The Truth About AP Courses: Advanced Placement or Advanced Payment?

Julia Ludwig, Staff Writer

“Please, please, please do not take more than three or four AP courses in a year. I have seen what they do to students.”
My ninth grade computer science teacher’s accent-tinged voice reverberated through the room, off the cool cinder-block walls, and into the ears of the wide-eyed class of high schoolers. While some of my classmates no-doubt heeded the advice easily, I, for some reason unbeknownst to me, took her words as a challenge. In the end of my sophomore year of high school, I had compiled a list of the possible courses that interested me. When I arrived at the door of my guidance counselor, Ms. Petrosino, in hopes of arranging the optimal junior year schedule, she took one glance at my list, and if I hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought she’d ruptured an aneurysm. Her face blanched, and she shook her head in intense disapproval, lips pressed together. “Absolutely not. No.”

Even after my schedule was transformed, it was still a formidable sight to most onlookers with five ominous AP
courses in its midst. To put it simply, more than one person called me insane upon hearing it. My reasons for taking on such a burden, though, were of the purest intentions. Aside from being a hard-working student for most of my life, I’ve been lucky enough to breeze through most classes with ease, motivated by a hunger for knowledge and a consuming curiosity. This characteristic, however uncommon, led to an all-encompassing desire to be challenged, and I, by some phenomenon, enjoyed each of the subjects I sought to immerse myself in; I yearned to step up to the challenge and take the hardest courses my high school offered. The reality is that AP courses in theory are not consistent with how AP courses are implemented.

There are an obvious number of benefits to taking AP courses, but most of them buckle under close examination.
Namely, AP credits from passing an AP exam (most widely assumed to be achieving a score of a 3-5) can allow students to opt out of introductory college courses, whether to complete credits for a major quicker or check off required introductory courses before even entering a university. As a bonus, the student can show colleges that they have the motivation and work ethic necessary for a college-level course. While touring colleges in my junior year, a stop at MIT led me to a conversation with the Assistant Director of Admissions, Tim Hickey-LeClair. “We have had some pre-med students,” he told me, “who took AP Biology in high school and were able to opt out of the Intro to Biology course at MIT. Unfortunately, the students who had opted out of the basic class were so far behind in the second-year class that they really struggled. We highly recommend not opting out of any classes that you have AP credits in.” Even though the College Board sells APs as a “taste” of college, there’s no way to guarantee that AP courses are up to par with college-level courses or if the AP credits will be worthwhile at all.

According to the Pennsylvania regional newspaper the Morning Call, “Dartmouth College, in fact, announced in 2013 that, beginning in 2018, it no longer will offer credits for AP work because an in-house study indicated that AP exam scores weren’t good indicators for success in the same subjects at Dartmouth.” As time goes by, more and more schools are becoming aware of the incomparability of AP courses to college courses, rendering the credits earned from the AP exams useless.

A more universal benefit of taking AP classes is their appearance on high school transcripts. An increasingly
prominent aspect that admissions officers anticipate in prospective student applications is course rigor. When transcripts brimming with AP classes are discovered, they automatically assume that those students push themselves academically. In fact, course rigor has come to have a weight almost, if not fully, equal to that of GPA. Furthermore, AP courses can drastically curve your GPA, but this does not come without a cost; literally, the most recent fee for taking an AP exam in May is approximately $92. While this sum does not seem too absurd initially, that cost can add up quickly. If I elect to take all five of the exams for my current AP courses at the end of this year, I will have to pay a whopping $460 to the College Board, but that’s not even the worst of it. Since AP exams have increasingly been used in assessing the education of school districts, some schools are doing all they can to make students take the exams. At Glen Ridge High School, and undoubtedly at a multitude of other high schools across the country, if I don’t sit for the AP exam in May, I will not receive the extra weight to my GPA.

When a student takes an Honors course in high school they are choosing to take on a more rigorous course than CP, and in exchange, weight gets added to their GPA because the same grades are harder to achieve. On the other hand, when students decide to take an AP course, they are challenging themselves by taking on a course with double the workload of an Honors course, but the weight added to their GPA is the same as an Honors course, unless they’re willing to open their wallets. Since I most likely will not decide to opt out of any courses in college, the sole reason I’d take any AP exams would be for the GPA boost, meaning that I would be paying to increase my GPA. How is this accepted? Moreover, how is it accepted that students need to pay for extra GPA points that they have earned and deserve?

In making payments to the College Board, the question arises of where that money goes. According to a New York
Times article, “Of the College Board’s total $916 million in revenue in 2015, $408 million came from fees for the test and instructional materials.” Furthermore, according to Patch Media, a local news platform, College Board’s “President, David Coleman, will earn a base salary of $550,000, with a total compensation of nearly $750,000. Additionally, the College Board’s 23 executives make an average of $355,271 per year.” For an allegedly “non-profit” organization, the company’s executives appear to be doing more than just breaking even. In a truly non-profit organization, shouldn’t the money be used to reduce the costs of their expensive exams rather than being added to the paychecks of employees?

High school students should be encouraged to challenge themselves, and as a high school student, I am always looking
for ways to grow academically. In this way, the College Board has been a gift to students by providing them with a means to learn more advanced concepts, but I, for one, cannot let the little details fester in the shadows any longer. By all means, give students the means to excel, but some things need to change. GPA weight should be rewarded to students that take harder courses, and it should be as simple as that. AP exam fees may be cheaper than paying for real college credits, but the College Board cannot even guarantee to us that our exam credits will be used toward that purpose at all or in a way that benefits us. AP exams are only becoming more and more obsolete as time passes, and their eradication is long overdue. For years, organizations have profited on things that students have earned through their own hard work while offering only insubstantial promises in return. It’s time this ends.