classical high school education might not be right for a certain student or family. But we urge you: don’t choose to adopt a cultural myth about AP.  We’ve been on both sides of the fence and these stories are, indeed, just mythology.

Thank you, Dr. Rein!

If you or anyone you know is interested in learning more about SLO Classical Academy's High School, we have a High School Open House coming up on Monday, February 12th at 7:00pm at the school. Here are some links for more info and to RSVP - please share:


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