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Greater Impact - A Look Inside, Pt 4: Advanced Placement Courses

Posted by Dan Gehrke on Dec 17, 2015 2:00:00 PM

academics2-405263-edited.jpgOne of the most frequently asked questions by prospective families that are checking out Lutheran High School for their son or daughter is "How many AP classes do you offer?"

For many reasons, "number of AP courses offered" has become a defining characteristic of an "academically excellent high school." It has become a major selling point for both public and private schools if they have a large lineup of AP courses as a part of their school curriculum. Indeed, some private schools have even moved to an "all-AP" curriculum to show-off their academic rigor.

The truth is that very few people know much about Advanced Placement's history or what it is designed to do. The short version goes like this: Advanced Placement began more or less in the 1950's as a program of the non-profit College Board (they run the SAT). Its intent was to create high school classes that would mirror entry level college courses and provide high school students with a way to receive college credit - provided that they scored well enough on their AP exam.

Research and opinion on the pros and cons of AP curriculum is vast. While popular opinion seems to still be in favor of AP courses as a definer of academic rigor, the tide may be changing. Many recent articles suggest that with the difficulty of the tests, lack of consistency in how colleges view AP, and the nature of the curriculum itself (some view it as a "mile-wide and an inch deep," others have criticized its political "slant") that Advanced Placement is a "scam" that should be avoided by parents and schools all together (click here for a recent article that states just that).

So how does Lutheran High School view Advanced Placement courses?

We do not believe that "number of AP courses offered" is a good indicator of a school's academic rigor. Many large public high schools in the Parker area offer over 30 different AP courses (yes, that many exist). If a school wants to rank highly in the "best school rankings," they know that they receive significant points for having many AP courses and an IB program. Interestingly, very few schools talk about their "AP pass rate." Nationwide, the number of students that pass their AP exams (3 or higher on a 5 point scale) is extremely low. Very few schools track the amount of college credit their students actually earn by taking and passing AP exams either. To be fair, this is difficult since whether an AP score qualifies for college credit differs at every college.

The truth is that having "AP" attached to a course does not mean that course is academically superior in content or rigor over one that doesn't. Conversely, not having an AP attached to an honors course does not mean the class is automatically inferior. At Lutheran High School, we enjoy the freedom to design courses that prepare students for college, challenge them academically, meet state standards, get them ready for the ACT, and allow for the presentation of a Christian worldview. For example, we could offer "AP World History," but we choose not to in favor of an Honors World History class that we believe is a superior class. (Note: At the end of the day, it's really about the strength of the teacher in the classroom anyway - have you heard that from us before?)

Nationwide, the AP courses with the most students are AP Language and Composition, AP Literature and Composition, AP US History, and AP Calculus AB. Since these classes are the most prominent and accepted as being "college-ready" curriculum, Lutheran High School has chosen to offer those as a part of the honors curriculum in those subject areas. We also choose to offer AP Calculus BC and allow students to take the AP Spanish exam if they desire. In other subject areas, we've determined that college readiness is better served with non-AP honors classes. This is especially true in the area of science, where we do not feel that the AP curriculum is an advantage over our science curriculum.

Because most high schools now offer almost all of the AP courses, and the best students take those courses, it has ceased to be a huge differentiator in the college admissions process. (Every student's transcript looks the same!) This is why service hours, character, involvement in activities, self-directed learning, and leadership/entrepreneurship are so coveted by colleges and universities. We know from college admissions people all over the country that colleges want to see that a student maximizes his/her opportunities to challenge themselves, but that a student need not have 16 AP courses on their transcript to differentiate themselves from other applicants. (Click here for a great Denver Post article on this topic.) This is one of the core reasons for the creation of the Academies at Lutheran High School. It provides a unique avenue for students to challenge themselves and show that they have gone above and beyond what the average high school student does.

AP and Dual-Credit College Courses

It will be interesting to see what the future of Advanced Placement looks like. The addition of dual-credit college courses for high school students now allows for students to take college courses and receive both high school and college credit. Lutheran High School also offers avenues to dual credit as a part of its overall curriculum. Many students choose to make use of those opportunities because that avenue to college credit is not dependent on passing an AP exam (which costs money). My prediction is that the AP exams will continue to become more difficult as the colleges do not want to lose the revenue from the mass amount of students who could take and potentially pass the AP exams. I predict more and more colleges and universities will only accept a "5" or not accept an AP class as a substitute for a college class any longer. (I also anticipate that more prestigious universities will not accept or will limit the amount of dual-enrollment credits that a high school student can earn. It's always about the money - but that is a blog post for another day.)

Greater Impact,
Dan Gehrke
Executive Director, Lutheran High School

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