Our country's Advanced placement programs are booming and have been for some time. In May 2000, approximately 769,000 students took 1.3 million AP exams in this country. By May 2009, approximately 1.7 million students took nearly 3 million exams—a growth rate of 130 percent in nine years. The 1990s saw an even greater rate: 145 percent. What's behind this impressive growth?
Is it because students find the AP curriculum relevant, stimulating and rigorous? For some students, the answer may be yes. I have counseled students who have had extraordinary experiences in AP classes. They describe the classes as interactive, demanding and rich in interesting content, and the instruction as inspiring. But for many students, this is not the reason they sign up for AP; in fact, the curriculum is often the least of their concerns. Therefore, I don't think the growth in the AP program can be attributed to student passion.
Can the growth be attributed to a desire from students to save money by earning college credit before matriculating in a college or university? Again, for some students, this is definitely true. There are students who enroll in AP courses to earn credit or to bypass introductory college courses, and as a cost-saving measure. After all, an $86 exam fee is certainly less expensive than a three-credit undergraduate course at a university. But is this what's behind the growth? Again, I don't think so. In my experience, most students rarely discuss these benefits and view them as ancillary.
Notches on Their Belts
So what is the motivation for students to enroll in AP? For many, there is only one goal in mind: to attract more attention in the college admissions process. These students rack up AP courses like notches on their belts. Often they are unconcerned with the content of the curricula and the pedagogical methods employed in teaching the courses. They are profoundly concerned with how colleges will perceive the level of rigor in their high school program, and who can blame them? I have been to numerous information sessions at competitive colleges (and some not all that competitive) only to hear the admissions representatives advising students, with great urgency, to take as many APs as they can handle. These students return to the counseling office with one request: Sign me up for AP courses!
Taking an AP course just to impress an admissions committee is never a good idea. Students who do this often begrudgingly muddle through the demands of AP coursework. Many students, especially seniors, enroll in AP courses solely for this purpose. During the exam, they doodle in their free response booklets and compulsively watch the clock, anxious for the moment when they are permitted to leave the testing center. For these students, they have already exercised the benefit of the AP course, and the exam is irrelevant. Even those who give it the old college try don't benefit from the experience. After it is all over, the only thing they remember is generating a shoebox full of index cards and staying up all night trying to memorize information that will be long forgotten a month after the exam. For these kids, there is little, if any, intellectual or personal growth that can be attributed to their participation in the AP course.
Many high schools have been reluctant to address the educational concerns related to this unbridled participation in the AP program because school rankings are often based on AP participation. But this may be changing. Students, educators and parents are now having conversations about both the benefits and disadvantages of the AP program. Schools are realizing that the AP program is not the solution for all students, or even for most students. As a result, schools are focusing more on developing creative instructional approaches and enriching, rigorous, non-AP curricula that will promote innovation, curiosity and teamwork. In the coming years, we may see schools take greater ownership in the development of their curricula, and we may finally see this AP bubble burst.
Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District.