High school upperclassmen spend hours perfecting their college essay, securing recommendations, and taking the SATs as many times as needed. But the admissions process doesn’t end there—now, more than ever, students are putting an extreme amount of effort into Advanced Placement classes in an attempt to boost their transcript and get a head-start on college credit. Advanced Placement, known more familiarly as AP, is a program created by the CollegeBoard to “help thousands of students achieve their college dreams each year.”
Easy? As Pie
On the surface, the AP process seems simple. Students register for more rigorous high school classes that will give them a more impressive transcript, and often a GPA increase as well. At the end of the school year, students sit for an AP exam. Weeks later, students receive a letter in the mail telling them their score ranging on a scale from one to five. Depending on the college or university, a student’s score can potentially grant them college credit and even propel them past introductory classes.
For many students, however, there are barriers that make this process difficult, and sometimes impossible. While there are high school counselors and college admissions representatives all over the country who believe the AP is a necessity, there are others who believe the program is deeply flawed. Elizabeth Stone of Campanile College Counseling noticed these flaws when her oldest daughter, who had been accepted to Stanford, came home asking for $400 to pay for her AP exams. The catch? Stanford wasn’t going to accept any of the scores.
At first Stone refused to pay, which sent her daughter into hysterics, because students in San Mateo Unified High School District were required to take AP exams for any AP courses they took. “My daughter’s school was going to remove AP designation from her transcript if she didn’t take the exam,” Stone said. When her daughter’s school wouldn’t comply, Stone paid the exam fees and then fought to have the requirement to take AP exams removed from their local district—and succeeded in getting the policy changed both in San Mateo and San Francisco. Stone noted that requiring public school students in California to take AP exams goes against a law that prohibits charging students a fee to take a public school class.
Addressing the Predicament
In Texas, the rules vary slightly. Director of Guidance, College & Career Readiness at Hays Consolidated School District Charlotte Winkelmann said while the requirement has not been completely abolished, they have worked hard to make sure students are not put in a predicament like Stone’s daughter was.
“Two years ago, we required everyone to take exams, and then we stepped back and looked at that a little deeper, and encouraged them to take the exams.” Winkelmann said. “If they’re enrolled in several AP courses, they are not required to take exams.”
If students are only taking one or two APs, however, they are required to take those exams. Winkelmann said this change in requirements has not resulted in less students taking AP exams. “We had no students back off from taking the exams, we thought we would, but they all wanted to still take the exams.”
Stone’s complaints with the AP process do not end there. She believes a major reason why APs are flawed is due to the role high schools play in the process. “I see so much abuse,” Stone said. “Schools alter scores on a student’s transcript based on exam grades.”
Stone explained a scenario where two students can be enrolled in the same AP class and have the same grade at the end of the year, but receive different scores on the exam. If one student scores a 3, a teacher can alter that student’s course grade, making it lower than the student who scored a 4.
“There’s no uniformity, it makes a high school transcript impossible to know what the course grade is,” Stone said, noting that teachers can use the AP exam as the final exam for the course, despite never reading or scoring the exams themselves. She also pointed out that some high schools remove AP designation completely if a student does not take the exam, and sometimes change the course to reflect something different on the student’s transcript–such as changing it from an AP course to an Honor’s course.
Stone said this stigma of not being college-worthy unless you take AP courses is one of the biggest problems that exists with APs. “What they continue to tell kids is taking an AP exam proves you’re capable of doing college level work—that’s a terrible message,” Stone said. She said this stigma of not being college-worthy unless you take AP courses is one of the biggest problems that exists with APs. Winkelmann disagrees, and does not believe this stigma is as prevalent as Stone does. “In our district, I don’t see that that’s a stigma at all because they can mix dual credit with APs, they don’t have to take all APs,” Winkelmann said.
Winkelmann also noted her district’s decision to allow underclassmen to enroll in AP courses, to prevent the issue of overloading on classes, which Stone believes is an issue that has resulted from the stigma. “Students are able to spread those out in their four years,” Winkelmann said. They don’t have to wait until junior or senior year to take an AP.” Winkelmann said her school district’s decision to allow open enrollment at any grade level is precisely the reason why the AP process has gone so smoothly in recent years. “We begin doing their four-year plans in middle school and we talk about the rigor involved,” she said. “What I hear from students is they overwhelmingly feel they’re prepared for college.”
Stone received different feedback from many of the students she works with. One such student turned down an Ivy League school, saying that he was too burnt out by AP courses and was afraid college courses at an Ivy League school would be just as stressful.
While there are many types of people who can be disadvantaged by the AP’s programs, Stone says students at low-income schools are particularly affected. Stone says these students don’t receive proper preparation, and often times can’t afford the exams fees. The College Board charges $93, but schools are allowed to charge more, according to Stone, whose district now charges $125 per exam. 49% of the students in Winkelmann’s district are considered low-income, and she said this hasn’t been a problem. She said schools are usually helpful in terms of granting fee waivers and helping students, but Stone isn’t convinced.
“It’s not only taking the exam—you have to pay to send your score to the college—and it doesn’t end there,” Stone said. “The CollegeBoard charges you $10 to suppress reports you don’t want to send.” She’s right—it costs $15 for each score report sent to colleges, and if students want to hold back scores from exams they did poorly on, it’s $10 on top of that. “Many students don’t send any scores at all because of the cost,” Stone said.
Winkelmann believes the benefits of AP courses outweigh any negative aspects. “There’s more room for bringing in those interactive activities, and it can really enhance that high school course. It’s really more of an interaction,” Winkelmann said. “The College Board is working really hard. They opened up a whole new world for opportunities.” Despite noticing many flaws with the AP system, Stone doesn’t believe the entire AP program should be done away with.
Instead, she thinks students need to be better informed of the repercussions that can come with enrolling in a course. “I’m not saying toss out the entire system, there are just many, many issues,” Stone said. Her advice for students looking to enroll in AP classes? Don’t be pressured into taking the exams. “My younger daughter took seven AP classes, and only one exam, and got into Stanford,” she said.
It’s important for high school students to realize that some colleges and universities accept AP courses as a replacement for college courses, some grant students with college credit, and some don’t accept AP scores at all.
Here is a list of some schools that do accept AP scores. For a complete list, visit the College Board’s website.
Schools that Offer College Credit
Boston Architectural College
DigiPen Institute of Technology
Florida International University
Florida SouthWestern State College
Johnson and Wales
Northampton Community College
University of Houston – Clear Lake
University of Idaho
Webster University Leiden
Schools that Offer College Credit and Placement into Higher-Level Courses
Armstrong State University
Christopher Newport University
Eastern Washington University
Fashion Institute of Technology
Georgian Court University
Holy Names University
Idaho State University
John Cabot University
Lawrence Technological University
Marymount California University
Miami Dade College
Morgan State University
Niagara County Community College
North Carolina State University
Rutgers University Newark
Sam Houston State University
St. Thomas University
Stephen F. Austin State University
Texas Tech University
University of British Columbia
University of Tampa
University of Texas at San Antonio
UC Santa Barbara
United States Air Force Academy
United States Naval Academy
University of Advancing Technology
University of Akron
University of Alberta
University of Bridgeport
University of Houston
University of New England
University of North Texas
University of Notre Dame
University of San Diego
University of Texas at Arlington
University of Vermont
University of Wisconsin-Stout
Virginia State University