National Edition

Are Advanced Placement courses worth it?

Published: Friday, July 18 2014 7:15 a.m. MDT

In this May 1, 2012 photo, teacher Kayla Morrow writes on a board as she leads an Advanced Placement government class at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Baltimore. In May 2012, 2 million students will take 3.7 million end-of-year AP exams - figures well over double those from a decade ago. "What AP is really trying to teach you is for a lot of things, there's really not a right and wrong answer. It's, 'how do you get to that?'" Morrow said, adding the AP training improved her teaching in regular classes, too. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Patrick Semansky, AP

Austin Drake planned to go to Columbia University since the age of 12. He took every Advanced Placement course he could manage, paying particular attention to science and math.

Drake knew that attending a school like Columbia would be too expensive for his parents; he’d need to get scholarships, grants and if possible, shorten his time there by testing out of core requirements. He hoped AP classes would help him, as they have a generation of students.

That promise, however, is now under threat. Top-tier universities are beginning to turn their backs on AP credit, and some college admissions advisers say taking those classes may no longer offer a competitive advantage to getting into elite schools.

“What used to be a demanding program is becoming a box to be checked along with building houses for two weeks in Ecuador and running for student council,” Frank Costas, academic adviser at Columbia University, said. “It’s getting harder to tell if AP classes are still preparing students for the rigor of college or if it’s a victim of grade inflation like most other programs.”

Saving time and money: testing out of college courses

For Drake, now 19, AP classes delivered, or so it seemed. Drake received mostly fours out of five on his AP exams, well above the class of 2013 average of 2.8. Drake was accepted to Columbia, and his backup schools were Berkeley and Brigham Young University.

“AP classes probably got me into Columbia I guess,” Drake said. “But [Columbia] told me that I could only use the credits I earned from my AP classes as elective credits. I was still going to have to take all of those courses again.”

Realizing his AP courses would not save him time and had not earned him a scholarship to Columbia, Drake chose to attend BYU in his home state.

“BYU only let me use my AP class credit for two of my math classes and the rest were used as electives,” Drake said. “It’s funny though because I feel like my AP physics class was a lot harder than my BYU physics class. I guess that means the class prepped me well for college.”

Even a perfect score won’t get you more than one credit at schools like Harvard, Brown and Duke, and at Darmouth, beginning with the class of 2018, no credits will be awarded for AP courses at all.

While some elite schools do give credit for AP classes — Yale, Princeton and Columbia grant up to two elective credits for a score of four or higher — to get the full three to four credits required per class to graduate, students will find themselves retaking the courses they took in high school.

Why is this happening? Part of it, university representatives say, is because more and more students are taking AP classes, and test scores continue to rise, leading some to suspect that quality control is slipping.

Not all of the top-tier distrust AP courses. Students who score a four or higher on their exams can expect to test out of freshman and even some sophomore level classes at schools like Stanford and Cornell.

And schools like New York University, BYU and Purdue University will offer up to 16 credits for nearly all courses where the students scored three or higher. If those credits are concentrated in one area, like foreign language or math, they can save students up to a year.

“Studies have shown that students who excel in AP coursework outperform their counterparts at the university level,” Tara Hall, admissions officer at New York University, said. “It’s hard to argue with that. If they know the material, we see no reason to deny them the credit.”

All universities require at least a three on the exam in order to receive any credit, anything less will only grant the student partial college credit, even at second- and third-tier universities.

Better prepared for university-level work

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