AP and the Classical School

Susan Dougherty highlights some value in AP courses and tests.
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Classical educators vary in their opinions of Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Should they be offered? Do the objectives prescribed in an AP course conflict with the objectives of a classical curriculum? If a school chooses to offer AP courses, how many students should take them and when? While these are valid questions, a separate matter that warrants consideration is the value that AP examinations afford both the students and the school even when AP courses are not offered through the school. AP test scores can aid students in college admission and scholarship selection, provide them greater opportunity and flexibility once enrolled. They can also provide schools with data useful for marketing to families and colleges— all of which make offering and coaching students for successful completion of AP exams highly beneficial.

More high school seniors are applying to college than ever before, and GPAs are continually rising. AP tests can help determine which top students are truly outstanding. The exams are scored on a scale of 1-5. A score of 3 or higher yields credit at most US colleges and universities, while 4’s or 5’s are required for the more select institutions. Colleges do not require official reporting of AP test scores before offering admission, but many applications allow students to self-report, and counselors and teachers can highlight competitive scores in their letters of recommendation.

If a school boasts of a rigorous college preparatory program, AP scores can validate its claim. Students from schools with few or no AP course offerings will not be penalized by admissions committees, but top students stand out less without standardized test scores such as AP.

An unweighted GPA of 4.0 takes on new meaning when paired with 5’s on AP tests.

Students applying to highly competitive colleges or prestigious scholarship programs must demonstrate intellectual curiosity, a high level of academic engagement, and a willingness to take academic risks in order to distinguish themselves from other similarly qualified candidates. A recent Trinity graduate transferred to our school at the beginning of his junior year. He was one year ahead of his class in math and accompanied by a stellar academic record, so we offered him the opportunity to enroll in an online AP Statistics course. Doing so positioned him to sit for the AP Statistics exam his junior year and rejoin his classmates in his senior year for AP Calculus. The score he earned, along with other evidence of academic acumen, helped him to gain admission into Princeton University.

Entering college with AP credits also provides benefits beyond the application process. Once accepted, the extra credits allow students
the flexibility to study abroad, double major, or complete an internship–all without extending college beyond four years or forcing students to choose between summer employment and experiential learning opportunities. AP credit can also boost a student’s class standing, allowing him to register for classes earlier and thus affording him greater course selection.

College counselors and teachers should work cooperatively to advise students on whether to take AP exams and on which tests to take. If a school does not offer AP courses in every subject, faculty in advanced courses can familiarize themselves with the AP exam in their discipline and coach motivated students on how to prepare themselves for the test independently. Non-incremental courses such as US History and English Language and Composition are good choices for most students. Those planning to major in math, science, or pre-health related fields should understand the pros and cons of placing out of introductory courses in their major, a situation which could mean they spend their first semester of college competing with upperclassmen for grades. (While colleges may grant credit for successfully passed AP exams, the grades in those courses do not factor into the college GPA.) Ultimately, the choice to take an AP exam should be made jointly by the teacher and the student. They might consider the student’s intended major, the teacher’s opinion of the student’s maturity to prepare and to succeed, and whether a passing score places the student into a higher level of a discipline than is wise for a college freshman.

Regardless of your opinion regarding AP courses and exams, our society recognizes the Advanced Placement experience. Prospective parents may unfairly judge schools that do not offer AP courses or tests in a less than positive light. Solid AP scores on a school’s profile help colleges understand the rigor of the school’s curriculum. At the very least, the merits of AP exams should be considered when advising your high school students.

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