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Admissions 101: Why Aren't More Students Taking AP Classes?

In Admissions 101, Jay Mathews is pondering an interesting question about Advanced Placement tests -- why high schools aren't pushing more students to take them. As Jay writes:

"The annual Newsweek Challenge Index is the largest existing data base of AP test participation rates. It shows that only six percent of public high schools make the list, which means they gave at least as many AP, IB or Cambridge tests as they had graduating seniors. It does not take much, at least from my point of view, to qualify for the list...Since two thirds of high schoolers go on to college, and would presumably benefit from taking an AP course and test, why are so few doing so?"

Boosterprez has a possible answer:

I can think of two reasons at our school why AP courses aren't taken as much....first, parents and students don't realize that, if they do well on the tests, college credit is possibly earned, allowing students to start their college life with many credits under their belts. In fact, many former students have reported on school surveys that they WISH they'd taken more AP classes in high school.
Secondly, students are more concerned about their grade point averages and think that taking a tougher class might damage them. In our district, unfairly or not, AP courses are still graded on a 4.0 scale; in many schools they are graded on a 5. scale. Students (and parents) don't recognize that rigor in a schedule is at least as important as grade point, and colleges DO look at how well students challenged themselves academically.
My son takes his AP Stats exam today! He's gotten 5's on his practice tests, so we're hopeful!
Oh, let me also say this: Obviously, success depends a great deal on the teacher. My son is also taking AP World HIstory. His teacher is an AP exam grader. He focused almost solely on HOW TO WRITE the various types of papers tested in the exam (for example, DBQ and CC), and forced the students to do the studying of the material on their own. We'll see next Thursday how that strategy works out.

Join the discussion.

By Washington Post Editors  | May 5, 2009; 11:18 AM ET
Categories:  Admissions 101  
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Students do not need to take AP tests to benefit from taking AP classes. There's no point in pushing students to take AP exams other than to make the Challenge Index. (And that is NOT a compelling reason!)

Students who are planning to attend college full-time would have to take/pass quite a few AP tests to actually reduce the number of semesters that they attend college and thus save any real money or time. Each of the AP tests I took was worth 3-4 course credits (the equivalent of one course) and another 2-3 elective credits (worthless). Big deal. I would guess that other colleges have similar policies.

Posted by: obamamama31 | May 5, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

The AP courses are a whole lot more work than the regular classes and if you pass the test that's great. Then will the school accept them? If you end up at a school that doesn't then why go to all that trouble? If the high school allows the kids to attend the community college instead of AP then I would rather my kid went to the community college where he has a better chance of having those classes accepted at the university of his choice.

Posted by: dancermommd1 | May 5, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Not every kid wants to take hard classes! Some kids want to take classes they're interested in. I had a son who took weight training 3 times - along with Latin.

One thing I learned early on with this kid was that if he didn't want to do something then it was better not to insist.

That kid graduated from college cumm laude and is going to professional school next year.

One size doesn't fit all!

Posted by: RedBird27 | May 5, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: iblkman | May 6, 2009 5:32 AM | Report abuse

"Students who are planning to attend college full-time would have to take/pass quite a few AP tests to actually reduce the number of semesters that they attend college and thus save any real money or time."

Depends on the course. Taking AP Chemistry (1 course, double-period) got me 8 credits, and taking AP French got me another 3 and tested me out of the 100- and 200-level courses, which made picking up a minor REALLY easy.

12 was the minimum course load for a semester where I went to undergrad (average course = 3 credits). I actually did graduate in 7 semesters, which is really nice since I now have the money put aside for that last semester of undergrad to use on grad school, should I so choose, or toward a new car.

Posted by: | May 6, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse - That's great that your AP test credits helped you graduate in seven semesters. Good for you!

Posted by: obamamama31 | May 6, 2009 11:09 PM | Report abuse

To obamamama31: You should talk to successful AP teachers about what the prospect of taking the test does to the dynamics of the course and the motivation of the students, as well as their ability to handle a tough college exam when they get to college. There is no other way in high school, other than IB or Cambridge, to have the experience of a three hour exam that your teacher does not write or grade. It creates a much healthier relationship in the class---teacher and students working together to beat that exam--and it demands thinking and writing skills that other high school courses and exams do not. Also, it makes it much more difficult for a weak or indifferent AP teacher to escape notice when the exam grades come back.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 7, 2009 12:10 AM | Report abuse

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