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APs as a Currency: Useful or Illusory?




Entering high school is an arduous transition, indeed. Not only does one’s GPA carry more weight, but the average student also gains more independence, which can sometimes be viewed as more burdensome than relieving. One indication of this is the introduction of AP courses. Using AP curricula, College Board aims to simulate the freedom of choice and academic rigor of higher education in a high school context. 19 such courses are offered at SIS to achieve the same purpose; as stated on its website, the school wants to provide students with the “opportunity to better prepare themselves for success at the world’s most challenging universities.”

However, for better or worse, the act of taking APs is increasingly perceived as a mere necessity for college applications, not as an intellectual opportunity for growth. As each student progresses through high school, the number of AP tests he or she takes rapidly accumulates. Despite initial warnings that the curriculum is “college-level” and “difficult,” most bite the bullet and embark on this rocky road. In other words, ready consideration of the true meaning of AP is often insufficient.

Upon further consideration, the natural question that arises is this: why does SIS offer APs? Are AP curricula truly effective in preparing students for university? How does AP’s effectiveness differ from course to course? Although there is no definitive answer to the mentioned questions, the upcoming investigative pieces will seek to address the differing perspectives regarding the issue, particularly those of students and teachers.


Our Purpose

In August, students at SIS are given a choice—to drop their current AP course or face the academic challenge for the remaining ten months. In fact, teachers are obligated to ensure the students are not impetuously enrolling in these college-level classes. In spite of such warnings, the majority of students seem to prioritize the sheer enrollment in these classes over their intellectual value. In fact, although this does not speak true for every individual, the student body mostly embraces the idea that such courses constitute a currency, one of which will aid in the college admissions process.

To test this idea, we conducted a survey asking respondents from all grade levels the following questions:

  1. How many APs do you anticipate taking by your senior year?
  2. If there was no limit each year to the amount of APs you could take, would you take more?
  3. If yes, why is that the case?*

* For the third question, the available options to this multiple choice question were 1. It would’ve given me a competitive edge, 2. I had enough time to manage more AP courses, and 3. I wanted to explore more of my personal interests.

In the end, 68.8 percent, or approximately 44 of the 64 respondents, indicated that increasing the number of AP courses taken would have given them a “competitive edge.” In other words, more than half of the respondents admitted that the sheer number of APs over the course of high school was comparatively more important than other factors, including the content studied in these classes.

“The situation in high school is analogous to the society’s gap between the rich and poor,” said Gray Macklin, high school Vice Principal. “With AP classes possessing values similar to those of currencies, students perceive them as trophies that must be collected throughout high school. In fact, the pressure on the students to take these classes are self-actualizing; because the lack of APs is correlated with poverty, and because at the same time, students do not want to be ‘poor,’ they overburden themselves, ultimately further widening the gap.”

As a result of this continued emphasis on taking multiple APs, it is sometimes perceived as a necessity, not a choice for high-achieving students. Although taking on the challenge of learning college-level material should inherently constitute a rewarding and commendable act, not enrolling in a “sufficient” number of APs is, in contrast, considered a sign of weakness or incompetence. Even some of the students we interviewed who had taken no AP courses in tenth grade requested anonymity. In comparing oneself to others, the standard of the “average” amount of APs continues to increase. In practice, the individual classes taken are devalued, causing an “AP inflation” effect; to reach the same amount of academic achievement, more APs are required. Ultimately, students pay the price—through a substantially greater workload.

“I was always embarrassed to tell others that I had taken no APs in tenth grade,” said a junior. “When everyone else was taking the test in May for AP US History or AP Biology, I was done with the school year. Although this was comforting in the moment, the fact that I had not taken any of these tests made me subconsciously compare myself with others and more competitive. This pressure to take more AP courses has its benefits and downfalls. Although I am pushing myself to the limit, I am taking three AP courses this year, so I am accumulating a lot of stress these days.”

For the majority of students, the main objective of enrolling in any AP class is to receive a five, the purported sign of true understanding of the course content. Similarly, earning a four or three entails indirect criticism from one’s parents or friends; only recipients of fives are considered to be equipped with the necessary content for college classes. However, this single score may not reveal everything about one’s preparedness; students often experience substantial gaps in academic difficulty between high school and college content and coursework—regardless of their AP scores.

To explore each college’s AP-related policies, we navigated through College Board’s AP credit policy search engine. In some cases, universities enable students who received scores of fours or fives on AP tests to receive college credit and exempt themselves from equivalent freshman-level college courses. The university-specific search engine, found on the College Board website, allowed us to identify corresponding pairs of AP and college courses. With this context, we conducted a series of interviews with alumni, particularly freshman students who had graduated from SIS, to obtain insider perspectives.

On the surface, all of the interviewees eventually reached the same overarching conclusion—that high school equipped them with a sound basis of understanding to keep pace with the curricula in higher education. Still, our survey results revealed that the content taught in college classes is more advanced than that of APs. One intriguing finding from our interviews was the idea that the gap in difficulty between corresponding classes in STEM subjects is comparatively more manageable.

“Although you are expected to know much more in terms of quantity for tests you take in college, I would still say that my experience in AP Calculus BC provided a solid foundation for my studies at Stanford [in MATH 51],” said Nicholas Kim (18’), a current freshman at Stanford. “Math in AP was standardized, and my [new] professors teach the college material while explicitly referencing many concepts I recall from SIS classes. It is still slightly difficult, as my calling is the humanities, but the overlap [in content] really helped me keep up.”

On the contrary, there is a reportedly more sudden increase in difficulty in equivalent English and history classes. According to the interviewees, while centuries are taught per semester in commensurate AP history classes at SIS, college history courses often specialize in certain time periods, which are covered for an entire school semester, such as the Cold War. In that sense, the information in these classes is more specific and requires much more in-depth understanding for essays and in-class assessments.

College English courses can be difficult for the opposite reason: writing in higher education is much less structured. Before each assessment, most SIS teachers offer students detailed rubrics and numerous student-written exemplars. At universities, however, it is the task of each student to develop his or her own preferred style of writing.

Admittedly, the perceived gap in preparation between STEM and the humanities may root from the inherent differing nature of these subjects. While the content for STEM courses are mainly comprised of hard skills performed in closed fields, such as data computation and analysis, the humanities are arguably more open to soft skills, such as reading comprehension and composition. As stated by Mr. Macklin, STEM students may be more inclined to “self-select,” or preemptively avoid classes involving advanced calculations, whereas this may not apply for students studying the humanities. On the contrary, it is also true that the content covered in the humanities are more prone to subjectivity. Viewed from an alternative perspective, such flexibility observed in these subjects may put the students in a more precarious position than their STEM counterparts in gauging their progress. Nonetheless, despite what the underlying causes of the gap may be, it is reasonable to conclude that it likely exists.

As such, earning fives on one’s APs does not always guarantee success in college, given the multitude of factors influencing one’s preparedness. That is not to say that high academic achievement on such tests is not worthy of praise, but the student perception that the number of APs taken or scores on them equate to their ability to succeed in college is unfounded. After all, true intellectual growth and personal ambition are two sides of the same coin.