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2012 January 14

How many AP courses are too many?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:17
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Jill Tucker, a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer wrote an article this week on AP courses: Stressful AP courses – a push for a cap.

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.


  1. I’d rethink that recommendation for AP Physics B. Have you seen the breadth of the curriculum? It’s as broad as AP Bio, but you_can’t_ survive most of it on memorization. That makes it much less of the deep thinking course that physics should be. I’m optimistic about the two-year split upcoming, but it’ll take far too long to happen. The C courses, on the other hand are much better designed (only take one if it’s your first time through physics – both are doable in a single year if it’s the second time through).

    Comment by jg — 2012 January 15 @ 04:48 | Reply

    • I was worried about the lack of depth in AP Physics B myself, but slowing it down even further with a 2-year split doesn’t help, unless you raise the level of each half.

      In my son’s case, we skipped Physics B and jumped straight into homeschooling Physics C, doing mechanics this year and E&M next year. I’ve got a whole series of blog posts about how that class is going. The biggest challenges for us has been designing our own labs and MacGyvering lab equipment (the calculus is easy).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 15 @ 11:18 | Reply

      • It’s really not even the depth that’s an issue, per se, as there are some decent past AP B problems (not to the level that I’d like, but it’ll never be there when you’re mass-grading) – it’s the breadth. I think that you could make that a reasonable course in two years. If you taught a course to the depth of the SAT 2 in physics, however, that’s the gold standard for shallow and broad.

        Comment by jg — 2012 January 15 @ 11:28 | Reply

        • Breadth is not a bad thing, so if you’re complaining about too much breadth, it should only be because depth is sacrificed in the interests of time.

          The problem with the current AP Bio is that there are so many factoids packed in that the course becomes a memory-packing contest, and understanding is sacrificed. AP Physics B has very few factoids to memorize—there are only a handful of formulas—and everything is about understanding how to model things to use those formulas. AP Physics C reduces the factoids further, as the formulas can be derived from an even smaller set, but increases the complexity of the situations that can be modeled, calling for more understanding and less memory.

          I agree that a slower, in-depth physics class is more valuable, since the value is in being able to model things, not in memorizing the models. But just going slower is no guarantee of better learning of how to model.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 15 @ 12:35 | Reply

          • I just took physics b and I thought it was cake, I also started with no prior physics knowledge. I feel I have a deep understanding of the topics covered and im confident I got a 5 on the AP exam….. It all depends on the student, for example I almost never studied and I still managed an A, in the same year I was concurrently taking Ap computer science, Ap chemistry, Ap world history, and Ap chemistry, I didn’t feel diluted, I never crammed…. I think more Ap classes need to be added because as a sophmore, I already almost completed the majority of the ap level classes….

            Comment by highschoolsopmore — 2013 May 21 @ 07:42

  2. I think part of the problem is that some kids can take a large number of AP courses without struggling. To them, they don’t need to work hours every night on the homework.

    Then other parents/students see the students who can do it and think they should do it to. So, instead of being true to themselves, they try to max out.

    My daughter has taken 13 AP courses from 8th grade through 11th grade, with no more than 5 in a year. At no time has she been sleep deprived or not been able to have a life because of her studies.

    8th grade: Human Geography (online)
    9th grade: Calculus BC, French Language, Chemistry
    10th grade: Biology, Physics C: Mechanics, Spanish Language, World History
    11th grade: English Language, Computer Science, US History, Statistics (online), Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism

    Some of these APs will be worth very little after college admissions — human geography rarely gets you credit. However, depending on which college she attends, she could end up with placement or credit that may result in her having more room in her engineering degree to study other things.

    I know many schools that limit the number of APs kids can take or limit when kids can take them. We consider ourselves lucky that she gained access to classes at a young age.

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 January 15 @ 15:14 | Reply

    • That is a pretty impressive collection of APs. My son will only have Calculus BC and Physics C: Mechanics in 10th grade. For 11th, he’ll probably take Physics C: E&M, Spanish Language, and maybe AP Computer Science (though since his Spanish is at the community college, he can get transfer credit directly without the AP exam). At some point he’ll probably take statistics and AP chemistry, but it is unlikely that he’ll do any of the humanities APs (except Spanish Language).

      The calculus is through Art of Problem Solving, the Spanish has been various private and public schools (most recently the community college), the physics is home schooling. Computer science has been a mixture of learning at home and a course at a private school, but he’ll probably pick up Java for the AP exam either from the upcoming Art of Problem Solving class or from a university course (if they do their “honors” Java course for people who already know how to program).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 15 @ 20:14 | Reply

      • He could also do eimacs for the Java, if the other options don’t work out.

        The humanities have mainly been just following what the school offered (other than foreign languages). Around here there tends to be a clear humanities path through the APs, although that path may vary from school to school. All the advanced students in the local public school took AP World History in 10th grade. Her US History class last year didn’t have “AP” in the title but was clearly aimed at the exam and was a good prep for the AP US History exam. The AP English Lang exam required a little outside prep, but was still reasonable for someone who had weekly (non-fiction) reading in many of her other classes. The English Lang exam is all based on non-fiction (although is does require some literary analysis of non-fiction).

        She’ll probably finish with only one more AP because she plans to take the European History exam this spring (she’s taking western civilization in school).
        There doesn’t seem to be much advantage right now to taking English Literature. The schools where she’s applied either don’t give English placement or give the same for English Lang and English Lit.
        The only science she’s missing is Environment Science, which is not her interest.

        There are a few others i think she would have enjoyed, if she’d had time and had been in a situation where the class were available:
        * Art History
        * Spanish Lit
        * Micro & Macro Econ
        * Comparative Government
        * US Government

        Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 January 15 @ 20:34 | Reply

        • Is the eimacs Java course for programmers, or for novices? My son would be bored silly with the usual glacial pace of an AP CS course or Java course for non-programmers. He wants a course that focuses on those parts of Java that are new to him (mainly the strong static typing and interface specification) and on building data structures.

          The schools here do a moderate amount of humanities AP. If he had accepted the slot at Pacific Collegiate, he would have had at least 2 English and 2 History AP courses. Given the problem he was having with writer’s block last year and at the start of this year, the school did not look like a good fit. AP English or history are still unlikely, though he has been doing ok in the more customized English class we put together for him (he’s a bit behind schedule on World Civ+history of science, being still stuck in the ancient Greeks).

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 15 @ 20:41 | Reply

          • The eIMACS course is an intro course, so I’d guess for novice programmers. It is self-paced, though.

            My daughter learned Java in school, then used their “Be Prepared for the AP Computer Science Exam” online prep. That might be enough for your son.

            Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 January 15 @ 20:49

    • They have 8th grade AP now?? Wow, things have changed. In my day (late 70’s), we had AP physics, Calculus, and English in 12th grade, and AP English also in 11th grade. That was it. I would seriously question whether an 8th grade course could really be AP according to the definition of AP as a college level course.

      Comment by Bonnie — 2012 January 16 @ 07:24 | Reply

      • The Scheme programming course my son took in 8h grade was not an AP course. It was intended for 10th–12th graders at the private school he attended then (a combined middle/high school, with grades 6–12). He took it instead of 8th grade science, a choice that seems to have been well justified (the 8th grade science course covered stuff he had done years earlier, at no higher level).

        The Scheme was probably more rigorous than many AP computer science classes, but did not teach Java, and so did not prepare students for the AP exam.

        Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 16 @ 07:39 | Reply

      • An AP course indicates the content and mastery required. It’s up to individual students, parents, and schools to determine when a student is ready to take the course. My daughter was homeschooling when she took an AP course in 8th grade. I promise that it was college level. :-)

        Again — that’s part of my point. Don’t keep all kids out AP courses at “early” ages because it would be wrong for most kids.

        Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 January 16 @ 07:55 | Reply

    • Hi, I noticed that some students are able to take AP classes in 8th grade. My son signed up for AP Macro at virtual school couple months ago and this past Friday, I was told by my county that he has to withdraw it as 8th grade student should not be able to sign up for AP. now, there is big issue as to how he got approved and I think his middle school guid. Coun. will get in trouble when she comes back to school after Spring break. I called AP osffice today and the person said that they leave it at the district if the district allows students to take AP or not in the middle school. My district person said on Friday that the AP regulates and does not allow an 8th grader to take AP? Can someone please help me? Thanks

      Comment by Ss — 2013 March 11 @ 18:46 | Reply

      • I think that there is some confusion here between AP courses and AP exams.
        I don’t believe that the College Board puts any minimum age restrictions on the AP exam, but they don’t let you take it after completing high school.
        The College Board has some rather minimal audit requirements before a course may be labeled “Advanced Placement”, but they don’t have much policy about who can take such courses (other than some philosophical statements about encouraging high participation).

        I don’t know of any College-Board constraints that would prohibit middle-school students from taking AP courses, though school districts may well decline to pay for students to take such courses (as part of the general “No Student Allowed Ahead” philosophy of modern public schools).

        Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 March 11 @ 20:14 | Reply

      • I can guarantee that middle school students were allowed to take exams several years ago because my daughter did.

        In fact, the College Board used to sponsor a program that had native speakers taking AP Spanish in middle school. It got them a record of achieving and helped set them on a more academic path in high school.

        Comment by Jo in OKC — 2013 March 12 @ 05:53 | Reply

      • My son is in 8th grade and is signed up with the local high school to take the AP Computer Science test this May. They didn’t have a problem with it or ask where he learned the material (AoPS and online resources). The high school doesn’t pay for the tests except for low-income students, so the price was the same for us. They just needed a way to contact him, since they don’t have a space for that on their normal form for their own students. There is an issue where the College Board makes you pay extra to send scores to colleges that are more than 4 years old. But 8th graders will send most AP scores with college applications before May of senior year, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Should only be an issue for 7th graders or younger. The College Board doesn’t have a lower limit on who can take the test. The AP statistics from past years show that some 7th and 8th graders take tests in most categories (just a few kids, though) and as Jo said, more than a few younger kids take foreign language AP tests.

        But, I suppose it could be an issue for the district if the high school is paying for the virtual school class. As gasstationw/outpumps said, AP tests and AP classes are separate things.

        Comment by Yves — 2013 March 13 @ 18:00 | Reply

        • There’s actually not an issue with a test score more than 4 years old unless you haven’t taken any tests in the mean time. My daughter took tests in 8th-12th grade (5 year range) and all were on the test report at the end of 12th. I think they archive student score records after 4 years of inactivity. The CollegeBoard website is misleading. If you want to double-check me, feel free to call and talk to the CollegeBoard.

          Comment by Jo in OKC — 2013 March 14 @ 06:16 | Reply

  3. I looked up the eimacs courses. They start with a Scheme course (which my son had the equivalent of in 8th grade), so their Java course is for students who already know something about programming. It may be an ok fit for him, if it is self-paced. We’ll keep it in mind as a possibility.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 15 @ 21:32 | Reply

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  10. I was just wondering Jo in OKC what online courses your daughter took for the things she did. Also, how did she think an online AP class compared to an actual class she’d take in school. I’m curious because my school doesn’t offer any AP classes. Jealous of your daughter ;)

    Comment by Joe — 2013 July 7 @ 16:16 | Reply

    • She took
      * AP Human Geography through Northwestern’s CTD.
      * AP Statistics through Aleks
      * AP Computer Science (review course) through eIMACS (real course was done in person).

      She basically prepped for AP English Language & Composition on her own. Its emphasis is on non-fiction and all her English classes were very fiction focused. (Her classes were better prep for AP English Literature & Composition)

      The following exams she took after in-person official AP courses:
      * AP Chemistry
      * AP Calculus BC
      * AP Biology
      * AP French (although a lot of prep was done with a tutor)
      * AP Spanish
      * AP World History
      * AP Physics C: Mechanics

      Everything else was an in-person course, but not an official AP course.

      The CTD course was okay, but not great. Honestly, I thought I could have put together a course just as good on my own.
      The Aleks course when she took it didn’t cover a section of stuff that was on the exam. She had intended to self-study for the exam and just needed some exterior prodding and the course offered that.

      There are more and more online providers of AP courses and they offer a variety of teaching methods from synchronous courses with live video to self-paced courses and everything in-between. Whether classroom or online is better depends on the subject matter, the student, and the teacher. :-)

      Comment by Jo in OKC — 2013 July 7 @ 21:36 | Reply

      • That’s a lot of AP courses. My son is only up to 4 AP exams: Calculus BC, Physics C: Mechanics, Physics C: E&M, and Computer Science A. He took courses through Art of Problem Solving for the calculus and to learn Java for the CS. He did the physics at home with me. He is unlikely to take any more AP exams, unless we have to home school chemistry, in which case he may need the AP test to validate his learning there.

        Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 July 7 @ 21:47 | Reply

  11. This is so revealing. I’m taking AP English Lang and Composition, which I am currently doing horrible in, though I am normally a top-of-the-class student. Your reasoning about how teachers put more work on students because that’s how they experienced seems to be the case with my frustration and failure in the class; on top of the teacher having no previous experience teaching this AP class before. I hope my teacher can straighten this out by the time the test gets here.

    Comment by Rachel B. — 2013 November 6 @ 17:26 | Reply

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  15. Hello, It completely depends on the student and parents that How many AP courses are too many? Its their analysis and decision that where they want to get admitted and where they are lacking to get that admission.

    Comment by Ogburn Online School — 2016 November 2 @ 05:55 | Reply

    • I’m amazed that an online school would try marketing themselves with such an ungrammatical comment. It was probably generated by a bot.

      I’ll leave this comment here as a warning that Ogburn Online School is definitely not the school for you if you care about learning grammar or about learning from human beings rather than bots.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2016 November 2 @ 08:19 | Reply

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