As in a great many other high schools, Weston sees more and more students each year taking Advanced Placement courses. Why is this happening? And is it a good thing?
It’s easy to see why it’s happening. Weston students are advised that their transcript should show an “academically demanding program,” which apparently means (among other things) at least three AP courses during high school, not necessarily all in senior year. This is no problem for students in our honors classes, who automatically take an AP math course senior year and most likely also take AP World History as sophomores, AP US History as juniors, at least one AP science and AP language course as seniors, and perhaps something additional such as AP music theory, AP computer science, AP European History, or whatever. So five Advanced Placement exams are not an unusual total for honors students by time they graduate, and even six or seven are far from unheard of.
The problem is that students who do not take honors courses have trouble coming up with the three AP exams that they believe they need in order to get into a competitive college. Maybe they do need those, maybe they don’t, but they feel a lot of pressure to take the “easiest” of the four AP courses offered by the Math Department: Statistics. Now there’s no doubt that the AP exam in Statistics is easier than those in BC Calculus, AB Calculus, or Computer Science — easier, but not easy. Students who have gone through regular (“college-prep”) math courses without getting A’s rarely do well in AP Statistics. It’s not that this exam requires the specific content of honors math courses, but it does require some of the study habits and habits of mind that almost students who are successful in honors math courses pick up along the way. So imagine that you’re a junior getting B’s in college-prep math and you’re trying to select a math course for senior year. You’re currently in Precalculus Part One, so the natural next course in sequence is Precalculus Part Two. Maybe you decide to take that course as well as AP Statistics — a reasonable combination that some students elect, even though the first third of Precalculus Part Two duplicates part of AP Statistics, so it’s not the best combo in the world. If you find AP Statistics surprisingly overwhelming, you can just drop it, right? (Of course you had better drop it before the withdrawal date, or your precious transcript will show the dreaded W.)
But it’s most likely that your senior schedule doesn’t permit taking two math courses, at least if you want to have a life. (Many honors math students don’t worry about having a life, so doubling up on Calculus and Statistics is quite common.) If you’re a typical junior in Precalculus Part One, you may opt to sign up for AP Statistics next year instead of Precalculus Part Two rather than in addition to it. This choice is distressing some of us. In the first place, you won’t be adequately prepared for college calculus the following year. In the second place, if you’re neither in honors math nor getting an A in college-prep math, your chances of doing well in AP Statistics aren’t so great. So what happens? Perhaps you slow down the rest of the class, at least if there are enough of you to form a critical mass. Perhaps you damage our overall AP Exam results, since you probably won’t do well on the exam — not that that’s a noble motive for objecting to this practice. And perhaps you do mediocre work in your chosen math course rather than good work in the course you should have taken: Precalculus Part Two.
What can we do about this phenomenon? How do we get students to sign up for the most appropriate course, when they’re convinced that it won’t get them into Harvard? An AP course may brighten their resume — if they do well in it, and that’s a big if — but it still may be the wrong course to take.
In closing, I seem to have neglected the most important point: is an AP class a good class? Well, sure, it is usually a good class. But it may or may not be better than a given non-AP class. The “AP” label doesn’t guarantee that it’s the best course for you.