Which Path? An Exploration of Whether or Not to Take Advanced Placement (AP) Classes in High School

When my oldest entered high school, there was no question whether he would take advanced placement classes. He had completed all his high school math in middle school, and thus, was on track to take AP Calculus as a Freshman.  So, when the time came we did not contemplate what taking an AP class would mean. It was just the next class in a logically progressive sequence of the mathematics curriculum.

Sophomore year, he took AP US History, fondly referred to as APUSH in our high school (HS), and Calculus II via a distance learning course through UW-Madison. At the time, our HS did not offer AP Calculus BC, so he had to find an alternative for his math credits. The alternative we found was not a good fit.  In hind sight, we should have enrolled him in Youth Options for Calculus II.  This is also sometimes referred to as dual enrollment and allows students to take a course at a local college for credit while in high school, usually as juniors and seniors.  Our son was a licensed driver within 2 weeks of the beginning of the fall semester of his sophomore year, which would have allowed him to reach a local campus during the day.  But, unfortunately, youth options was not thought of by any of us – the TAG teacher, the guidance department at our HS, us, or our student.  It would have been the best option.  But, alas, as parents new to these challenges, we did not see this path and therefore, it was not pursued.  By junior year,  AP classes were taken in several subjects. But, by this time our student had open enrolled out of our resident district to a virtual HS to complete his education. In his words this was to allow him to “be more efficient in the use of his time, and be more challenged.” Youth Options was still available through the new virtual school district, so he took Calculus II, III, and differential equations or multivariate analysis (I cannot remember which)  at a local university and AP classes through his new, virtual school.  Senior year brought more youth options courses in mathematics at the university nearest our home and more AP classes at the virtual high school.  As you might guess, advanced placement classes worked very well for our oldest, as they challenged him while still allowing him to excel. He entered college with 46 credits under his academic belt!

Our son who is now a senior, took his first AP classes last year as a junior. He took both AP calculus AB (1 credit) and AP physics (2 credits), along with a full load of required core classes. The AP experience was not as positive for him.  He is not taking any AP classes this year.  Simply put, it was too stressful for him. He fretted over each class, at times becoming bogged down in the material, the way it was taught, or the unfortunate event of having questions go unanswered.   Physics, especially, caused him angst.  Calculus was difficult but the teacher met with our son outside of class on a regular basis and offered him the material in a different format. He was able to comprehend it more easily because the teaching method was differentiated in order to fit his learning style. Not many teachers, especially at that level, go to this extreme extent to insure a student is successful. Still, my son had to redefine what success meant when it was applied to the AP courses. According to the AP College Board analytics, he did better than approximately 60% of the students taking the Physics 1 AP exam last year. He also earned a very respectable score on the AP calculus exam. He will still receive college credit for both classes, despite not doing quite as well as he wanted.  Yet, when considering the amount of stress he experienced during his junior year due to these classes, we felt that experiencing more stress during his senior year was not worth the potential college credits, and allowed him to take a course load without any AP classes. He is much more relaxed this year, able to sleep, and attack his pre-college work with more zeal.

Finally, our youngest son is a sophomore now. He attended our high school as an 8th grader for geometry and Algebra II. Pre-calculus and a math based computer science course were left for his freshman year and this year he is in AP Calculus. It is going well enough that he will continue taking AP classes throughout HS. He was eligible to take APUSH this year, but being a varsity level athlete, we were  concerned as parents that it might be too much with the AP Calculus. So, he is taking just the one AP math class as a sophomore.

The above scenarios are all  part of what you need to help your student weigh when they consider taking AP classes in high school. It is, and should be, a highly individualized decision. Very often, we find much of what needs to be considered and/or discussed with students about the decision to take an AP course is not.  As a parent, you should help them answer several questions before registering for these classes.  Can you handle the workload? What are your other time commitments? This includes hours spent at a job, volunteer service, sports, and/or music groups.  Will the class cause undo stress? How have you done with stress in the past? Are you ready for an increased pace? How will the increased workload effect your other classes? In other words, will you have time to take this AP class? Will you have time to dedicate to learning the material?

Advanced placement classes move more quickly. There is more material to be covered by the teacher and digested by the student. Is it possible to know if the teaching style matches your student’s learning style?  Of course, in the future that will most likely be impossible to know. But, it is a consideration. I mention it because it is part of the difficulty my second oldest son had with the AP Physics class. There was not enough opportunity for him to apply the material. In truth, he did best on the lab assignments (which were all practical applications of solving problems). Also needing consideration is whether the AP course subject area is something of interest and/or future use to the student. Why invest extra time and effort in what should be a very demanding class if it is not in a subject area in which the student already enjoys and excels or will need in the future.  Struggling through AP US History or AP Chemistry just for the sake of taking it and racking up credits does not make sense.

Then, a few more things need to be considered. Are the AP courses weighed at your high school?  This requires some explanation.  At our resident district, courses are only weighted for credit value, not for content difficulty. So, if you go to our HS an A+ in an AP class will earn you a 4.33,  the same as an A+ in a non-AP class – even something like gym class or foods.  Hmmmm. Yes. That is something to consider. A lot more work for the same contribution to one’s cumulative grade point average (GPA). Now, other districts will grant a heavier weight to honors and AP classes. This means that given the system guidelines, in some high schools a student might earn a 5.33 for that A+ in an AP class since it is considered to be “more work”.  This means that a B+ in a school that weights an AP class in this manner, would earn the student a 4.33 for that class. It is much more beneficial to the students taking these difficult courses to have a system that will grant heavier weight to those classes requiring more of the student. They have less to lose by taking the risk of adding an AP course to their schedule, because they will be credited more for taking an advanced class. It might also be a motivating factor to have this “bonus” to your GPA for working hard in an AP class. And likewise, it is demotivating to not have that added weight.  I have actually heard students say, “why bother”.

You also need to consider why you or your student wants the AP class to be undertaken. Is it for more rigor and/or challenge? Is it to obtain college credits? Is it to actually skip core courses in a college curriculum? From my personal experience, this varies widely from family to family, Some see it as a way to pay less college tuition. The AP classes that are taken successfully will garner the student college credits. Credits they do not pay for! (Bear in mind the AP tests have a fee for each one taken and it has crept up over the years.) So, that can add up, but is certainly less than what college credits cost these days.  Some see AP classes as an affordable way to get college credit. Some students choose to “skip” the class from which they obtained the AP credits – if their chosen college will allow it.  Some families (like ours) encourage their students to take AP classes for the purpose of increased rigor and challenge.  Finally, in some cases, the AP classes are taken just because it is the next logical class in the progressive sequence of classes – such as what happened with the mathematics curriculum for our sons.

But, you must also be aware that the way colleges are dealing with incoming students with AP course credits is changing. It seems there are more and more students taking advanced placement classes.  I know at our high school, students can now “self-select” and register to take any AP course of their choosing as long as the pre-requisites are completed.  Gone are the days that a student needed “permission”,  a teacher “recommendation”, or a certain GPA to take an Advanced Placement course. This means more students are electing to take one or more of these classes (probably, a lot of times, for the reasons mentioned above).  But, if the reason is that your student thinks they will be able to opt out of a certain class in college due to taking an AP course and receiving credit for it – you better do some checking.  Less and less often is opting out an option at colleges any longer. Universities will grant you the credits but you might still end up being required to take the very course you thought you were going to be able to avoid. The credits granted might have to be used for elective offerings, not a way out of difficult core courses like Calculus II. This presents a problem because you have to look at specific university policies to find this out and who knows where they are going to university as a freshman or sophomore in high school?

In summary, I think AP classes are a great option for some students. It definitely deserves some discussion between you and your student, or your student and a school guidance counselor.  However, I would strongly advise taking them for increased rigor rather than an intent to “opt out” of a course once in college.  There are many factors to consider, and each student has individual needs. However, if one is objective about themselves as a student and what they can handle in terms of workload and stress, nine times out of ten, the right path will be chosen.

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