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Help Students Get the Most Out of AP Classes

James Paterson

Getting college credit while in high school – or even in middle school, in some cases – sounds like a great idea, but some experts say that dual enrollment and advanced placement (AP classes) should be taken with a clear understanding of what they entail and how they can and can’t benefit a student.

“Every college is different when it comes to what they offer credit for from dual enrollment and AP classes,” says Melissa Fenton, a writer who has studied the topic and written about it. “One college may give a student three credit hours (out of five possible) for a score of three on an AP exam, while some do not give them any credit unless the score is four or higher.” She also says dual enrollment course can be limiting to a student in other ways.

Those are among the several issues that students in high school should weigh as they consider taking these courses with the hope that they will give them credit in college or perhaps improve their transcript so a college will take notice. Experts say it is good news that more students are choosing college-level courses in high school from a growing supply of them, but they should simply understand them better.

What are AP Classes?

AP classes prepare students for the AP tests, which they can then take at the end of the school year to get college credit. Their score on the test, which is part multiple choice and part essay, is measured on a scale of 1-5, and the results are then passed on to colleges of the student’s choice. Generally, participants must get a score of at least 3 to get credit.

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The course work and the tests at the end of the year are offered on a wide variety of subjects, and only those about foreign language and culture can be taken in middle school.

The AP exam dates back to the Cold War in the 1950s, when leaders in politics and education began to worry the U.S. wasn't preparing high school students well enough. Two sets of researchers looked at high school student knowledge and college freshman course work and found too often it was repeating what advance incoming students knew. In 1954, AP tests were rolled out in 10 subjects: Biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, English composition, literature, French, German, Spanish, and Latin.

The program was soon handed over to The College Board, and both the number of students taking the exam and the course offerings expanded dramatically as they became the standard for advanced courses and a way to cut the cost of an increasingly expensive – but also increasingly sought after – college degree.

Last spring, 2.8 million students took 5 million AP exams in 38 different subjects, according to Maria Eugenia Alcón-Heraux, a spokesperson for the College Board. She notes that the number of schools in the country offering AP has grown by 14 percent in the last five years.

Dual enrollment courses are a newer phenomenon. They also offer work at the college level, but don’t require a large summary exam at the end of the course. They generally, however, require a C or better grade in the course to obtain college credit. Universities, community colleges and technical and professional schools offer the dual enrollment courses for eligible students, sometimes online.

The number of classes has blossomed as students seek higher-level courses earlier and colleges, particularly community colleges, seek to admit them to boost their enrollment numbers and perhaps make a connection that will get the students to come to their schools after high school.

The Questions to Ask

The debate over the AP offerings bubbled up in 2012 when John Tierney, a government and politics teacher, critiqued the structure in an article in The Atlantic. The magazine eye-catchingly titled it "AP Classes Are a Scam," a headline Tierney regrets, along with his own statement in the article that the classes were "A great fraud."

But he contends today that points he made were valid: That AP courses aren't equivalent to college level courses, that too often students don't get credit for them, and that too many students have been driven to them unnecessarily (but not enough underserved students), and they are too rigid.

More recently, AP received attention when a growing number of colleges announced they were not going to give credit for the courses or were going to be more selective about it, and especially when eight independent high schools in the Washington, D.C., region last June said they were dropping the AP program.

They claimed it was too rigid, and forced their students and teachers into a curriculum and assessment process that didn't give them enough freedom, especially at a time when more individualized options for learning are being promoted.

"Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty," the joint statement from the schools read. "We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning."

The College Board, on the other hand, which oversees the SAT college entry exams and the Advanced Placement program, argues that AP offers students a strong, carefully reviewed and updated curriculum, along with a good measure of their understanding and talent and a cost-cutting benefit if they're heading off to college and can begin with key credits already in place. It sets a nationally standard high bar for schools and students, officials there maintain.

"The evidence shows that AP delivers value to high school students in reducing college costs, driving degree completion and offering rigor at scale," Alcón-Heraux says. "Research further shows that AP students earn higher GPAs in college, are more likely to graduate in four years, and have higher graduation rates."

The American Association of Community Colleges says that dual enrollment courses, meanwhile, “Help students experience college, explore career options and earn college credit.”

“They also expose students to less-expensive postsecondary options to four-year colleges and universities, which is particularly attractive when faced with growing college costs and student debt.”

Fenton notes that in dual enrollment courses, students may acquire credits more quickly because they could, for instance, take a dual enrollment course over a semester and get three credits or get six in a year, while AP courses might only offer the three credits for a course taken over the entire year.

Community colleges also like them because they increase enrollment immediately by putting that high school student in one of their classes, but also longer term because those students often attend their institution. Neither is necessarily better, experts say, because they offer students different features.

Generally, high schools support the idea behind these courses, and in most cases, experts say, they are a good idea, but students should understand that they will be challenging and that they might miss other opportunities in high school and, perhaps, a wider range of courses in college.

“The biggest benefit of dual enrollment for many is the cost-saving aspect, so too often students load up on every one they’re allowed to take because they want accumulate as many free credit hours as the possible can,” she says. “What they’re missing out on is the larger variety of these kinds of basic education classes that the universities are able to offer, in comparison to what a community college can offer.”

At a community college you probably have only one class option to meet a freshman English credit, she says, but at a university you may have three or four different English subject classes to choose from, any of which may be of more interest and benefit to them.

Fenton also says students should consider the cost of AP courses (almost $100 per test, she says, which can add up for a student taking several classes), the workload involved, and the quality of the teacher. Students or their families can find out how well a teacher has done in their “Scoring results” or how well students have done on the tests.