AP Mania, College Admission, and Staying Sane

With a daughter rising to junior year of high school in about a month, I’m already shaking my head in frustration over the college admissions rat race.  It’s time to select classes for my first-born to take via the correspondence course we use for homeschooling.  She’s a high achiever, so I want her to take the classes that will challenge her.  I also want her transcript to illustrate her abilities and potential to a college admissions committee.   

Today’s frustration arises from the issue of AP classes.  I think few will argue with the statement that multiple AP classes with corresponding high AP exam scores are expected of competitive students.   According to the College Board (the company that runs the program), the number of students taking AP classes increased over 50% between the 2002-2003 and 2007-2008 school years.  Who hasn’t heard of kids taking 4 or more such classes each year of high school?  And that’s actually the problem for me.  How many of these classes does a kid have to take now to be considered “competitive”?   

I came across a 2009 study by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled, “Growing Pains in the Advanced Placement Program.”  The findings, while not really surprising, are not pleasant:   

  • Ninety percent of AP teachers say AP is growing because there are more students who want their college applications to look better.
  • Only 32% attribute AP growth to more students who want to be challenged at a higher academic level.
  • Seventy-five percent of AP teachers believe that high schools are expanding their AP program to improve their school’s ranking and reputation in the community.
  • Sixty-nine percent report that their high school’s AP classes are generally open to any student who wants to take them. Only 29% say there are limits on access, such as GPA or teacher approval.
  • Over half (56%) of teachers believe that too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads.
  • Sixty percent think that many parents push their children into AP classes when they really don’t belong there.

So the AP teachers themselves acknowledge that the push to take AP classes is out of control.  And the college admissions folks are no help when they encourage students to take the most rigorous course load possible.  Kids and parents simply translate that to mean, “If an AP class was offered and you didn’t take it, something must be wrong with you or you’re a slacker.”  In fact, colleges muddy the waters even more by then backing off on the promise of college credit for high scores on AP exams. 

What’s a parent to do?  No one wants to see their kid drowning in AP homework, especially in the years when she could be emerging as a leader in extra-curricular activities or finding employment to help earn money for expenses and future college tuition.  But what parent wants to take their child out of the running for some college admissions and possibly merit scholarships by counseling for a more moderate course load? 

And this is only the beginning of the process for me.   



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