At some of the Bay Area’s most competitive public and private high schools, teachers and counselors have started pushing for a cap on the number of Advanced Placement courses a student can take.
The problem she outlined is clear: many students are taking so many AP classes that they have no time for anything else.
Why? A lot of colleges (including University of California) give a bonus point on grades for honors and AP courses, and with grade inflation causing most grades now to be As, there is no way to distinguish good students from mediocre ones except by how challenging their courses are. She mentions that last year the average GPA of accepted freshmen at UCLA was 4.34, but the official UCLA freshman profile for 2011 says 4.11 (UCB is higher at 4.14, and no UC is close to 4.34).
For a student to get a 4.14 GPA with a typical high-school load of 24–28 classes, they must get straight As and take at least 4 honors courses (or get an occasional lower grade but take even more honors classes to compensate).
AP classes are intended to be college-equivalent classes taken in high school. When the program was started it was used for small numbers of students who needed more challenge than the high schools normally provided (about 40 students in my high school class of around 600 were taking AP-level courses, and that was an unusually academic school). Now, with everyone who wants to get into a name-brand college taking AP courses, they have gotten watered down to the point where they are roughly the equivalent of the standard “college track” courses of 40 years ago, and more and more colleges are refusing to give credit for passing the AP exam.
The workload in the courses is often large, because teachers remember how many hours of homework they had in college and think that they should assign the same amount in high school, forgetting that college students have fewer classes at once and spend many fewer hours in class. So the workload (class+homework) of AP classes is often much larger than for the corresponding college classes, but the quality is highly variable (some are much better than corresponding college classes, some are much worse).
What is a student or parent to do? Taking no AP or honors courses generally makes the student look like they are not interested in academics, so even those colleges that don’t give bonus points for AP courses are likely to downgrade the student somewhat. Taking huge numbers of AP courses gives no room for students to pursue their passions, and often indicates an education heavy on memorization and cramming for tests, rather than deep understanding.
Probably the most reasonable course is for students to take AP courses (and exams!) in those subjects that most interest them and pursue interests outside the AP classroom. Community college courses that go beyond the AP courses are also a cost-effective choice, if you can get in.
For students interested in STEM majors, I recommend taking AP calculus (at least AB, and BC if it is offered), AP Physics B (or C, though that is rare for high schools to offer), AP statistics, and AP chemistry. Those interested in bio or health careers could take AP Bio, but at the moment it is too much work for too little reward—a non-AP bio course may cover less material but get students to end up understanding more. (That may get fixed in the next couple of years as teacher adapt to the new AP Bio curriculum and reduce the “memorize a million factoids” approach.) In addition to the core AP courses, only one or two others should be taken, based on student strengths (a foreign language, English, art, or history, for example). More important for a STEM student is to do research projects and enter them in county (and state and international, if possible) science fairs, or to join robotics clubs and do engineering projects.
I don’t know what advice to give humanities students—I guess the corresponding advice would be to enter essay contests, write for local literary magazines, do book reviews for the student paper, send history articles to Concord Review, and so forth. Intensive immersion programs in foreign languages might also look good.
Showing independent interest in a subject by doing it outside of courses is more impressive than getting an extra point for the GPA by taking an AP class.
Schools, however, should not ration the AP courses, as they have not shown great ability in the past in being able to determine who can and who can’t benefit from the courses. It is far better to let students and parents choose, as long as students meet the prerequisites for the courses (so the courses don’t get further watered down). The schools should not be pushing everyone into AP courses (as some schools seem to be doing), but neither should they be holding back kids who want to take them.