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Do AP classes live up to their promise?

Original post made on Apr 27, 2013

Though skeptical of the unequivocal value of Advanced Placement courses, a Stanford University researcher says high schools with well-supported AP programs should not cap or limit the number of AP classes in which students are permitted to enroll.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Saturday, April 27, 2013, 2:54 PM

Comments (22)

Posted by PALY Alum, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 28, 2013 at 6:25 am

I do find that most of Pope's conclusions were valid in the PALY environment in the past few years. PALY's AP classes were rigorous (primarily math and science, not sure about english/history) and taught me analytic problems solving and test taking skills that have been useful in my hardest classes as an engineering undergraduate at a difficult university.

I am in no position to know how taking the number of AP classes I did (8) helped (maybe hurt if they view it as too many) my admission. Students should know, however that in general AP classes are not a substitute for a freshman level college course *especially if it is a background course for your major*.
I retook Physics E&M for this reason and yes the college class was easier now that I went through the material once, but I also had better understanding for the concepts after looking through the material again. But do note that it is becoming a trend for colleges not to count AP credit, because getting a 5 on the exam (nationwide average) does not mean that you could even get a C in many college level courses. So when choosing which AP's to take and which classes to "AP-out of" in college, consider how well you know the material if you will be relying on that course for your major. At PALY, the courses that I feel prepared me at the level of college level courses were Statistics and BC Calculus, which I found no issue of not repeating in college. This is not reflective of the test results, just my doing well in the class. If you look at the AP curves, you will be surprised at how many people get a 5.
I feel that PALY does a good job at ensuring that both higher-lane and lower-lane classes get good teachers, in fact many AP/honors teachers also teach a lower lane class.

Overall, I would recommend students take AP classes that they feel they can do well in, and a number which they can handle (max 2 junior year, 3 senior year, with some exceptions). Also, remember that these are not a replacement for college courses, again with some exceptions by student and school.

Posted by not true, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2013 at 6:37 am

My posts in the April 26th thread that followed the same article (the Weekly posted this article twice):


Pope claims that colleges admit students with APs and reject those without, which she labels an equity problem for students attending schools which don't offer them ("using APs in admission decisions is 'problematic from an equity standpoint' as students from rural, small or lower socioeconomic schools tend to have less access").

This is not true.

Private colleges evaluate students based on how well they did in the context of their own high school. Students from a high school that did not offer any or many APs is not at a disadvantage (just because they did not take APs) when seeking a seat at a college, even at the most competitive colleges.

Pope's own Stanford: "We want to be clear that this is not a case of 'whoever has the most APs wins' ...we expect that they have taken high school course loads of reasonable and appropriate challenge in the context of their schools."

Harvard: "the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them."

At the UCs, students are evaluated in part based on their class rank in the context of their own high school. Approved honors courses are given same GPA weighting as APs are.


Important for parents concerned about student stress to keep in mind - what is stressful for some is not stressful for others, according to Denise Pope's anti-stress group Challenge Success:

"students handle the stress associated with more challenging courses differently. Researchers found that students who took one AP or honors course have similar levels of stress about academics as students who were taking multiple AP or honors courses (Challenge Success, 2011).

"Some students may benefit from an engaging and challenging experience, while others may not. . .it depends on the students and ... how they handle the increased demands of a college-level class"

"there is no magic number or formula for determining the optimal number of AP courses for students. As mentioned above, our research shows that stress levels in students are not necessarily correlated to the number of AP classes they take. Some students will be able to handle a few AP courses at once and the homework load that accompanies them; while others will be unduly stressed by taking only one AP course (Challenge Success, 2011)"


Posted by not true, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2013 at 6:54 am

PALY Alum,

Your points are thoughtful and well made and will be very helpful to students reading your post. Thank you for posting.

I can't speak to the college "trend" re APs, but based on CURRENT practices top colleges, right now, still very much embrace the AP program albeit in different ways. (Less competitive colleges embrace it even more, which is one way they try to entice high achieving students to select them.)

All the UCs and Stanford give college graduation credit for AP classes (which classes they accept will vary by college).

Many, like Harvard and Dartmouth, don't give unit credit but do give students advanced standing.

Students who do well on their AP exams don't have to retake the same subject in college, so can skip the big lecture class and move quickly into smaller, more interesting classes and have room in their 4 year plan for a double major or a masters degree.

Harvard's AP Credit policy ("a score of 5 on an AP exam often satisfies the prerequisite for middle- or upper-level departmental courses, permitting a student to begin advanced work early in his or her college career") : Web Link

Stanford's (Score 3 or higher, depends on subject, "A maximum of 45 quarter units of Advanced Placement (AP)… may be applied toward the undergraduate degree. ") Web Link

UCs' (Score 3 or higher, "AP units may be applied toward graduation"): Web Link

Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2013 at 10:00 am

> Do AP classes live up to their promise?

So .. what exactly is the promise of AP classes? Does the PAUSD, or any school district for that matter, actual promise students taking these courses anything .. anything at all?

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 28, 2013 at 12:02 pm

@Wondering: There are no guarantees in life. It just depends which college your child is interested in attending. For instance, If a student is looking to attend CSUs, they probably don't need AP classes. I've consistently heard from current/former admissions directors, "All 'A's in all regular lane classes means the student was capable of more but took the easy route instead and should have taken some honors or AP classes." Perhaps the student worked hard for those "A"s but it's interpreted as lazy that they didn't take any APs. Basically, students are taking APs these days to reflect well on their transcripts rather than to waive a class in college.

Let's not forget that students need to have extracurricular(s) too. The colleges see enough high GPAs that the personal essays are their only way to view the personalities of the students.

Completely agree with Paly Alum: "I feel that PALY does a good job at ensuring that both higher-lane and lower-lane classes get good teachers, in fact many AP/honors teachers also teach a lower lane class."

Posted by paly parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 28, 2013 at 2:35 pm

I don't know any kids who take AP classes to get college credit. Everyone I know has taken them because they
A) are assumed to be required to get into good schools
B) you get an extra point in your GPA

AP classes used to be viewed as ones you took because you were interested in the subject. They are now viewed as an essential part of the Palo Alto education process - lest you be viewed as a "slacker"

Posted by PALY Alum, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2013 at 4:25 am

The extra GPA point is meaningless: most private colleges don't calculate the GPA on a 5.0 scale (only the 4.0 scale one shows up on the transcript) and UC's see both the 4.0 and 5.0 scale GPA. Even then, since they put a cap on 8 semesters (I think) of AP credit, when looking at Berkeley/UCLA, many people max out. Sure, I would say that AP classes are a great way (at least better than community college classes) to show that you have challenged yourself in your environment. But colleges will get mixed feelings if you don't do well (C, B- range) in AP classes or don't challenge yourself across the board (e.g. taking lower lane English because it is easier, but take all the science APs; I'm not talking about honors English instead of AP).

Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2013 at 9:38 am

> Do AP classes live up to their promise?

So, from the answers--it would seem that maybe a better question might be: "What's the purpose of offering AP classes?"

It would seem that it's more for "looks", than for actually producing better educated young people. Kind of makes one wonder if there is anything much of value in the current High School public school offerings?

Posted by PALY Alum, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2013 at 10:21 am

I very much disagree. From the viewpoint of the value of AP classes, the rigor of the classes *specifically in PAUSD* taught me valuable skills that are helping me tremendously in college. However, I would make this same argument if the classes did not have the AP label. We should look at new advanced non-AP offerings at PALY/Gunn, such as the new multivariate (I think) class. How much they should factor into the college admissions process and how students should use them as a tool for that reason is where the debate should focus. Yet, this will depend on the student's and family's abilities and interests.

Posted by TruthBeTold, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 29, 2013 at 10:40 am

As the mom of an ex gunn student, I felt my daughter really benefited from AP classes; she attributes these classes to her high college grades. But she chose only those APs where her interests were. She did not think it was a disadvantage that she took only 6 APs when some of her peers took 10+ to embellish their apps. She was accepted to an Ivy League.

PS: We should leave Stanford out of these kind of discussions. They don't seem to care either way on AP classes so as long as they get their usual yearly quota of "connected" students from PAUSD with complete disregard for the much higher performance of other "non-connected" students.

Posted by TruthReallyBeTold, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 29, 2013 at 12:20 pm

To TruthBeTold -- Let me guess -- your "higher performing non-connected" child didn't make it into Stanford...

Posted by Get smart, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Colleges look a lot more at the whole student than people here seem to realize, and how well a student will fit with the educational philosophy and environment of the school. It's not just all AP's and grades.

I went to MIT, and I did not have any APs in high school because our school had none, and no advanced classes. What they called "calculus" wasn't. To be honest, I was really stressed out because I didn't have anything challenging to do in school but was expected to do a lot of boring busy work. I support helping kids get a healthy attitude towards APs as Pope's report seems to suggest, but I do not support getting rid of them. Some kids thrive on the challenge, especially the kind of kids we have around here. I think we need to find ways to help kids value different kinds of intelligence and educational experiences. Pope's report seems to be a roadmap for how to get the best out of the APs.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 29, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Disagree with PALY Alum that students should "challenge themselves across the board". Does it make sense to take AP English if one is not a strong English student? So they struggle to earn a "B" in AP English instead of an "A" in regular lane? An "A" still is significant in the total GPA. What you are saying (since you claim a "B-" is bad in an AP class) is to earn all "A"s in AP classes!

I heard students need to challenge themselves in subjects they excel in.

Posted by MIT alum, a resident of Ventura
on Apr 29, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Reflecting back on my high school days, I took a ton of AP classes because my school awarded an extra GPA point for each class taken. Truthfully, that was my main motivation. I knew taking harder classes would help me get into a top university, but the GPA bonus was king. I ended up taking some AP classes that really didn't interest me as a result. For example, I was never going to major in English, but I took AP Language (English) and AP Literature. I was never going to be good at Spanish, but I took AP Spanish IV. Heck, I took AP Government, too. I wanted to graduate at the top of my class. Without taking those extra APs, my GPA would have been much lower.

That being said, getting a 5 on AP Calculus AB, AP Chemistry, and AP Biology allowed me to skip 3 classes at MIT, which was awesome because it gave me more room in my schedule to take other classes. The classes I was able to skip were all requirements for graduation from MIT regardless of major, so the AP credits really mattered. I also scored a 5 on AP Computer Science, but that class didn't let me skip anything. That being said, speaking as a professional programmer, I am dumbfounded by the quality of the AP Computer Science curriculum. The concepts I learned in AP Computer Science were numerous, certainly college level, and applicable in professional software engineering.

So in conclusion, I can say with certainty that a good AP Curriculum makes a tremendous difference to the college careers of many students.

Posted by it depends, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 29, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I tried to post earlier but my laptop crashed.
I think there are no hard and fast rules re: AP courses.
Contrary to what was posted, I saw AP Stats curriculum (kids did not take that AP course) and also saw curriculum for a regular Stats course at one of my kids' university and there was no comparison -- the university course was FAR harder.
I don't think all AP courses are comparable to college level courses - but it depends - on university, exact level on is taking in college and so on.
Taking AP's in high school only for competitive reasons has become prevalent and is sad. Taking a few AP's in subjects of interest makes sense.
It is possible to have substantive curriculum in HS for high achieving students without having AP curriculum - that has become lost in the mix but that situation most definitely exists out there.
And, to make a race of taking more AP's than your peers so that when Harvard comes looking you will come out ahead (and Harvard will not take that many from any one high school, regardless of individual merit of each of those individual students) - is too bad and not what education should be all about.

Posted by TruthBeTold, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 29, 2013 at 7:17 pm


That's correct. But she was accepted at MIT, Yale and 4 other ivys thank you.

Posted by Bunyip, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 30, 2013 at 12:00 am

I think your all wacko. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an undergraduate degree is ridiculous. Who cares about ivy league, go to a college overseas, Europe, Norway, asia, get an undergrad degree that is better teaching quality for about 1/10th the cost. The kid gets real world experience without having his/her head firmly up his/her a$s, then come back and apply to grad school of choice. If high school is going to be a mini college prep, why bother with high schools? My kid will not be taking any AP classes, we're not playing the PAUSD rat race game. There's other avenues of achievement without this faux dilemma berkely v Stanford.

FYI: we're MD & PhD prepared (successful by PAs shallow standards) Without the neurotic garbage of AP this, GPA that... More to life then ruining your kids chikdhoods while trying to validate your own crap lives..

Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 30, 2013 at 8:14 am

From reading the postings on AP classes, it seems that the idea, as implemented, could be bolstered by having the classes offered by colleges/universities so that the class credit, and grade, can be directly transferred to the student's college record upon matriculation.

Here in the PAUSD, we seem to have a "high lane" and then an "AP-lane". Is there really enough difference between these two "lanes" to justify the costs of both?

With colleges/universities increasingly offering distance learning/on-line classes, it would make sense to find ways to offer college credits locally, rather than offering courses that raise the bar for students, but don't actually pay off in terms of transferrable credit.

Posted by gcoladon, a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 30, 2013 at 9:03 am

gcoladon is a registered user.

I personally benefitted greatly from the AP courses I took. In high school in southern California (I graduated in 1989), I took 5 AP exams with good scores on each. I have no idea what role these scores played in the admissions process, but I ended up attending an ivy league school. At school, I was pleased that my calculus AP tests enabled me to place out of the first two semesters of engineering math, my physics AP test score got me out of mechanics and into electricity and magnetism, and my biology AP test score waived the biology requirement of my science major (engineering physics).

But perhaps more momentous than any of these placements came at the beginning of my junior year, when I first considered a 5 year dual degree program. The rules for accelerating the program into a 4 year dual degree program included a requirement that the student needed to have at least 60 credits completed by the end of his freshman year. I had taken 18 credits first semester freshman year, and 18 credits second semester. 36 so far. When they added up the credits granted for my various AP test scores, they totalled up to 24 more credits. Exactly 60! So, I was able to enroll in the dual degree program, accelerate it by one year so I could still graduate in four years, and get the second degree (in computer science, which ended up being a specific job requirement for my role at a respectable Silicon Valley company back in 2005).

In hindsight, I'm glad I took all the AP courses, and studied hard to get all the AP test scores, that I did. They ended up benefitting me in a number of ways over the years.

Posted by boo hoo, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 30, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Stanford has higher standards than the Ivies I guess. For engineering and science, Stanford takes the best of the best only. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by boo hoo, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 30, 2013 at 4:49 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by boo hoo, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 30, 2013 at 5:51 pm


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