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Illustrated by Zhongwen Zhang

Should students bother taking AP classes?

May 19, 2022

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Pro: AP Classes provide college credit and prepare students

The proctor announces that all tests have been collected and that the students are free to go. A general noise of relief is heard from the students, which echoes throughout the gym along with general complaints of sore backs and the squeak of plastic chairs on the gym floor. Such was the end of the AP U.S. History College Board exam, colloquially known as “the AP test”.

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college-level courses offered by some schools; at the end of the school year, students in these courses take an AP test to determine if they will receive college credit for taking the course. This opportunity is an important one and should be considered by students who do not feel challenged by regular College Prep courses or would like to save money later by skipping college classes.

Students who take AP courses are more likely to do well in college in other areas because they are introduced to the format of college courses early. A 2010 study conducted by the Journal of College Admission found that on average, students who took AP classes had higher college grade point averages than students who did not. AP classes prepare students for college by introducing them to a college-level workload. This allows them to more easily adapt to the amount of work they receive when they actually go into college.

This exposure to college rigor also applies generally. A 2006 study by the National Center for Educational Accountability found that students who perform well on AP exams are more likely to graduate from college. Performing well on an AP test indicates that the student has sufficiently retained taught material. This is an important skill to develop for college and life beyond it, and the structure of AP classes encourages retention by “building up” towards the class exam by, for example, holding review sessions outside of class.

While it is true that AP classes are sometimes unduly stressful, it is on the students and their parents to make sure that the AP class they are taking is something that they are comfortable being challenged in. A contributing factor to that stress may be that the student does not feel comfortable asking for help because of the rigor of the course, but that inevitably feeds into the stigmatization of mental health issues, which in and of itself is a larger societal problem not specific to AP classes. Students should feel free to reach out to their instructors when they need help in any class, including in AP classes.

AP classes can be thought of as a recommendation. They are not required, and students should not feel the pressure to act as if they are, but they show colleges that the students taking them are ready for the academic rigor of a college career and allow students to challenge themselves in ways they might not otherwise be able to.

“I think the best reason is to develop greater interest in skills and subject matter so that you’re not just doing it at a basic level for graduation,” AP U.S. History teacher Jennifer Harrington said. “You’re doing it for enrichment, and for college and career readiness.”

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Con: AP Classes increase pressure and worsen stress levels

As the reader may well know, many high schoolers find themselves very busy. Juggling an array of academic courses, sports, electives and extracurriculars, their routines are often delicately balanced.   

As students face pressure to challenge themselves academically, the issue of course selections becomes all the more important. Advanced Placement (AP) classes in particular are popular for students seeking to challenge themselves. These are among the most rigorous classes at Irvine High School (IHS), offering a college-level experience and the potential to fulfill college course requirements ahead of time. When choosing these classes, commitments must be made carefully, accounting for balance in life and scrutiny of all options. 

At present, high schoolers are more stressed than ever. A 2020 survey of American students by Yale researchers found that “seventy-five percent of the feelings students reported in their responses to open-ended questions were negative” with the three most frequently mentioned feelings being tiredness, stress and boredom. For students in hyper-competitive academic environments, a study from New York University notes that excessive stress “impedes their abilities to succeed academically, compromises their mental health functioning, and fosters risk behavior.” To avoid excessive stress, students must not overburden themselves.  

Indeed, the score distributions for AP tests suggest that many students are not prepared for their class choices. A score of three or higher is considered passing, and a significant amount of AP test-takers do not meet this threshold. In 2021, 52.8 percent of AP United States History tests received a one’s or two’s. 24.8 percent of AP Calculus BC’s scores were also below three, as were 57 percent of AP Physics 1’s scores. A discrepancy clearly exists between students and their AP class choices. Being in a mismatched class can add significant stress to students, and this must be avoided.  

In fact, there are many options available for each individual’s particular needs, as outlined in IHS’ counseling website. College Prep (CP) classes, fulfill the A-G course prerequisites for admission to University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) colleges. Honors courses provide more depth and move at an accelerated course. AP classes provide a college-level style of teaching and are the most challenging. Detailed information for each specific class can be found in Irvine High’s course catalog. Students should choose the courses which best suit their needs and align with their goals. 

The question of AP classes illustrates the importance of informed decision making. Decisions should challenge students healthily, cultivate their interests and contribute to balanced lifestyles. Decisions based on peer pressure or undue competitive pressure threaten to do more harm than good. They can overburden students and undermine their mental health. Ultimately, each course selection is an individual decision on the part of the student, a search for the option that best fits. 

 

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