I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working as Academic Advisor for the past three years. In this capacity, I have read a great deal about the college application process, standardized testing in general, and the PSAT, SAT and SAT II, ACT, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses tests specifically. Petra does not offer AP courses, and I strongly support this decision. Let me tell you why.
The AP program is administered by the College Board – “a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity.” Launched in the 1950s, the AP program allowed highly capable high school students to earn college credit while completing college-equivalent work in high school.
AP exams are scored on a scale of 1-5, roughly correlating in reverse to the letter grades (A=5, B=4, C=3, D-2 and F=1) and are administered only once annually, during the first two weeks of May. The cost to the student to take each AP Exam is $95, but there are a number of fees paid to the College Board in order for a school to offer an “AP Certified” course. Instructor training, specific curriculum, textbooks, and other fees add up to anywhere between $2,000-$10,000 per course for a school to offer an AP class, regardless of how many students enroll.
As the debate continues around the country regarding Common Core, the College Board is aligning their testing standards to the Common Core standards. The revisions of some AP exams have drawn heavy criticism (consider this example involving the AP U.S. History course), and this article in The Atlantic goes so far as to say, “The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.” Not exactly the most reassuring of endorsements.
Parents are often told that a student “needs” to take AP courses in order to be competitive for college admissions. This is simply not true. Colleges use AP Exam scores as part of an overall assessment of a student’s ability to successfully accomplish college-level work. Unfortunately, many students who graduate from high school are not college-ready, which has led to an increased emphasis on standardized test scores in order for colleges to assess a student’s ability.
For larger schools with multiple academic tracks, AP courses can indicate a student who is both motivated and capable; however, college admissions personnel understand that small schools are not staffed to offer a wide range of courses. A strong ACT score, a robust high school course selection, and a solid GPA all demonstrate that a student is college-ready. In my communications with college admissions departments, I provide book lists, syllabi, and/or scope and sequences as necessary to demonstrate the strength of Petra’s curriculum, and the absence of an AP course on a transcript from our small school has never been detrimental to our students’ overall application packages.
Another criticism of the AP program is that high schools are not required to screen students who enroll in AP courses. Of course, many students who opt to take an AP class are well-prepared, hard working students, but any student can sign up, so there may be students in an AP class who are neither well-prepared nor hard-working, which undermines the ability of the teacher to teach the class at a college level.
The College Board states that, “many colleges grant credit or placement based on a 3 or better on an AP exam.” This varies widely by school. For example, Montana State will grant credit or placement for a 3 or better; other colleges, however, will only grant placement with a 4 and credit with a 5. “Credit” here means that the college will grant credit for the course and the student does not have to take it at all, in essence saying, “You demonstrated mastery of the course content of English 101 and we will award you graduation credit for that course.” Earning a 5 on an AP exam is a challenge for even the strongest student, however, and may not truly reflect that student’s ability—essentially the problem with any standardized test.
“Placement” in this context means that a student can opt out of the freshman-level course (e.g. English 101), but this still leaves the student with the need to fulfill that graduation requirement, in essence saying, “You demonstrated mastery of the course content of English 101, but you must choose a different English course in order to fulfill our graduation requirements.” Thus, while a student moves on, he or she does not necessarily get ahead in terms of tuition savings.
Finally, the AP exams have been touted as a way to shorten the length of time required to earn a college degree. This claim is dubious and varies widely based on the institution in question. On this topic, one Petra parent (whose two older students are now in college) shared that, “Our experience has been that the nature of course requirements, prerequisites and class offerings/scheduling leave almost no opportunity to ‘speed up’ the academic schedule.” Why is this? Because colleges and universities have little incentive to reduce the amount of time a student is enrolled, defining “success” as students completing – not shortening – full courses of study.
As a parent who has chosen private education for my children, I value our school’s ability to design and implement our classical and Christian curriculum without interference from the Department of Education; offering an AP course would require us to go against this decision, which we will not do. As Petra’s Academic Advisor, I work with the AP coordinator at Bozeman High School to streamline the registration process for any Petra students who wish to take the AP exams. We have had 11 students take the AP English Language exam over the past three years, and our students’ average score – without taking the actual course – is a 4, which validates the strength of our Humanities program.
The curriculum at Petra is grounded, time-tested, and superbly taught; the same cannot be said of the College Board’s AP courses, which is why we do not offer them at Petra Academy.