Apodaca: Do we need Advanced Placement?

May 10, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca

If you happen to notice that high school students throughout Newport-Mesa are looking even more stressed-out and sleep-deprived than usual, it's probably because they've been undergoing the annual rite of springtime known as AP testing.

And every year at this time, the Advanced Placement-induced stupor leads me to wonder if the benefits of the AP system are enough to outweigh the negatives.

More to the point, is the program really raising education standards and helping students prepare better for college, as intended? Or is it creating a nation of test-taking drones adept at memorizing and regurgitating, but not particularly good at thinking?


This sort of questioning arises periodically, particularly when news breaks that a school has boldly decided to opt out of the AP system, as the private Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica did a few years ago.

Despite these occasional defections, the AP behemoth continues to grow more inextricably intertwined with the standard high school experience. Nonetheless, changes are in the wings that could address some of the concerns about the effectiveness of the program.

I'll get back to that, but first here's a little background: The AP system has been around for several decades, and has been run since 1955 by the New York-based nonprofit, the College Board, which also administers the SAT. The program has grown steadily, and in the past couple of decades has become a regular staple at most high schools.

AP classes are offered in more than 30 subjects — from calculus to art history — but it's up to each school to determine which it will provide. The courses are meant to be academically rigorous and equivalent to an entry-level college class. They culminate with the big AP exams during the first two weeks of May.

Last year, 1.8 million students took 3.2 million AP exams. More than 500,000 graduating seniors had passed at least one AP test; California's class of 2010 had the sixth-highest AP passing rate in the nation.

The standardized tests are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. A grade of 3 is passing; a 5 is the equivalent of an A. Many colleges offer credit for AP exams passed, allowing students to skip some introductory courses, but the treatment of APs varies from college to college.

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