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Are AP's really necessary?

Original post made by Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Oct 6, 2010

My child will attend high school soon. How many APs do students take? I understand they can only take them in Junior/Senior years. Doubt they take them to save money at college but rather for college apps. Our schools offer a lot of APs so our students' applications are weaker to colleges if they do not take a load. If they offered less APs, then colleges would know they took all they could.

Is it really necessary for children to work as hard in school as adults? Shouldn't they be able to enjoy life just a bit before becoming an adult?

Do the Ivy's and UCs and Northwesterns really only admit AP students? I read that AP courses are valuable because it separates the motivated from non-motivated students. However, most of our students are motivated anyway and PAUSD schools are not easy. Not like we have a whole lot of weak students and the few need to rise to the ranks of APs to get a decent class. The weak students here are still superior to most other schools. How good is a top GPA without AP classes?

Comments (20)

Posted by ap
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 6, 2010 at 9:47 am

AP classes are great for smarter students who find the regular classes too easy and boring.

Posted by Nancy Brown
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 6, 2010 at 10:51 am

APs are great for students looking for a challenge, but they do contribute to the "raising of the bar" for the teens in our community. If people perceive APs as "best" then a student choosing a lesser challenge is seen, and worse, may perceive his- or herself, as "less than" even if that choice is made to allow time for other activities s/he is passionate about, or family time.

We all need to help our teens make conscious decisions and choices that result in balance in their life - physical health (8 - 9 hours of sleep a night) as well as emotional health.

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2010 at 11:09 am

The original intention of APs - for years - was as enrichment for accelerated HS students. There was no ulterior motivation to take such courses. There was no backlash if one didn't take them, assuming one did one's best in various ways. Students were fortunate (if the AP courses that interested them were indeed offered at their HS, which was/is not always the case) to be able to move on in a subject they liked and were good at.
Yes, you could sometimes get college credit, move ahead, save $, which was helpful.
NOW, IMO APs have become a game, with students aiming to take as many APs as they can stomach for the intent of out-competing their peers during the college apps process. Skill at test-taking is vital in this scheme. There sometimes is little to do with whether they like the subject in question, so I question the value of this type of "learning." It disillusions me that students and parents "use" education this way. Yes, I have known a lot of HS students in recent years.
As a result of this great increase in AP course taking (and sometimes AP test taking), some AP courses across the country are not equivalent with each other or what colleges expect (despite the standardized AP tests), and some colleges are discerning as to credit they will grant. If a kid was placed in a sophomore/advanced level, they may or may not be able to hack it.
To my knowledge, generally PAUSD AP courses are quite good and AP test scores back that up EXCEPT as usual around here a certain percentage will have had outside tutoring/prepping (a practice I dislike as favoring those with $$$, not reflecting individual initiative etc.) and so it is difficult to know where to attribute a student's "success" in test-taking.
I was recently at a university parent orientation where several parents (in a crowd of thousands of parents) asked aggressively about graduating in 3 years, and the university discouraged it. For one thing, they said it should come from the student, not the parent (we are in an era of helicopter parenting which in the end may do a disservice to students...)
They said that kids sometimes want it two ways: acknowledgement/status/credit for a bunch of HS AP courses while NOT moving to advanced univ. courses and NO, you cannot play it both ways. If you want the credit, you must move ahead on the courses. That can be a really, really tough challenge, which leads me to believe all APs are not equivalent by any means to univ courses. The university experience is something special and they offer all kinds of fascinating, worthwhile courses at univs and for some parents, the goal is to rush their kid through ASAP (no, not just for financial reasons), it is a prestige thing and kind of negates the whole university experience. I guess it's then on to med school apps.
However, back to HS for the moment: for admissions purposes the APs remain a strong aspect currently and it is advisable to take some APs. It's a numbers game. However, I am just sort of hoping some of the universities are discovering how to discern self-starter applicants from those parent-motivated and managed. For this reason, I encourage universities to add in some sort of interview or oral examination, wow what that would turn up.
I know a very elite east coast private HS, though, that does not have APs because they decided they disliked this game, however they are so respected that students have the benefit of any doubt and their admissions are not affected by their seniors not having "6 APs."
My kids attend private institutions (where it was not just a numbers game and I believe their apps were fully evaluated) and did not go through the UC admissions process, but if I'm correct UC only requires several APs but I wouldn't let that fool you. UCs are currently overloaded with students. Most students, certainly those around here, go above as much as possible for competitive purposes. There is a 6-week CA summer program that can gain you more "points" towards the UC apps. So, if UC apps are of interest to your student, I would be very well informed about the reality of the process.
Otherwise, for private univs such as you mentioned, it would also be advisable to carefully check out their websites, speak with admissions officials, attend local speeches/alumni events open to prospective students and so on, to determine possible matches. The reason I state this is the college admissions process HAS been moved up, accelerated compared to how it used to be. I do not advocate paying private admissions counselors who claim to have inside info, but let your student drive the process, in their own interest, however try to be informed and you are wise to look into this in advance rather than the last minute.

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2010 at 1:37 pm

sorry, I should leave a discussion about UCs to others who know better since admissions requirements have changed several times for UCs - if I'm not mistaken, UCs only require two SAT subject tests, one of which is Math Level II - and I'm not really sure how they weigh AP test scores and what role they play in the numbers game of UC admissions currently -, BUT many students go way beyond that and planning is needed to take those tests at the optimum times, so it still means your thoughtful assistance/guidance (not control) to your student and his/her curriculum plan is important.
It is clear that some thoughtful attention to APs and SAT subject tests is a good idea to be in a reasonable position for university apps. I am OK with that, what I am not OK with is the incredible micro-management of certain parents here, which makes a mockery of learning and education and self-initiative on the part of students. In general, I am sad to say, their actions have paid off.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 6, 2010 at 1:44 pm

UC and CSU do not require AP coursework. However, due to the competition to get into the UC system, as well as select CSU's (e.g., Cal Poly), the reality is that your student should consider taking some AP courses.

Real life example ... my niece had a 4.2+ GPA (thanks to AP courses), well-rounded and had 100+ hours of documented volunteer work. She did not get into UCLA, Cal, USC or Duke. She was an early admit to UCD and was given an honors admission to both UCSB and Cal Poly.

That example should be enough of a reason why you may to consider APs if you're targeting the UC system. Otherwise, you need to have some other "gift" that will provide support within the school - for example, a top-flight athlete or musician, etc.

Check out the Naviance system and you'll be able to gauge the admissions of Paly/Gunn kids (anonymous GPA and SAT scores) to many, many campuses around the country. This in itself makes Naviance a very useful resource.

Posted by Mom of Paly 05 grad
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2010 at 1:45 pm


The issue is that currently AP classes are worth more points than regular classes, so taking AP classes boost your grade point average (GPA) and do increase your odds of being admitted to a university such as a UC.

It is true that taking APs in high school can help you shave time off of college and save money, but usually not more than a quarter or a semester, depending on the number of APs you took and passed.

That said, AP classes are more interesting than regular classes for many students and they find it motivating. I know students, who were not tutored at all, who had better grades in their AP classes than in their regular classes simply because they were more engaged in them.

So, whatever we do to tinker with the system to make it less stressful, I still don't think we should eliminate AP classes altogether.

Posted by Mom of Paly 05 grad
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Crescent Park Dad

Well, your SAT scores also make a big difference. If you have a 4.2 GPA, 100 hours of community service but so-so SAT scores, then you can't get into UCLA or Cal.

Posted by Barron Park Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2010 at 3:03 pm

I think students should be picky about which APs they take. They should take an AP if it reflects their love of a subject or if it will support a career goal. If a person wants to be a Biologist then they should take AP Biology, but they shouldn't feel pressured to also take AP History, English, and French. This is just my opinion, and what I want for my own kids, not a statement about how colleges will view this choice. I do find it hard to believe that colleges really want students to have APs in subjects when the student has no real talent or interest in.

I think we must all keep in mind that the parent community is a big consumer in the college education market. The more the parent community says that APs should only be for those who want to pursue their passion for a subject, then the more college admissions will reflect this point of view.

Posted by local gurl
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 6, 2010 at 4:33 pm

My son took no AP classes, was admitted to a well respected private college, loved it . . . he graduated from Gunn and some of his friends who took loads of AP courses ended up at community colleges after not getting accepted to UC . . . it is a crapshoot and will just get worse as the UC budget crisis deepens.

Posted by student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 6, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I'm a Junior at gunn and I am taking one AP class this year.

I was signed up for 3 but I dropped two of them. Simply because I could not keep up with all that work.

Lots of my friends said "wow, you are only taking 1 AP?" because they are really smart, and I said "yeah, I would rather focus on other things."

I'm glad I made that decision. I am still taking 7 classes, just only 1 AP instead of 3. I am succeeding in the 1 AP I stuck in because it really interests me (unlike the other two).

Next year I will take maybe 2 APs.

I am fine with that and I think I am a good student. I have a friend who sits next to me in my AP class and he is taking 3 APs and he hasn't been faring so well in terms of sleep OR grades... it's just not worth it.

Posted by College student
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2010 at 12:03 am

As a junior in college now, I'm grateful for the AP exams I took in high school because they've helped me get ahead in my major. Many of the lower GEs are in such high demand here that they are really difficult to get.

That said, don't just take an AP class because it looks good on your transcript... if you're not interested in the subject it's not worth taking. And remember that some colleges don't grant AP credit at all.

Posted by Play the Game
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2010 at 12:18 am

It's a misconception that APs provide an intellectual challenge for students. They are not the equivalent of college courses, and in advanced college courses professors can spot the former AP kids a mile away because they don't have a deep mastery of the basic material (especially in math).

The APs do challenge students to do more work.

The APs are a game and, as someone said above, they sure don't foster intellectual engagement or development. I think if parents look unemotionally at the way the APs are used in college apps, then they will draw clear-eyed conclusions:

--APs will not challenge your child at an intellectual level or promote their interest in the subject. Find another way.

--Your child will have a heavy burden of sometimes meaningless work for these classes, so you need to ask yourself if your child can handle a heavy load that sometimes amounts to make-work (can they bear the load and are they willing to "go through the motions" for the teacher?)

--Best to help your child to game the admissions/scholarship system any way you can (tutors, take tests in languages they already know, take outside summer courses, learn test-taking skills, find holes in the system)

I am sympathetic to the view of college as a place and time for young people to develop intellectually, but it would be naive not to acknowledge that education has also become a high-stakes game in which gamesmanship plays a huge role in picking "winners."

By all means help your kid develop intellectually. But don't neglect to teach them to play the game.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 8, 2010 at 12:04 am

Thank you to all for your helpful feedback!

Posted by Let the games begin !!
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 8, 2010 at 3:16 am

To Play the Game,

Agree with what you are saying - it is a game and you have to figure out how to win the game.

However, taking APs is also a part of the game! The same game!!

Posted by Play the game
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 8, 2010 at 5:59 am

Yep, all part of the same game. Just remember it is a game.

Posted by Sophomore at HS
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 8, 2010 at 10:47 am

APs are tough to take and they buy out a lot of your time. But if you're not in the musician or athletic field or anything supplementary, APs can be an asset to your transcript with how ever many hours of volunteer service you've decided to accumulate. I would take APs to boost my GPA. Everything helps when aiming for the UC lane.

Posted by mom of 2
a resident of another community
on Oct 10, 2010 at 8:28 pm

AP courses generally count for college credit if a student receives a "4" or "5" on the AP exams. Occasionally a "3" will qualify for co,lege credit, but each university has it's own standards so it's best to check the requirements of each.

FYI beginning with the class of 2012 the UCs will not require ANY SAT II subject tests

Posted by Play the Game
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 11, 2010 at 8:37 am

Calling APs a "game" implies that they hold no value other than to win a college placement.

Just curious, what would you recommend instead of APs? That all high school students take the same classes regardless of their interest or interest in working hard? As it is now, there are only AP classes and a very small number of honors classes for students who want to learn more than entry level classes offer.

High schools are a place to investigate and invest in your passion - academic or otherwise - so I certainly hope you don't mean to suggest that our schools shouldn't offer APs and deprive students who want to dig deeper in a subject an opportunity to do so just because the harder work those classes require makes them more attractive to academic colleges that require students to work hard.

You might be right that APs don't "foster intellectual engagement or development" in all students, but that just goes to show you that not all APs are a good fit for all students. My children have loved their teachers and the challenging content.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 11, 2010 at 8:55 am

"High schools are a place to investigate and invest in your passion - academic or otherwise" - you are joking, right? To the kids really on the "college track" 4 years of math, science, english, history and foreign language leaves only 2 periods each semester to pursue anything else. And those 2 periods need to encompass PE for 2 years, Living Skills for a semester and a couple required voc ed and art electives. Not much leeway for passion.

If you are lucky, you'll find your passion in college after you have survived high school.

Posted by Play the Game
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 11, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Alter Ego from Paly,

No, you missed the point. No one said APs have NO value other than winning a college placement.

APs have some value, but students and parents should look at them a little more objectively. They are not the equivalent of college courses, they require a heavy load of sometimes meaningless work, and they play play an important role in a high-stakes game that is not, at heart, meritocratic.

Given that role, it makes sense to view them as a game, and to game the system if you can.

You have a romantic, idealized view of high school, in which students investigate their passion, a view for which I have a lot of sympathy, but APs are entirely unrelated to passion or "digging deeper." Students do dig marginally deeper, but most of the digging is make-work.

I don't think it's particularly sensible to make suggestions about abolishing APs since they are deeply embedded in a somewhat silly system, but I would suggest that IB programs do a better job of fostering the intellect and passion.

It may be that your children found the content of their AP courses challenging, but my point was that you shouldn't fool yourself about how challenging the courses are. They fall far short of college courses and represent a kind of baby-step toward intellectual independence. On the other hand, they represent a huge step forward in putting your nose to the grindstone and gutting out meaningless work. As a parent, you have to ask if teaching a child to gut out meaningless work will foster their passion.

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