AP Classes Are Not for the Faint Hearted

 Hey Paul: I am beginning high school next year with plans to go on to college. How helpful will it be to take AP [Advanced Placement] courses in high school?

 There is a growing national trend and in particular a strong emphasis at West and East Jessamine High Schools in promoting AP coursework. My daughter just completed her junior year at WJ where she took five AP courses as did many of her friends. Guitar was her only “regular class” – I guess she won’t be ready for college level jam sessions.

In one word I would describe her daily schedule as brutal. English Language wasn’t too much work outside of class. Biology and US History were a significant amount of reading and watching videos. Calculus had daily homework. After sports practice and supper, she worked diligently from early evening often to midnight with usually a break to watch The Voice or a UK game. So the central question is does the tremendous time and energy investment in AP high school classes pay off in college and beyond?

StudyPoint, a national test prep and tutoring company, summarizes the benefits of AP classes as being challenged in high school classes to improve college admissions chances, win scholarships and arrive at college better prepared. Passing AP exams typically earns college credit that then can save money by completing college on time or even early.

While I don’t disagree with these potential benefits of AP coursework, it is entirely possible to get into a great college, receive a solid financial package, and graduate in four years without a single AP class! Yes, it helps to have a few AP classes and if you are aiming for Centre or Vandy then go ahead and take the full AP suite – although Vandy does not accept AP credit.

The AP course offerings vary slightly from year-to-year based on what teachers are willing and able to offer. The following list are the typical AP offerings at the local high schools with the national percentages of students scoring a perfect five, passing the exam (scoring 3+) and completely blowing the exam with a score of one:

% Scoring a 5 % Passing % Scoring a 1
Biology 6.6% 64.2% 8.7%
Calculus AB 24.6% 58.9% 30.5%
Calculus BC 48.4% 81.1% 13.6%
Chemistry 10.1% 52.8% 21.4%
English Lang. 9.6% 55.8% 14.1%
Envir. Science 8.3% 47.3% 27.2%
Physics B 15.8% 60.7% 22.3%
Psychology 18.7% 65.5% 20.9%
US History 11.0% 52.4% 19.6%
World History 6.6% 54.5% 17.7%

I didn’t include in the summary table the foreign languages tests that tended to have the highest pass rates (Chinese had a 95% pass rate). The College Board notes that a high majority of those doing well in the languages actually learned to speak the language at home not in a formal set of classes in school.   Many colleges will give credit for two or three college courses if you can pass a foreign language test.

Returning to the table we can see that Calculus BC is a cakewalk with almost half the test takers scoring a five and over 80% passing the exam. Well not quite a cakewalk. Not everyone is taking the same tests with the high IQ, over-achievers taking the tough math and science courses. This brings up the central critique of the benefits of AP courses – Is it the top students taking AP courses or are AP courses producing top students? In statistics jargon, are we seeing association or causation? – which, by the way, is a good response to any study when you want to sound sophisticated.

Note again that these scoring percentages are national averages. From what I hear some of the local AP classes are doing much better than the national average passing rates.   Let me give you my thoughts on a good approach to AP classes and high school coursework in general.

Freshmen at EJ and WJ can take AP Psychology – a class that fits in well with many college majors and is not overly technical. Although I have my misgivings about 14 year-olds taking a college equivalent class this is one worth a shot. From what I hear the pass rates are very good for the local freshies.

Freshman can also take AP Physics. As a Mechanical Engineering major I am all for studying the science of motion. The problem is that you need a good foundation in math (ideally Calculus) to study physics something that the vast majority of freshmen don’t have yet. Freshmen have no business in big-boy AP Physics.

The other sciences – Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental Science – are great classes if you have a curiosity about these areas of study and are thinking of pursuing a science-based career. My daughter happened to take Chemistry in the dreaded zero-block when high-schoolers are not awake even if their eyes are open. The pass rates on these AP tests are mixed.

The two major history classes – U.S. and World – are reading intensive. I would suggest if you are going to take either of these courses you get the book and read it the summer before classes. Yes, that’s the kind of dedication an AP class takes.

Calculus has the reputation in college as the most likely to be failed course. Calculus AB has the highest percentage (30.5%) of test-takers who bombed. Fortunately I am proud to report that WJ has two elite Calculus teachers – Mr. Barnes who I took Calculus from 30 years ago and Mrs. Peters who I was in high school with three decades back. The pass rates are very high for students in both AP Calculus tests.

So is giving up your evenings to study college level classes worth it? Let me suggest a balanced approach. Take at most two AP courses a year. Pre-study in the summer for the courses and focus on subjects that you’d actually enjoy reading! Say you knock out Psych, Environmental Science, U.S. History, & English Language. That’s a semester of college credit – Booyah!