Do AP classes live up to their promise? | April 26, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 26, 2013

Do AP classes live up to their promise?

Results are mixed, Stanford researcher says

by Chris Kenrick

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.

Stress levels in students are not necessarily correlated to the number of AP classes they take, says Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Education. Pope also is cofounder of the Stanford-based Challenge Success, which believes society has become too focused on grades and test scores, undermining authentic engagement and resilience in teens.

Advocating an open-enrollment policy for AP classes, Pope also cautions that a well-supported program should include thorough consultation with teachers and guidance counselors before students sign up, as well as a "safety net" allowing for course reassignment midstream should a student need to transfer out.

Students should not sign up for AP courses "just to get into college," but only if they feel passionate about a subject and are willing to put in extra time and effort, she said.

Pope's observations came in her review of more than 20 research studies on the College Board's 58-year-old AP program, whose enrollment ballooned nearly 50 percent from 2004 to 2009 reaching 1.6 million students.

She said she undertook the literature review after noting that some schools have dropped the AP program and becoming concerned that AP classes have caused a ramping up of student stress levels.

Her conclusions were mixed.

"In the best of circumstances, the AP program can enrich some students' high school studies and offer opportunities to take challenging college-level courses, with motivated classmates and highly skilled teachers," she said.

"For certain students who would not otherwise have access to these kinds of college-level courses, the AP program may be particularly beneficial.

"However, definitive claims about the AP program and its impact on students and schools are difficult to substantiate."

For example, Pope said more research needs to be done before she could verify the broad claim that taking AP classes makes students more likely to succeed in college.

But she acknowledged that some credible studies "showed positive results of the AP program, especially in the sciences."

Though advising students not to take AP classes in order to better their chances for admission to college, she cites a 2005 study of 539 colleges and universities that found 91 percent of them considered AP experience in the admission process.

"Increasingly, researchers caution universities and policy makers that the practice of using AP experience for the purposes of admission is potentially problematic because ... the research isn't clear on whether AP experience alone increases the probability of college success," she wrote.

Additionally, 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, she said.

"So the claim that taking AP courses boosts a student's chances of college admission needs some qualification: It depends on the college," she said.

Pope cited research indicating that non-AP students sometimes may "pay the price" for AP programs by getting larger classes and lower instructional quality as the best teachers are siphoned off to teach AP students.

"While some students might benefit from an AP program, several researchers note some hidden or opportunity costs involved in administering an AP program," she wrote.

Pope also cautioned AP teachers and schools not to "confuse AP rigor with load.

"We have seen successful teachers who can curb the homework load in their AP courses without sacrificing test scores," she said.

"Just because a course is rigorous and offers college-level work does not mean that students need to complete hours and hours of homework each night to succeed."

She said low-income schools cannot rely on introduction of an AP program by itself to narrow the achievement gap but that such a program must be part of broader support efforts that include extra tutoring for students and professional development for teachers.

Pope's 15-page summary of her literature review, titled "The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up To Its Promise?" can be found on the Challenge/Success website,

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Posted by Great work Denise, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2013 at 8:47 am

Quoted by the Stanford News Service, Pope had this to say:

"To the claim that they help students in college, it is true that students who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college. But when you look deeper into the research, it's really hard to establish causation. It could just be that kids who take APs are kids who come from better high schools or high schools that better prepare them for college work, or they have better teachers or they're naturally more motivated. Very few studies use methods where they take these factors into account."

She continued, "Frankly, many high-achieving high school students are really stressed out. They have a lot to do between extracurricular activities and homework and also trying to get the sleep they need. They need to be prepared for what an AP course involves. The extra tests, extra homework, on top of an already demanding schedule, can be brutal. And a very low grade on your transcript from an AP course may hurt you more in the long run than not taking an AP in that subject at all."

Denise has done a great job trying to empirically examine the value of the AP program. It is interesting that she to some extent felt she had to tone down her comments from the SU press release when she was talking to the Weekly knowing that her local PAUSD audience would likely burn her at the stake as a heretic for saying without softening her findings. Sad commentary on PAUSD. Great project, lots of luck not getting stoned anyway.

Posted by Chris Kenrick Palo Alto Weekly Staff Writer, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2013 at 9:16 am

Great work Denise --

I'd like to be clear that the story was not based on an interview with Denise Pope but on a reading of her "white paper," highlighting particular aspects that have been issues in Palo Alto. For the whole summary, see the Challenge/Success website: Web Link

Posted by Great work Denise, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2013 at 9:19 am

So even though she lives right here there was no interview. Do you think that should be disclosed? Like these quotes that appear as if an interview was conducted do not really represent any interview? Why don't you do more interviews/fact check sources/etc? Why didn't you get comment from the College Board, Kevin Skelly, Phil Winston, etc? Why not do some reporting?

Posted by Chris Kenrick, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2013 at 9:33 am

Great work Denise --

Those are all great ideas and we've published a number of interviews with Denise Pope and the other sources you mention in the past. This week I just ran out of time.

Posted by European Vacation, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 26, 2013 at 12:20 pm

"So the claim that taking AP courses boosts a student's chances of college admission needs some qualification: It depends on the college," she said.
Yep, depends on the college.
eg: Web Link
"We would also expect Grade 5 in three or more Advanced Placement tests in appropriate subjects or SAT Subject Tests in three appropriate subjects at 700 or better."
Web Link
"...successful applicants have normally achieved a score of 5 in a minimum of five Advanced Placement Tests in appropriate subjects or a minimum score of 700 in relevant subjects in SAT II."

So, yes, you can go in with just SATs.

Posted by Euro trash Girl, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 26, 2013 at 4:07 pm

My nephew got into USC and the highly competitive film program there with NO AP classes ( he attended Bellarmine), but a very high SAT score.

Posted by not true, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2013 at 7:30 am

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.

Posted by not true, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2013 at 7:43 am

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 Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2013 at 8:22 am

Maybe Skelly and the Principals of Paly and Gunn could read this paper.

Web Link

Posted by Longtime PA parent, a resident of Community Center
on Apr 27, 2013 at 8:24 am

AP classes are not "college level" classes. You can tell that because fewer and fewer colleges are accepting them as substitutes for taking actual college level classes. They are high school classes, taught by high school teachers, using a standardized curriculum set in New Jersey. College classes are taught by professors, using a curriculum set by themselves in consultation with other professors in their universities.
Turning over more and more of the high school curriculum to AP classes fills the College Board's coffers, but it does nothing for our students, who are in an AP arms race with each other and don't get the benefit of the special knowledge and interests of their teachers. That's why more and more elite public schools (and private schools, like Casty) are turning away from AP classes.
In Palo Alto, our obsession with AP classes dates back to Mandy Lowell's time on the school board, when she pushed for a focus on AP classes that has resulted in less interesting, more competitive curriculum for our high school students. Ironically, it has probably also made them less interesting to elite colleges.

Posted by no one, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2013 at 9:09 am

As far as I know colleges (public and private) make it clear that a student is evaluated in the high school context. Thus the importance of School Profile. Also - many colleges made it clear that not having a school profile is also a clear mark of the high school context, and taken into consideration when evaluating a student. (many lower achieving high schools do not have a school profile).

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 29, 2013 at 12:11 pm

From our personal experience (2 kids in college), most colleges are trending towards not giving college credit for AP courses and/or not giving extra weight to AP grades.

What the AP classes did do is help set up our kids to succeed in challenging college courses. One of our kids was able to "validate" (i.e., test) out of two years of calculus and one year of physics before the Freshman year now taking 3rd year calculus as a college Freshman. I wouldn't credit Paly AP courses as the sole reason for this success, but certainly the challenge of those classes played a significant role in building a strong foundation.

Posted by Gunn Dad, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 29, 2013 at 3:50 pm

It's not "AP classes" that are good at preparing students for success in college, it's advanced classes. The question is whether AP classes are our best use of the teachers we have. Should they be teaching a standardized curriculum, or instead classes that derive from their own interests? There is an opportunity cost to AP classes, the question is what we are giving up in order to have them.