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Benefits & Questions about AP Courses

The Advanced Placement (AP) program is a curriculum in the United States and Canada sponsored by the College Board which offers standardized courses to high school students that are generally recognized to be equivalent to undergraduate courses in college. Participating colleges grant credit to students who obtained high enough scores on the exams to qualify.

A large selection of AP courses attended by students is widely seen as a measure of excellence for U.S. high schools and figures prominently in formulas that attempt to rank public high schools. The more active the AP program, the higher the rank and, often, the higher the school district’s real estate values. Let’s explore the benefits and questions about AP courses.

Benefits of AP Courses

All this means you’ll be ahead of the game when you really get to college. You’ll know how to study better, research better, think better. And since many colleges and universities give you credit for AP courses, you’ll have some of your prerequisites out of the way, giving you time and energy to delve deeper into electives.

AP courses also help you in the increasingly competitive college admission process. Taking them shows that you’re curious, motivated and hardworking—characteristics colleges look for, characteristics that will give you a leg up. —George School

Questions about Reliability

But in some quarters, educators are worried that AP, which was created as a way to give bright high school seniors a taste of college, is turning into something it was never meant to be: a kind of alternative high school curriculum for ambitious students that teaches to the test instead of encouraging the best young minds to think more creatively. Some educators have begun to question the integrity of the programs and ask whether the classes are truly offering students an extra boost or merely giving them filigree for their college applications.

To be sure, many AP programs are first rate. Calculus is widely considered to be one of the best thought out AP programs, as is AP English Language and Composition, which teaches students how to critically analyze literary works. Two years ago, when the Center for Education at the National Academy of Sciences conducted one of the few serious studies of the AP curriculum ever done, it praised the AP Calculus program for achieving “an appropriate balance between breadth and depth.”

But the balance was off for the three other courses examined. AP Chemistry, Biology and Physics were found to be too sweeping in scope, lacking the depth of a good college course. The study’s authors concluded that the practice and understanding of laboratory work – a critical piece of college-level science – was given short shrift both in the AP teacher’s manuals and on the exams. They lamented that a “significant number of examination questions… appear to require only rote learning” rather than a deeper understanding of science.

Emphasis of breadth over depth is also a charge commonly leveled at AP history courses.

It was the pell-mell nature of AP history classes in particular that prompted the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a top private school in New York City, to drop all AP courses. Last year the Montclair Kimberley Academy in New Jersey decided to drop AP U.S. History. A number of other top private schools, including Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, have always steered clear of AP courses. Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman at the National Association of Independent Schools, discerns “a movement from a small group of independent schools that have said no to AP courses,” preferring to offer high-level classes that are more focused, less test-driven and perhaps more engaging.

There is no mandated curriculum, nor is there any required training of teachers for AP classes, which is why the quality of the courses can vary widely from school to school.

Cambridge School of Weston (Statement)

CSW does not focus on AP classes or exams. We have chosen to de-emphasize curriculum driven by standardized testing and instead put students at the center of the education process. We believe students retain more knowledge, probe more deeply, and have more motivation when they are active creators rather than passive recipients of information. Our students are engaged learners who learn to think, create, and manage. They connect their knowledge to in-depth projects. They learn to make choices. They develop lasting interests and passions. Our students and teachers have more time to delve into topics as they discuss and debate in class. They feel less rushed to cover as much material as possible in a predetermined curriculum. We encourage families to review the following website if they are interested in learning more about a growing movement of schools that emphasize teacher-generated curriculum: www.independentcurriculum.org


Since we first posted this “Benefits & Questions about AP” article, the debate continues as some question the validity of AP while others tout the benefits. With that said, we have seen some schools downplay the necessity of AP and in fact remove it either as a requirement or significant criteria for student assessment. It will be interesting to see how this continues to play out now entering the new decade.

AP Course Listings

  • Art History
  • Biology
  • Calculus AB
  • Calculus BC
  • Chemistry
  • Chinese Language and Culture
  • Computer Science A
  • Computer Science Principles
  • English Language and Composition
  • English Literature and Composition
  • Environmental Science
  • European History
  • French Language and Culture
  • German Language and Culture
  • Government and Politics Comparative
  • Government and Politics US
  • Human Geography
  • Italian Language and Culture
  • Japanese Language and Culture
  • Latin
  • Macroeconomics
  • Microeconomics
  • Music Theory
  • Physics 1
  • Physics 2
  • Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
  • Physics C: Mechanics
  • Psychology
  • AP Research (Second part of the AP Capstone program)
  • AP Seminar (First part of the AP Capstone program)
  • Spanish Language and culture
  • Spanish Literature and Culture
  • Statistics
  • Studio Art 2D Design
  • Studio Art 3D Design
  • Studio Art Drawing
  • U.S. History
  • World History