Is AP Too Good To Be True?
Critics fear the rapid spread of Advanced Placement classes is diluting quality
If Neil Panchal had known last year what he was in for, he might have tried to get a little more sleep. Panchal, who recently started 12th grade at Barrington High School outside Chicago, is a man on a college admissions mission: He took his first Advanced Placement course as a sophomore, aced the U.S. History exam, and set his sights on an elite school. Last year, when he saw his classmates filling up their schedules with two, three, even four AP s, he figured that if he was going to be competitive, it was time to ante up.
So he pushed his nonacademic life aside and signed up for a total of five AP courses as a junior--Spanish, calculus, statistics, European history, and chemistry. The workload made him miserable, of course. He had five hours of homework most every night and scaled back his commitment to his beloved tennis team to just one weekly practice. Nevertheless, this fall Panchal is at it again: He's taking another four AP s as a senior, which will bring his grand total, by the time he graduates, to 10. No regrets, though. If his classmates were going to load up on APs, he thought he'd better do the same. Otherwise, "they'd be better off than me when it came to getting into colleges," he says. "I didn't want to fall behind."
The race. Who can blame him? These are, after all, the glory days of Advanced Placement, the latest rage in the ever more challenging race for selective college admissions. AP classes are the highest-level honors curriculum at many high schools: They usually require more reading, more writing, and more problem sets--and they carry high prestige. Some 1.2 million high schoolers took AP exams in 2005, up from 134,000 in 1980. In the past five years, the number of students taking at least one exam in any of the 34 subjects now offered by the College Board, which runs the tests, has jumped by 45 percent. Most colleges continue to give credit to those who score 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5). And as high schools continue to create more AP classes, elite schools are being inundated with applicants like Panchal: At Northwestern University, for example, over 90 percent of incoming freshmen received AP credit last year.
But just as AP, celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, hits its frenzied peak--with Newsweek going so far as to rank high schools based on the percentage of students who take AP or International Baccalaurate exams--some experts wonder whether the program's wild proliferation has begun to dilute its quality. Several new academic studies indicate that simply taking AP classes--as opposed to passing the end-of-year examinations run by the College Board--isn't a very good predictor of college success. Some high schools are complicating matters by pasting the AP label onto subpar existing courses. And a few highly selective schools have become sufficiently alarmed over the quality of AP classes that they are getting picky about awarding credit even to those who have passed the exams. At Northwestern, for instance, the economics and biology departments grant credit only to students who have earned perfect 5s; Harvard applies the same stringent standard to all AP classes. And Stanford won't give credit at all for such relative newcomers to the Advanced Placement scene as AP Environmental Science and AP World History. A dozen high-profile prep schools have dropped AP altogether. All of which has left some would-be collegegoers and parents wondering: Could Advanced Placement be overrated?