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Are AP Courses Worth It?

 In Courses, Recent Articles, Blog, College, Homeschool, High School

Recently the Washington Post reported that prominent private schools are eliminating AP courses, citing the Advanced Placement program’s “diminished utility” for students and excessive constraints on teachers.

Some education watchers were quick to dismiss the relevance of that news. Students at a school like DC-area Sidwell Friends—alma mater of several presidents’ children—might be able to choose their dream college without these AP courses or scores on a transcript, but what about everyone else? When is Advanced Placement worth it?

As a homeschooling parent of gifted kids, a public school parent, and a teacher at the high school and college level, I’ve had a lot of feelings about that question over the years. Our experience has been a resounding

It depends.

Very often, parents and students choose AP courses and tests not because they are the best way to meet their objectives, but because they are the familiar way. Full disclosure: Online G3 has intentionally chosen not to pursue AP approval for its courses— maintaining freedom to build and change a syllabus is more our style. Many G3 families, including mine, have still included Advanced Placement as part of their educational plan. Here are four of the reasons why:

1. Proving what you’ve learned through homeschooling

When I was homeschooling my own gifted child, she was studying high school level material from a very young age. She then considered a brick and mortar public arts high school for her final two years. Would they accept the co-op chemistry course she took at age 12 for our state graduation requirement? There were no guarantees, but a decent AP score sure increased the chances.

Although the co-op classes she took didn’t have official AP designation, her teacher used AP-approved textbooks—just like the Advanced History courses at Online G3—and encouraged students planning to take the test to form study groups using AP study guides like Barron’s or Princeton Review.

Verdict: Getting to finish at the arts high school made the extra effort of preparing for the exam worth it. She was able to show that she had learned required content even though she hadn’t learned it in the standard way, or at the standard time. Since we were dealing with faceless government standards rather than a college admissions portfolio, having a number helped.

2. Getting college credit in high school

The College Board heavily promotes the value of earning college credit from AP scores. When my oldest began her college planning, we took the time to check accepted AP scores at colleges she was considering. We were surprised by how much variety we discovered:

  • Some colleges will give credit for all AP exams, with a score of 3 or higher, while others cap the number of AP credits accepted.
  • Others may not give credit but will use AP scores to allow students to skip an introductory course.
  • Still others have a carefully planned course sequence they require all of their students to take, regardless of AP scores.

On the other hand, we discovered a more dependable way of earning transferable college credit: taking actual college courses. My oldest ended up graduating high school with AP credits, community college credits, and credits from our state flagship university and a local art college. When she went to college, her program accepted most of her credits, although in some cases they suggested she retake certain courses that were part of a planned sequence.

Verdict: Students with access to college classes through dual enrollment or other means may prefer earning credit through a real college course rather than hoping for a good score on a single high stakes test, then hoping the college they eventually attend accepts that score.

3. Choosing your learning cohort

For my younger daughter who chose our neighborhood public high school for grade 9-12, we’ve looked at AP courses differently. For students who want an honors level course, they’re usually the only option. Not every AP class she’s taken has been her favorite—or best—subject, but choosing the honors/AP class has usually led to her being in classes with friends and with students who are highly motivated learners.

However—a big however—choosing AP every time has drawbacks. For my child who wants to try everything and be in every club and every play and learn all the instruments, too many AP courses could be a distraction from the skills and ideas she most wants to experience. Gifted kids are often blessed and cursed with multipotentiality, but they don’t get any extra hours in the day. She opted out of AP US History sophomore year to ensure she had time for all the other things that were important to her, including her downtime and mental health.

We’re grateful that her school cautions students during registration and the rest of the year to value emotional wellbeing as highly as academic achievement, because that means she’s in classes with other students who are doing the same. Her true peers as a gifted child aren’t necessarily the valedictorians and top AP Scholars. Just as likely they’re the kids following their own path, well outside of what’s included in a typical high school curriculum.

Verdict: True peers can be hard to find, even in advanced school classes. My oldest made many great friends in her years with Online G3, not only because the kids were smart, but because many were quirky homeschool kids who were deeply exploring their passions on an out-of-the-box, just as she was. My traditional high school child with myriad interests collects one close friend in church choir, another in AP English, and so on. Staying open to many ways of finding peers is the most promising route to finding them.

4. Learning at a higher level

I’ll freely admit that when I sent my oldest to high school after a decade of homeschooling I was skeptical of AP courses. What I quickly learned was that, AP-designation or not, the teacher matters. At her arts high school, long-term teachers were committed to the school’s vision of arts-based education. Even AP Calculus had arts-related activities! At my younger child’s neighborhood high school, her AP Human Geography teacher was an extremely caring and funny man who found multiple ways to engage students. My kids often got the rigorous, exciting courses we were hoping for. As a parent, I was thrilled—and relieved. I was grateful to those teachers who didn’t stick with teaching to the test or emphasize memorizing facts.

Expanding the AP syllabus isn’t easy. Teachers interviewed for the Washington Post story talked about the constraints AP designations put on their ability to teach. They complained that Advanced Placement “puts too much emphasis on speedy absorption of course material and memorization,” while another described AP-approved syllabi as packed with “too much minutiae” and “too much emphasis on test preparation.”

As an instructor myself I’m grateful that I don’t have to figure out how to wrestle the ideas and conversation that flow from my G3 students into an AP-approved box.  When I’ve designed advanced English courses for Online G3 students, I get to build on the strong reading history and analytical skills I know students already have to develop something deeper and richer than a standard college “Introduction to Literary Analysis” class. When I’ve taught the Art of the Essay for talented, motivated writers, we can think of the essay form as it’s been used for a variety of purposes, not just the academic analytical essay.

Verdict: Especially for a gifted student, AP may not equate to a higher level of learning. Piles of homework, memorization and practice essays are not necessarily education. An AP designation on its own doesn’t indicate higher-level learning, and families putting together their own high school program from many sources should probably ask pointed questions about the instructor’s vision for the course before signing up.

Advanced Placement is one path out of many

In short, Advanced Placement isn’t necessary to meet any of these objectives, and in some instances an AP course could be counterproductive. The more freedom a family has to pursue different educational options, the more likely it is that they can find better ways to meet their goals.

The statement from DC-area schools who dropped AP concluded: “We believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty. We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation and fuel their love of learning.”

I believe that too. That’s why I’m glad my kids have been able to choose from an assortment of courses and opportunities, and why I’m glad to be part of the movement to create more options for other students.


Shaun Strohmer is known as Dame Dashwood to students at Online G3. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Michigan and has taught literature and writing courses at the University of Michigan and Normandale Community College, and for multiple homeschool groups. Shaun homeschooled her gifted children for ten years and has served on the boards of several local and statewide homeschooling and gifted parenting organizations.

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