Do Advanced Placement Courses Serve Students Well?

A couple of weeks ago there was an article in the New York Time’s Room for Debate, “The Advanced Placement Juggernaut ” questioning the value of AP courses.  It is an interesting read as it presents views from various “professionals” and had a huge number or reader comments.

The heart of the matter is that AP courses have traditionally been one of the universal measures of a student’s ability to succeed in college.  Students who take these “college level courses” in high school are tested nationally, giving students a good gauge of how they stack up against their peers nationally.  When  I was in school these were the only exams that did this other than the SAT and ACT.  The main difference with the AP exams is that they are subject and course specific while the SAT and ACT were not (now there are the SAT subject exams).

To a student, the greatest benefit of scoring well on an AP exam is that they can receive college credit for their high school class, saving them a large amount of tuition, especially students who score well on many exams. 

In the past, the Advanced Placement Program has been accused of being elitist and inaccessible to many students.  Times have changed as many schools have pushed hard to open their AP classes up to students who did not traditionally take them.  This has caused rapid growth in the number of Advanced Placement exams given every year.  Many have questioned whether opening up these courses to more students has “watered down” the courses, decreasing the significance of these classes.  Much of this will depend on the school and the teacher, as it always has.  If the teacher holds the bar high then there is no reason for these classes to be watered down.  In order to do this, teachers and schools will need to have thick skins as parents and students complain that the course is too difficult.  Schools will need to work hard at improving the rigor of courses leading up to AP classes.  This way all students will be better prepared for the challenges of AP courses.

The Advanced Placement Program has also received some competition in recent years.  Many schools now offer the International Baccalaureate Programme or Dual Enrollment courses.  IB is an international college program that is offered by schools worldwide and is gaining momentum here in the US.  Students in IB courses also take year end exams just as they do in the Advanced Placement classes.  Dual Enrollment courses are classes for which a student can receive both high school and college credit.  This is usually accomplished by the high school partnering with a local college/university.  Often students’ exams in these classes are graded with their college counterparts in the “same class”.  These classes have the advantage that there is typically not a year end exam (except for the final) and credit is achieved by doing well in the class.  The disadvantage is that this credit is not always as recognized as AP and IB credit, especially if the student does not attend college nearby.

It is clear that the College Board has its work cut out for it to stay at the forefront.  They have recently implemented some programs to keep in the good graces of colleges and universities.  They recently initiated a course audit process by which all AP teachers must submit a course syllabus to be reviewed and approved.  This is one way of keeping schools from tacking  the AP moniker on any class. The Advanced Placement Program has also placed a greater emphasis on their Pre-AP Program that strives to prepare students for the challenge of these college level classes. Evidently, the College Board is aware that it must do all that it can to be regarded as a top notch program.   If colleges and universities stop accepting AP credit the program will suffer greatly.

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