Why Advanced Placement (AP) Courses Are So Important

By Rajkamal Rao  

Image Courtesy: The College Board

High school students and families have all heard about the AP Program.  Many are already taking AP courses. More than 6000 AP Daily video lessons are available in AP Classroom to help you prepare for AP Exams.

But why are AP courses so important? There are four important advantages which a student gets by taking AP courses.

1.  Colleges Love The AP Program

By definition, the U.S. high school curriculum from state to state is different.  Someone taking U.S. History in New Mexico will not be challenged in the same way as someone taking U.S. History in Kansas.  The U.S. K-12 education system is managed and administered at the state level.  Efforts to nationalize the curriculum (Common Core) have repeatedly failed because there are clear advantages to having local control.

But when it is time to apply to colleges, it is only fair that students are evaluated on topics which are not only nationally standardized, but internationally so.  The topics, the format, the questions and post-test evaluation are all standardized and administered by the College Board which conducts 34 different AP exams around the world with remarkable efficiency.  The New Mexico student and the Kansas student will then confront the same exam if they take AP U.S. History on the same day.  For colleges, evaluation and comparison of student performance become a lot easier.
According to the College Board, more than 90 percent of the about 2.5 million test takers in 2015 sat for three or fewer of the exams. But the percentage of students who took 10 exams, while very small, more than doubled over the decade between 2005 and 2015, to 0.7 percent, or 16,580 students over a four-year administration range.

2.  Earn That GPA Bonus

High school students earn a significant bonus on their Grade Point Average if they take an AP course in school and pass the AP exam.  Check out our primer on grades to understand how this works. Higher weighted average GPAs translate into a better class rank.  In some states such as Texas and California, getting ranked in the top 10% could win you automatic admission into public universities.

All school districts allocate grade weights based on the strength of curriculum of courses taken. AP and IB courses always rank as the most difficult of courses and earn the highest GPA bonus. Pre-AP, Honors, GT, Dual Credit courses are the next level down. On-level courses don't earn any GPA bonus.

[Read the following italicized text if your school district inflates Pre-AP courses].
[Unfortunately, some school districts (Katy ISD, Cypress Fairbanks ISD, Round Rock ISD) artificially inflate the degree of difficulty of Pre-AP courses by lumping Pre-AP courses together with AP courses awarding both the same GPA weighted bonus. This is a disservice to students and families because apples and oranges are not the same fruit.

Let us examine why Pre-AP courses don't deserve to be in the same category as AP courses.

Rigor. The rigor of AP classes equates to what college students typically experience in the first semester of college. Certain topics like AP Computer Science, AP Physics 2 and AP Calculus BC are even more challenging. AP Calculus BC, with topics such as Advanced Integration Techniques, Advanced Sequences, Series, Convergence and Error Bound, Taylor Series and Polynomials, Parametric Functions and Vectors, and Polar Coordinates and Polar Graphs, equates to a second-semester college-level Calculus course.

Why some school districts provide a teenager the false hope that taking Pre-AP Precalculus is no different from someone taking AP Calculus BC is head-scratching. The argument just does not compute. An apple is not an orange.

Evaluation. Student performance on an AP course is not only evaluated by a high school teacher during all 36 weeks in school, but is also anonymously and independently evaluated by the College Board on a separate exam (anonymously, because the evaluating teacher does not know the student and there can be no favoritism in grading). The multi-level evaluation of a student provides colleges an extra layer of assurance that the student's performance has been fairly measured. It is this assurance that allows institutions to offer college credit (see section 4 below) for strong performance on AP exams.

College Credits. No college credit can be earned by taking Pre-AP courses.

Yet, many students in these school districts gladly take an Honors-level course in place of a tougher AP course, effectively gaming the system to earn a better class rank with much lower effort. Families need to be aware that colleges can and do tell the difference when admission teams review student transcripts. Top universities want to see that students take the "toughest" courses offered by their high school. If a student could take AP Human Geography but has instead settled for the easier Pre-AP World Geography, this fact is plainly visible to college admissions officers. After all, the "Strength of Curriculum" has consistently been the #4 rated factor in college admissions, after grades and SAT/ACT scores].

3.  Enhance Your Brag Sheet

The College Board recognizes students for their achievements in AP.  These academic distinctions can make your brag sheet look better because they are "good things to include on résumé and college applications." And some awards will appear on your AP score report which you send to colleges.  Check out the various AP Scholar awards and see if you have already earned a level.  The College Board does not always inform you if you have won an award.  You need to log in to your account to print out a certificate.

Source: The College Board

4.  Lower College Costs

Many colleges award you with college credit for completing AP exams if you earn a certain minimum score.  AP exams are graded on a 1 - 5 scale with the 5 being the most accomplished.  As the College Board says, "each college and university makes its own decisions about awarding credit and placement." Check out this College Board website to see what it takes to earn college credit at your favorite institution.  Once you get an idea, visit the actual college website because there could be information that may not have been updated on the College Board website.

Just because a college rewards you with course credit, it does not always mean that you should exempt out of a particular course.  If you're studying to become a medical doctor, you might think that you could accelerate your path by exempting out of a freshman year Biology 101 based on the strength of your AP Biology performance in high school.  But it may make sense to take the Bio 101 class in college after all because learning in a college environment is far different from doing so in high school.  You would have matured more and your ability to grasp things would be higher in college.

Also, just because the AP Credit Policy Search shows that you can earn college credits does not mean that every AP course that you complete, even if you meet performance requirements, will result in an automatic granting of college credits. All students pursuing an undergraduate degree must complete the so-called core curriculum of standard courses.

In Texas, the 42-hour statewide core curriculum applies. Core courses may be chosen from a large menu of classes offered under broad topic areas such as English Composition, Humanities, History, Government, Social Sciences, Math, Natural Sciences, and the Arts. Students can generally proceed to take classes in their major only after completing core curriculum requirements - and will do so after three semesters, assuming 15 credits a semester.

Your AP courses will often exceed core curriculum requirements. Suppose you completed AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and AP Biology with a score of a 4. All these will technically get you college credits. But if your destination college requires only two Natural Science courses to be completed as part of its core curriculum, only two of the three AP courses that you worked so hard for will qualify for credit. This is one reason that students who have 15 AP courses are often able to transfer only 8-9 AP courses for credit.

Covid-19 updates (March 21, 2020)

New for 2021 exams: The digital AP Exams must be taken on a computer, not a smartphone. The AP is using different exam software from last year. You cannot move between questions. According to College Board, students cannot “return to answered questions or move back-and-forth between unanswered questions.”

The College Board has finalized its decision to offer AP exams from home in May. The highlights of the decision should alleviate anxieties for students and parents.

1. Only material covered through mid-March will be on the test.

2. There will be no multiple-choice sections this time, only a 45-min free-response section.

3. The College Board will roll out online tutorial classes for all AP subjects beginning March 25. These will be on-demand and can be taken on multiple devices, including PCs and mobile devices.

The one issue will be with the grading - the curves are likely to be unfavorable to students in the sense that as the College Board fits results to a statistical pattern from previous years, even a few errors on the test will likely drop scores significantly. Remember that AP exams are scored on a 1-5 scale.

Also, students who generally do poorly on free-response questions and better on multiple-choice questions will be at a disadvantage.

Tough times call for tough measures - but, on balance, students taking the AP exams this year should find them easier than during prior years. See note from the College Board.

How will the College Board ensure test integrity?

Online AP exams are not new - and are based on the experience of college online learning programs which have been around for at least a dozen years. There are entire degrees at prestigious institutions like Georgia Tech that one can earn online. Because the College Board is a consortium of colleges, I don't think parents need to worry about test integrity at all. This said, there will always be households that may seek a tutor's help online - or even have a tutor take the test for a child - but these situations will be outliers and should cause little concern for the vast majority of parents. This is in part why the tests are short and targeted.

How should students prepare for an online test?

Regarding how to prepare, just tell your children to practice the knowledge that they have learned, both from looking over class notes and attending the online classes that start next week. Children are much faster at typing responses than writing by longhand (the method used on the AP exams), so you will find that they may be better in their expressions. Students are graded based on how they arrived at an answer - so, for Language Arts subjects, they have to provide documentary evidence, or for STEM subjects, they should provide proof. That is, show to the College Board that you not only know the answer but why the answer makes sense. It is this trick that often distinguishes someone who gets a 5 from someone that doesn't.

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