The first school year that AP courses were offered, 1955-1956, just 1,229 students around the country participated. But the numbers have been on the rise ever since: By the 2010-2011 school year, roughly 2 million students — nearly a third of all high-schoolers nationwide — were taking AP courses, sometimes several at a time.
The College Board, the nonprofit that administers both the AP program and the SAT test, is quick to point out that, on a percentage basis, few students take more than a handful of AP tests. Only 1.2 percent of students over the past four years took eight or more exams (nearly half of students in that period took just one). But the students that make up that 1.2 percent are often the ones competing for coveted slots in the nation’s top colleges.
With so many ultra-high-achieving students to compare these days, college admissions officers suggest an astronomical number of AP classes is no longer a distinguishing characteristic on applications. “Taking eight AP classes your senior year instead of taking six AP classes is not going to make a difference to an admissions officer,” says Peter Jennings, the director of college counseling at Concord Academy and a former Tufts admissions officer. “They’re much more interested in the life of the mind and the quality of the work that students are doing. I think that message gets distorted, and that creates the AP mania.”
Margit A. Dahl, Yale University’s director of undergraduate admissions, agrees. “We don’t go parsing, ‘This student has had 7½ APs, this student has had six APs, and we should be looking at that student with the 7½,’ ” she says. “That student could be flat, dull, not a nice person, and we’re not going to look at them as a candidate. I think some of the families think we’re splitting hairs to that degree.”
At the same time, a full slate of AP courses does not even necessarily save incoming college freshmen time or money. Some colleges now cap the number of AP credits they will accept for placing out of classes; some no longer accept any. Haley Moulton, a 19-year-old from Marblehead, vividly recalls the stress of testing at the all-girls private Winsor School in Boston. She took four AP classes and six AP tests during her high school career; in the spring of her junior year alone, she took three AP exams, the ACT, the regular SAT, and three SAT subject tests. “I felt like I was constantly thinking about testing,” Moulton says. “It was just not the happiest time.” After she was accepted to Dartmouth College, the school said a 4 she got on her Spanish AP let her test out of the foreign language requirement, but the pair of 5s on English tests and the 4 on AP chemistry did not earn her any credit.
Part of the reason for not accepting credit is an attempt to get students to take fewer APs and lighten their high school stress loads. Another part, though, is a concern among college faculty that not all AP classes prepare students well enough to skip classes. This worry reached crisis levels not long ago when professors in several studies sharply criticized some AP courses’ lack of depth (versus breadth) in the 2010 book AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program, co-edited by Philip M. Sadler, a Harvard astronomy professor.
In response to such criticism, the College Board recently introduced a new version of AP biology, which emphasizes more scientific inquiry. And a redesign of AP physics and US history is slated to be unveiled this month, though students won’t begin taking those courses until next year. Both efforts address criticisms from colleges as well as high schools about course-work depth, says Trevor Packer, the board’s senior vice president in charge of the AP program.
Nevertheless, private high school Concord Academy eliminated all its AP courses several years ago. “AP biology was the classic mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, where students had to memorize on the run,” says John Drew, who used to teach the course and is now Concord’s academic dean. “I literally had to tell students to put their hands down and not ask questions because we had to stay on schedule.”
Concord replaced the AP courses with advanced classes of its teachers’ own designs. Each unit in the biology curriculum, for example, is project-based — rather than test-focused — including one on the flu and another on climate change. In addition to the hands-on work, students in each course must conduct yearlong research on a topic they choose. Concord labels its courses Advanced Curriculum and tags them with an asterisk on transcripts so college admissions officers can spot them easily. Continued...