But what are some of the major problems with the AP program? In this guide, we'll go over the top five worst problems that the College Board and the AP program are dealing with. We will also explain how you can avoid these problems and get the most out of your AP courses.
The Top 5 Problems With Advanced Placement
As a brief disclaimer, we don't expect the Advanced Placement program to be perfect, and there are many benefits to taking AP classes, as we've covered in the past. That said, by covering some of the weaknesses of the AP program, we hope to help students make more informed decisions about their schedules, especially in the midst of today's intense college admissions environment.
Problem 1: More Tests Taken = More Failed Tests
The AP Program is growing too fast for all the new programs to be supported, especially at low-income schools, leading to more failed tests than anything else.
As we’ve discussed in the past, the ultimate goal of taking an AP class is to pass the AP test at the end of the year – if you don’t, you’ve basically wasted the $92 you spent on the exam. So it’s a problem if most of the AP growth in recent years comes from failed exams.
College Board often celebrates the results of the fast-growing AP Program – nearly 5 million tests were taken in 2017, for example.
However, the flip side to this is that with new AP classes and programs come growing pains, especially in schools that don’t have a lot of funding for new AP programs. It takes a few years for a class to really settle in at a high school, and for a teacher to get used to the AP curriculum.
It can take a few years for a teacher to master a curriculum.
This takes even longer in low-income schools – explaining why a lot of the growth has come in the form of failed AP tests (you can see how the average test score has fallen over time here).
A report from Inside Higher Ed looks at this phenomenon:
“The data also show, however, a more than doubling in the number of AP examinees who only achieve test scores of less than 3 on the exam. (Typically a score of three is the minimum required for college credit, and critics of the program have said that increases in the number of sub-3 scores suggest many students may not be gaining from the courses, a contention disputed by the College Board.) These figures grew from 182,429 to 395,925 during the last decade. Likewise, the number of AP exams with scores of less than 3 also more than doubled, from 521,620 to 1,345,988. The data also show significant gaps in participation rates and success rates (scores of 3 and higher) on the AP exams, by racial and ethnic group. White and Asian students are more likely to participate and to get good scores. Black students are much less likely to do so.”
In other words, people are questioning how good the expansion of the AP program actually is if it just means more students are failing AP exams every year.
There have been concerns for years among teachers about the program growing too fast, and schools being too lax about which students get to take AP.
A 2009 survey of 1,000 AP teachers found that "more than half are concerned that the program’s effectiveness is being threatened as districts loosen restrictions on who can take such rigorous courses and as students flock to them to polish their résumés."
In short, there are thousands of students winding up with failed AP tests each year – which is no good for them or their schools. You could argue that the experience of taking an AP class helps students prepare for college, but the fact remains that rapid expansion is not leading to the best outcomes for many students.
Problem 2: Too Much Material, Too Little Time
Even though many courses have been revamped, AP still tends to be seen as a shallow, memorization-based program, in comparison to IB and home-grown curriculums at other schools.
In one blistering critique of AP classes in The Atlantic, a former teacher writes: "the AP program leads to rigid stultification." He complains that by requiring so much material, AP classes lose depth and the opportunity for meaningful learning.
Another study, reported in KQED, finds that “AP courses don’t always teach critical thinking skills or allow students to explore topics more deeply. Instead, they often turn into a race to cover a wide expanse of information, some say.”
Okay, this is a slight exaggeration, but you would be surprised at the size of some AP textbooks.
This is especially true in contrast to IB, which explicitly focuses on developing critical thinking and writing skills. By requiring students seeking an IB diploma to write an extended research essay, take a class about theories of knowledge, and including more writing on the exams, the IB program emphasizes critical thinking, research, and writing in the way AP classes simply don’t have time for.
Even in places where the AP program has revamped classes, like biology, concerns remain. A Washington Post article notes:
“The new curriculum will encourage more work in science labs and less parroting back of formulas, more work on historical thinking and less memorization of historical minutiae. That all sounds pretty good. But it will do little to improve teaching and learning, especially at schools with low-levels of instructional and administrative capacity. Merely asking teachers to spend less time drilling and more time promoting inquiry, in other words, does not make them able to do so, nor does it prepare their students to succeed in such classes.”
“While Ms. Vangos believes the program could inspire students who “like to think outside the box,” she worries that the new math requirements will discourage others. And with so many cutbacks these days in education budgets, she says, the need to improve lab facilities at many public schools 'is absolutely going to pose a big problem.' Labs in resource-strapped urban schools often don’t have enough of even basic tools, like dissecting microscopes, for their students.”
In short, it’s hard to balance the fact that AP courses tend to pack in tons of material with a desire to emphasize critical thinking and accessibility. Especially in schools without many resources.
At the end of the day, if you’re in an AP course, you’ll likely find yourself spending more time drilling definitions with flashcards than, say, conducting experiments or reading novels.
The new AP Capstone program does attempt to rectify some of these issues. Read more about it here.
Problem 3: You Won't Always Get the College Credit You're Expecting
The AP Program might not lead to the college credit you want for two reasons. First, AP classes often aren’t always as rigorous as their actual college equivalents, and some colleges are getting stingy about granting AP credit.
Again in The Atlantic, the former teacher argues AP classes aren’t actually equivalent to college-level courses:
“Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn't begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.”
Additionally, in college, your AP course doesn’t always grant you credit. Sometimes it just gets you out of your department's intro courses – which you might want to take anyway to get a more solid understanding of the material.
It can be hard to replicate the college experience in a high school classroom.
It’s important to note that many schools – particularly large public universities – will give you credit for AP, especially for gen-ed courses. To look at an example of a public university, at the University of Utah (my local state school) you can get tons of AP credit, enough to knock out your general education requirements in high school.
However, many private colleges, especially top-tier ones, are shying away from granting AP credit. For some schools, credit policies are drawn on departmental lines. Math and science AP courses get credit more often than History or English.
To look at one example of a top-tier school, Princeton, you can get into harder history courses with excellent AP US or World History scores, but you won’t get credit for your high scores. Meanwhile, at Dartmouth, AP courses will no longer be used to grant any credit at all, though they will get students into higher-level classes.
I can also speak to AP credit not panning out. Even though I took nine AP classes, and got seven 5’s and two 4’s, none of them got me class credit at Stanford, since Stanford mostly accepts AP credit from math, science, and language classes.
However, those AP classes did a lot to help me prepare for Stanford classes – in fact most of my college study skills came from AP classes.
In short, if you’re taking AP classes, you should get used to the fact that even though the classes will help prepare you for college, they might not get you credit once you get there.
Problem 4: Students Are Overloading
Another problem with AP isn’t so much due to the program itself, but how students (and parents!) react to it. Across the country, students are overloading themselves, thinking that taking ten AP classes is the ticket to a selective school. This leads to stressed-out, burned-out students. Plus, taking AP classes doesn’t even guarantee admission into schools like Harvard and Stanford.
Some educators describe AP courses as kind of an “arms race,” where as certain students take more AP classes, others feel pressured to load up with more to compete.
When students overload, they’re much more likely to get overwhelmed by the work and get lower scores on the exams. It also adds to the enormous amounts of stress associated with today’s college admission process.
Problem 5: It Can Exacerbate Education Inequality
While AP has often been touted as an equalizing force in education, it tends to just perpetuate unequal outcomes. Well-prepared and well-funded students do well on AP tests, and students from less wealthy schools do worse, so the AP program often reinforces education inequality.
College Board often touts AP’s expansion into various public and low-income schools as a victory for education. The truth is that low-income schools often struggle to successfully implement AP programs and get students to pass the exams.
So what ends up happening is that, similar to the SAT/ACT, the tests simply reinforce the status quo: students at well-funded schools do well, students at less well-funded schools struggle. Plus, the bigger the program gets, the less power it has to set students apart.
Inside Higher Ed explores this phenomenon:
“Consequently, their efforts, while well-intended, never address the underlying problems that affect school quality and educational equity ….the expansion of the AP Program failed to promote real parity between the educational haves and have-nots. Because once the AP Program reached a critical mass, it lost its functionality as a mark of distinction. Soon, scores of colleges and universities (Dartmouth being the latest) revised their policies around awarding credit for AP coursework or favoring it in admissions reviews. And ultimately, elite suburban and private schools began to drop the program, calling it outdated, overly-restrictive, and too oriented toward multiple choice tests. Thus, while students at Garfield High in East Los Angeles were for a short time doing the same work as students at Andover, the aim of equity proved a noble and elusive dream.”
In short, the AP program isn’t living up to its promise of leveling the education playing field in the US. It’s even having the strange effect of causing certain private schools to drop AP and create their own advanced courses – making AP seem less special in the college admissions process.
I’m not saying it’s the AP program’s responsibility to fix educational inequality in the US – education inequality is an enormous problem. It will take much more than just one program to fix it. That said, I think it’s important to evaluate how successful programs actually are in trying to fix the problem – especially if they claim to be part of the solution.
So Should You Take AP Classes?
Given these problems, should you totally give up on AP? After reading through all of those issues you may be having second thoughts.
Not necessarily. I still think the AP program can be a great fit for many students. These are the steps you should take to make sure you get the most out of the program, despite its flaws.
#1: Take the Hardest Classes at Your School
We’ve looked at problems the AP has nationally, but the reality is you still need to take the hardest classes at your school if you’re looking to get into top colleges.
That means you should still take AP classes if your school offers them and you're hoping for a top school -- but do not overload on them.
Meet with your guidance counselor to talk about putting together a challenging mix of your school’s classes that doesn’t overload on AP – especially if your school’s AP program isn’t stellar. (Ask your guidance counselor about the pass rates your AP teachers achieve on the exams, and how often they notice students switching out of AP classes, to get a sense of how good the program is at your school.)
If you’re aiming for top schools, your goal is to have a transcript that your counselor will report as “most rigorous” on the Common App guidance counselor report. If your school has AP, this means that, in most cases, you’ll need to take AP classes. But it doesn't mean you have to take every single AP course your school offers.
If you overload, you risk stretching yourself too thin. It’s better to pass two AP tests than to fail four! Also make sure that for any AP class you take, you have solid pre-requisite courses under your belt. (For example, don't take AP Biology without having taken an introductory biology class first.)
#2: Match Your AP Courses to Your Goals
Do you want to get into a top-tier school? Or are you more interested in skipping general ed requirements at your state school and graduating college early? Your answers to these questions can help you decide which AP classes are worth your effort, and which ones aren’t.
If you know what your goals are, you can create a smart AP program for you. For example, if you’re trying to avoid general education classes at your local state school, look up which AP courses fulfill these requirements at your state school, and focus on doing well in those. To take just one example, this may mean choosing to take AP Calculus over AP Art History if you’re looking to complete your college math credit in high school – even if you love art!
If you’re aiming for a top school, look at AP courses that allow you to explore your interests and show your academic strengths. To continue our example, this may mean taking AP Art History instead of AP Calculus to demonstrate your interest in the fine arts and humanities.
#3: Avoid Common Pitfalls
First of all, don’t load up on APs just to have AP classes all over your transcript. Take the right number for you. If this means taking fewer AP classes than your friends, so be it! Remember to pick out classes with your own goals in mind.
Also, don’t underestimate the exam – you have to study to pass the AP test, even if you think the class is easy! Getting an A in an AP class but getting a 1 on 2 on the exam looks bad. Make sure to take at least two full practice exams before the real thing.
Finally, continue to develop your other interests in high school. Don’t take 10 AP classes but sacrifice a key extracurricular or studying for the SAT/ACT. Remember AP classes are just one factor of an advanced high school experience.
#4: Focus on the Positive
Although we’ve talked a lot about problems with the AP program, I still think it’s a great way to prepare for college. You can get a lot out of AP – by learning to study on your own, developing self-discipline, and mastering challenging material. At the end of the day, how much you get out of AP classes will depend on how much effort you put in.
Despite the numerous problems with AP on a national level, and uneven courses at my local high school, I’m really glad I took nine AP classes in high school.
By developing my own study schedules before the tests, I honed my self-discipline and study skills. The writing fluency skills I gained from numerous AP history and English courses were also super helpful in college when I found myself with several essays to write at the end of every quarter.
In short, even if the AP program leaves something to be desired at your school, you can still use it to develop your skills. Keep in mind that could mean doing extra studying outside of class and taking studying matters into your own hands.
Thinking you should take IB classes instead? Get a comparison of the IB and AP programs.
While you might think AP is the key to college, think again. Read about how a high ACT/SAT score is the single most important key to improving your admissions chances.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.