Too many AP classes?

iVillage Member
Registered: 11-28-1999
Too many AP classes?
28
Wed, 02-27-2013 - 9:44pm

I have the opposite problem that I'm sure a lot of parents would like to have but I feel that my son wants to take too many AP classes in his senior year--it's funny, don't most kids try to get an easier time then?  lol  Well he's a junior this year and is taking the 2nd 1/2 of AP History and the 1st 1/2 of AP English (both 2 yr courses).  His history teacher actually tried to discourage them from taking AP English, saying that it would be too much work to do both--I don't really feel that was a good thing for a teacher to say.  He actualy has done fine this year.  In 1st semester, he was taking 7 classes altogether even though he really only had to take 6--he could have a study, but he chose not to.  This semester, since he had 2 1/2 yr classes, he only has 6 academic classes cause he has to take gym.

He was saying next year besides taking the rest of AP English, he also wants to take AP Calculus, Statistics and Psychology.  I don't really have a problem with Psych.  Now he was just saying how he doesn't understand Pre-Calc at all.  The 1st semester they had trig and he did well in that.  Now they have a different teacher cause the old teacher had a baby.  I don't understand how someone can go from not understanding pre-calc and thinking that they are going to do AP Calc (even though my DD was kind of the same).  There are also 2 levels of AP Calc--DD took the easier one & DS wants to take the harder one!  I think he's nuts.  He doesn't even have to take math at all--only 3 yrs are required and he'll probably never need Calculus.  He goes to a pretty large school and there are a lot of really interesting classes that he could take for electives, so in a way I don't understand some of the choices.  Right now he thinks he wants to follow DD into nursing (and hopefully for my finances will get into the same state university).  They have to take Stats for nursing so even if he does the AP exam in stats, I'm not sure that he could get out of that one--I did stats in college for Sociology and even was a TA and I just thought it was the most boring class.  Well in addition, he also wants to take Physics and Anat. & Physiology.  I just don't want him to burn himself out--he does tend to have a lot of anxiety althoug he's done pretty well this year.  I mean besides this he does have to do college apps & essays and all that kind of stuff.  But whenever I make a suggestion he won't listen to me and just thinks I know nothing because I am the mother even though I am a college grad--even have an advanced degree.  He is somehow so worried that he won't get into college--duh!  right now his class rank is 28 out of over 400 kids--and he did well on the PSATs so I really don't see a problem there.  Oh well, I guess all that HW will keep him out of trouble.

Avatar for mahopac
iVillage Member
Registered: 07-24-1997
Mon, 03-04-2013 - 11:40am

I agree the whole system is awful, in the sense that a decent college education is inaccessible to too many people.  It infuriates me that too many government officials discount the liberal arts as being useless, and that even kids going to public universities can graduate with $50K in student loan debt.  My dad took advantage of the GI bill even though he was not a good student and was able to graduate from American University back in the early 1950s.  My parents insisted that all of us go to college, back when you could actually just get good grades and a part-time job and pay for it yourself. 

I hope we will get to a point in the not-too-distant future where the system changes, and top educational opportunities are not limited to only those who can afford it.  I hope that in 20 years I'm gritting my teeth over the $700K+ I paid to send all my kids to college because more people are able to get this kind of education at a reasonable price, but right now this is what it costs.

However, access to higher education doesn't equal taking AP classes.  *Access* means that people can go to college to get a degree that suits their life and advances the opportunities for which they're suited.

Also, taking AP classes isn't just about getting into Harvard.  Some students want to, sure - though they'd happily go to Princeton or UPenn or Columbia too.  Most kids take AP classes so they'll have *choices* about college, because right now, taking AP classes improves your GPA, shows you tried your hardest, and gives you more choices of more universities.  DD is applying to major in music or music ed (depending on the school) - obviously she didn't forgo music classes to take Calculus - but having taken Calculus, she now has an opportunity to go to a school where she will get an excellent, well-rounded education, not just a music degree.  For those who aren't interested in going to a conservatory, this is a sensible path to choose.

I guess I'm just leery of either/or thinking.  Students who want to major in the arts are going to take arts classes, and that's what those colleges will be looking for (and in our school, even the arts classes can have an honors component with honors weighting, if the student chooses).  Students who want to major in financial engineering are going to take more quantitative classes because that's what *those* colleges will be looking for.

iVillage Member
Registered: 09-13-1999
Mon, 03-04-2013 - 3:16pm

Once upon a time, AP classes were considered college classes.  That's the basis for the thinking that those who have taken the class and earned a 5 on the exam can get college credit for the class and skip the class in college.  Now they've taken on different personalities as they've spread throughout American schools.  Based on my own experiences and those of my college-aged daughters, I'd have to say that I agree with you completely that they are indeed high school classes and they are not taught at a college level.   Most kids who take BC Calc take Calc I again in college and find that it bears little resemblance to what they did in high school.   The humanities APs don't assign nearly the same amounts of reading and writing as what my dds did in college. 

Their value really does depend on too many factors to draw any firm conclusions but my dds' experiences were that the classes were actually less demanding than some of the non-AP alternatives, especially in the humanities. Everyone thinks of APUSH as being demanding and difficult but dd#1 felt that the real difficulty was in looking at things on a very shallow level.  The history electives that allowed her to delve deeper were more challenging and more enjoyable. The one part of APUSH that she truly loved involved writing a research paper using local, primary sources and was not part of the APUSH curriculum. 

I have a lot of problems with what I see as the AP racket.  One is that kids who want to try hard and are smart, interested students but who don't want to take every AP option in the school--or even all the core ones--begin to believe they have no choice but to do so if they want to be taken seriously and if they want to maintain a high rank/gpa.   It's not a matter of conservatory/liberal arts, it's a matter of taking non-AP math vs. AP BC Calculus and still wanting to get a great liberal arts education.  Suppose the individual isn't at the same level in math as he is in English or vice versa?   Or suppose the individual has an extraordinary talent in math but not in writing?  Why is this kid being forced into taking a full slate of AP classes or forfeiting the right to an excellent higher education?  Or as in my dd's case, suppose she wants both AP-track math and journalism?  In her school, these are mutually exclusive.  I counseled her to follow the journalism track if that's what she wanted, her guidance department outright told her that she HAD to have honors math and AP Calc BC if she wanted to consider top schools-and by top schools we are no longer just talking the usual suspects.  I completely object to that sort of thinking.  I also object to the suggestion that failing to take the full slate of core APs means that a student is not challenging himself or that conversely, by taking the full slate that the student is necessarily challenging himself.

Problem #2 is that there's too much gaming of the system in school systems that weight APs and in my mind everyone loses.   A parent of daughters at a nearby, very high achieving school, told me that her extremely able math-science oriented daughters had no interest in taking History and English AP classes.  They wanted to take the regular level in those classes and double up on math/science electives but they were virtually required to take the other APs, both because it's expected and because the hit to the GPA would otherwise be significant enough to drop their standing to a point that would be harmful.  I can't speak to the veracity of this statement but the fact that these girls believed this is troubling enough. Add to that the fact that the kids who WANT to study history or English in depth are then dealing with kids who don't want to be there and can't easily keep up and the course itself is diluted.  And let's not forget the language APs.   My dd has friends who speak fluent Mandarin but who take AP Mandarin simply to boost the gpa.  I'm sure this happens with Spanish and other languages as well.

And my last problem is the quality of the class.  There doesn't seem to be real uniformity in the way these classes are taught.   While your dd was able to take BC Calc without attending all the classes at her school, that would be unthinkable at ours.  Perhaps AP Chem is taught at a higher level at your school than at ours.  They're supposed to be challenging but as I've already observed, in my girls' experience, they were all over the map and even tended to be mechanical vs. rigorous.  Nor do the exams really check for quality except in a very, very rough way.  The exams are graded so that correct answers in the range of 66 to 70% can earn a 5.  At the schools my girls have attended, almost every kid earns a 4 or 5 on the AP exams.

Avatar for mahopac
iVillage Member
Registered: 07-24-1997
Mon, 03-04-2013 - 4:59pm

As you say, lots of variables.

At our school, there is often more than one section of AP classes (there are roughly 450 kids in each grade, so many sections of everything), and many kids do pick and choose.  DD has plenty of friends who don't want to take an AP science or math class so take honors instead while still taking AP English or language or whatever.

The AP system certainly has its faults, but I'm sure glad that DD has opportunities to take challenging classes with other smart kids.  Yes, there are students who are pressured to take AP classes by their parents or by the school.  Yes, people will game the system - is there any system where people don't?  (How many kids speak a foreign language at home and take it as their foreign language? Lots!)  Yes, there are variations in the instruction - I would hope so, and that AP classes everywhere don't have to follow a rote script, or then there's nothing happening other than teaching to the test.  If DD can figure out how to do Calculus attending only every other day because she's willing to do the work and check in with friends who are there 5 days a week, more power to her, and God bless the principal who told her she had to prove that she could do it before they'd allow her to have it officially on her schedule, and then made the exception for her when she proved she could. 

Ultimately it's up to parents and kids to do what is best for their kids.  If DD didn't want to take a dozen AP classes in HS, I wouldn't care.  I would recognize that there are possible consequences to it, and I'd make her aware of them, but frankly if she didn't want to load herself up with pressure, she wouldn't belong at a super-competitive college and therefore there would be no point in applying to MIT or Harvard or Stanford.  That's the same reason I didn't encourage SAT prep classes for either of my kids - both know how to take tests, and I didn't want them to artificially inflate their SAT scores with test-taking strategies and find themselves pressured into applying to colleges with intensely competitive student bodies where they would be unhappy.  Both of them like to succeed, but neither is cutthroat.

In the end, I feel it really does shake out.  DS went to the college that feels right for him, based on his SAT scores and what he took (a few APs and even a non-honors English class) and DD is likely to go to the one that's right for her based on her scores and what she took - plus her auditions, which as a music major mostly trumps anything else, all other things being equal.

Incidentally, our school doesn't rank anyone after the top 10% of the class, or the top 45 or so students; I don't know if that's common elsewhere, but it is around here, so if you're in the top 40% or the bottom 20%, the school is not going to tell the colleges.  DS's private school was so small (63 graduates) that his rank in the middle of the class was irrelevant. Heck, maybe we've just been really lucky - I don't discount that possibility at all!

Once again, LOTS of variables!  Thanks for an interesting discussion.

iVillage Member
Registered: 09-13-1999
Mon, 03-04-2013 - 6:19pm

It is indeed an interesting discussion and one that I like having because it's such a pervasive issue in our lives.  I suspect we probably agree more than it seems but that without a face-to-face discussion where we can talk in shades of gray, we seem to have very different opinions on the subject.  It's all good, especially because life in our little bubble is probably not representative of life in other places. 

I think my problem is in equating APs with challenge and a right to a college that accepts fewer applicants.  A brilliant kid who opts not to take a slate of all-AP classes doesn't belong at MIT or Stanford?   That doesn't make sense to me.  From what we've experienced, AP classes are indeed rote scripts that teach to the test and don't allow for above and beyond thinkers--unless one is lucky to have a great teacher.  What I meant by not having uniformity was that there's no threshold standard.  

I am guessing that this has a lot to do with where I live and its crazy competitive atmosphere.  It's become a caricature of what's appropriate.  True intelligence doesn't exactly get buried but its expression is sadly limited by the rigidity of the standard AP curriculum. 

I completely agree that our kids should have power to forge their own paths and I completely agree that the kid who doesn't want to load up on APs shouldn't be forced to do so.  I start to diverge in the reverse situation.  Far from thinking that AP=competence, I'd like to see dd stay away from several in order to take on greater not less challenge.  I'd much rather see her take on an interesting independent study or a history or science elective over AP Computer Science or AP Chem.  For one thing, managing the busywork that some AP classes require doesn't mean a thing about ability.  For another, the bright peers aren't a foregone conclusion.  As I wrote above, lots of them are there because they are resume-driven.   Dd's already dealt with the kids who try to cram in classes and activities and end up sloughing their work off on her.  She's rewritten many a lab report because those who take on every activity known to teenhood and enroll in every advanced class open to them don't have time and/or inclination to do everything well.  I'm definitely not suggesting that there aren't kids who can do everything and do it all well, just that there are many who can't and that there's no guarantee of a great peer group.

As to SATs, my dd asked me whether she is going to have a tutor.  There's such a pervasive sense that this is the norm, that she's already convinced she needs this.  One of her friends has already taken the SAT 5 times. And these are sophomores!   I don't know how it all shakes out.  My eldest ended up at a competitive school and hated the arrogance she encountered there.  She pretty much opted out of college activities and chose instead to take internships elsewhere.  College was not the perfect match for her and she's much happier now that she's out in the working world.  My middle dd chose something different and had a better experience.  I'm not yet sure what the youngest needs.

Avatar for turtletime
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Registered: 05-13-1998
Mon, 03-04-2013 - 9:32pm

I agree. Our experience has been AP's having less depth, less difficulty of material but 4 times the work. I have no doubt there are some quality AP programs out there but the more common they become, the more substandard situations we'll all run into.

One of our most famous charter schools don't offer ANY AP classes on principal and yet send their kids off to MIT and Stanford on a regular basis. Why do colleges love this charter? Because these kids create. Seriously... one year DD's friend designed and built a functioning hovercraft as well as designed a whole business model and marketing plan around it. Projects like that take real time and lots of our students simply don't have it.

It's a big reason we went for duel enrollement. DD needs the challenge and wants the college credit but she also spends a good 25+hours a week working, charity and interest based activities. Last semester she abridged a 3 hour Shakespeare script to 1 hour for young audiences and took it to production. She was approached to do the same for a small professional theatre company this summer. That's something college educated adults would find challengeing and not an experience she could have had if she'd had a 20+ hour homework load like she did in 9th and 10 grade. We've watched several kids take similar paths (and some not even doing the duel enrollment OR AP.) They had substantial merits outside of school and it didn't stop them from being accepted and thriving in top tier universities. They absolutely understood hard work... they were also independent learners, had excellent time management/organizational skills and confidence in their ability to function in the real world.

I don't think we need to do away with AP's. I took some in high school when it was the "new thing" and I felt a huge benefit from them. However, what I experienced wasn't anything like what my DD and her friends in other schools have experienced. I'm sure some schools are still doing them well. I just hate the rat race that surrounds them with kids feeling they have no choice. It makes me sad to see all the juniors dissapear and come back to lesser positions in their activities because they've been gone and focused on AP's. 

Avatar for mahopac
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Registered: 07-24-1997
Tue, 03-05-2013 - 1:33pm

I really don't think you can compare the college acceptance results for a charter school that doesn't offer APs with a public school that does.  They're apples & oranges.  Of course if it's a highly recognized charter school, MIT and Stanford will be interested.  For one thing, they're *not* comparing AP classes.  Homeschooled students get accepted to Ivy Leagues too, but the number of AP tests they've taken are irrelevant.

I guess our experience has just been much better than yours and Weedosmom's.

DS took AP Calc AB (the easier one) because that was the only AP math class his Catholic school offered, and he was able to skip Calc I in college and go straight to Calc II, where he got an A (his particular college doesn't give credit for AP classes and they don't allow you to skip core requirements, but you can skip ahead to higher level courses in order to satisfy the core requirements).

DD has loved almost all her AP classes and wished she could have taken more.  She talks all the time about the interesting conversations they have in AP Government.  When DS comes home from college, they geek out together over physics.  And taking AP classes hasn't stopped her from playing in chamber orchestra, a youth symphony, various other musical ensembles, the pit orchestra for the school musical, Area All-State orchestra; editing the school art & literary magazine, taking tennis lessons, tutoring middle schoolers, volunteering at a food pantry, teaching private cello lessons, and having a decent social life and watching movies with her family.  This year she also applied to 10 colleges which required interviews, auditions, and many, many college application essays.  It's true that if she isn't studying/doing homework, she's busy doing something else, but she hasn't had a meltdown and she seems very happy. She's also thrilled that when she goes to college, she'll probably be able to skip core requirements and double major - like her brother, she just loves to learn and work hard, and the idea that she can pick a major like Italian just for the fun of it because she's already done the hard slogging through physics, chemistry, biology, calculus, etc.is inspiring.

Maybe all this means that the courses she's taken are facile and my child really is poorly educated despite having gotten 5s on every AP test, but I have a hard time believing that when I hear her talking with her older brother, who's a college junior, about calculus, physics, and literature.  Not to sound too touchy, but obviously we've had radically different experiences.  I just feel that mine need to be heard as well as those who think AP classes are a waste of time for high-achieving kids.

Community Leader
Registered: 07-26-1999
Tue, 03-05-2013 - 3:27pm
I don't believe AP classes are a waste of time for high achieving kids at all either. ODD's experience with AP for the most part have all been positive. Yes, it has been a lot more work, especially reading for each of those classes. Stats was her favorite, and while she's going to be an art major, she is very good at math, she just doesn't care for it at all. She was a junior and took the class, loved the teacher and excelled at it while getting a 5 on the AP test. In contrast, her AP English 3 class, she loved the teacher, unfortunately the teacher had only ever taught core English 3 and 4 at their school, but because of budget cuts, was added to teach AP English 3 last year. The head of the department wrote the tests, ODD's teacher did not have access to the test ahead of time, didn't have a schedule of when the test would be administered until 2 class periods before the test, so she didn't teach towards what was on the test, which good or bad, in an AP class with hundreds of pages a week of reading, is hard on any student. And, their writing assignments were graded differently than the class with the head of the department. She struggled all year long and hated the class. She scored a 3 on the test, so obviously the teacher did a decent job of preparing them for the test at the end, but it was by far her lowest grade in HS at all. Because of that experience last year, and already planning on taking 3 other AP classes this year, she opted to take core English 4. Again with the same teacher as last year. Her only real fear in taking the class was that it was a core class, and that it would not only move slower, but there would be plenty of kids in there that were taking it because they had to have that 4th english credit and there may not be any meaning conversations or anything. Though the end of the semester she ultimately was glad she took it, she did have 2 other girlfriends that also opted to drop the AP English 4 for a more relaxed senior schedule and so overall it was a good semester for her. Unfortunately, the teacher was killed in an automobile accident and now they have "a 60 year old retired teacher who returned to work solely for this class and treats us like 3rd graders, actually writing a poem on the board, using a ruler to point and make us read it aloud line for line". So, all my rambling aside, it really does depend on the overall experience, the teachers, etc. AP classes can definitely have their pros and cons.
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iVillage Member
Registered: 05-13-1998
Tue, 03-05-2013 - 5:32pm

I don't doubt your DD has had a good experience and I'm not suggesting that your DD is getting a substandard education. Much depends not only on the environment but the individual themselves. AP's obviously work for your child and that is great! Would you say your DD is the norm? Maybe in your area. In ours, the crunch to be perfect...taking "pre-AP" classes in middle school, to average 4 to 5 AP's a year starting freshman year, to average 4 to 5 hours of homework a night 6 days a week... we've not come across many who I'd consider thriving, well-rounded kids. My professor friends at a few top universities are not impressed with the students they are getting. At the moment, AP's need no cheerleaders because it's the one system almost every school pushes. I used the charter as an example but it's not the only school in our county that has pulled away from AP and still sending their kids to excellent schools. I used this example to say that fantastic schools are recognizing that AP isn't the only way. There are many paths to an independent and excellent student and that we shouldn't be deciding who "deserves" to be in notable schools based on how many AP's they take. In fact, not all kids have to go that route to get into and thrive in them. 

Avatar for mahopac
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Registered: 07-24-1997
Tue, 03-05-2013 - 6:16pm

Well, now there I would agree with you.  It would be great if there were more options for students than AP classes that were considered equally valid.  I think it would be considered heresy for a school to scrap the AP program and go to something else - I'm trying to imagine it happening here and failing.  Because the only way students would be considered good candidates for college is if the school offers no AP classes or very few - otherwise, the question remains, "Why didn't you take advantage of the AP classes offered?"  And to get buy-in from the teachers, many of whom view teaching AP as a reward for good teaching in less competitive classes, would be a challenge too.

Our district demographics are primarily blue collar.  There are no mega-mansions, though there are some mini-mansions occupied mostly by dual-income families or building contractors.  Most of the parents went to college at state universities, if they went to college at all.  Therefore, unlike some of our wealthier neighbors nearby, the schools tend to not be cutthroat, but quite congenial.  The students who are top of their class are the leaders in some extracurricular groups and participants in others.  Parents don't do their kids' work for them in order to get them the best grades.  DD has a large group of friends who take the same kinds of classes and participate in the same kinds of activities she does.  The salutatorian not only has a stunning average, but she also will call up and say, "Let's go learn swing dancing!"  In other words, being well rounded *is* the norm in this group.

But to get back to the district, I think parents would be horrified by the loss of APs.  They want measures of achievement that they recognize, not alternatives.  If we want alternatives we would have to send our kids to the private schools which charge $35,000 a year tuition for day students.  There are no charter schools, no nearby Catholic schools, just extremely expensive private schools or alternatives for troubled kids or those with learning disabilities.  In our town, where we struggle to pass a school budget but have passionately committed public school educators, very few are willing to look at alternatives.  In the meantime, APs continue to be the gold standard for the top of the class, and most of DD's friends seem quite happy with them - though of course they don't know what the alternatives might be.

iVillage Member
Registered: 11-28-1999
Wed, 03-06-2013 - 12:05pm

So your h.s. only has College or AP to choose from?  ours also has honors classes in most of everything.  In fact, even in an elective that DS took last semester (Violence in American Society) the students could choose to take it either as CP or Honors--meaning that the teacher would look at the work more critically and expect more if you chose to do honors.  DS was one of the few who did it as honors.  We actually used to have a 4th level, which was called "academic" which they dropped a few years ago, so the "lowest" level class is CP--now obviously everybody is not going to college or is college material, which makes that designation kind of meaningless in my book.  Even the kids who are in the vocational dept. have to take the same core classes besides the extra vocational learning they have to do.  But there are some voke students who do go on to college also.