Who should take AP courses?

I am not happy with the results my kids got on the AP Statistics exam. I am looking at the results in more depth, but I keep wrestling with two questions: Who should take an AP course? What is the contribution of the teacher as far as the AP exam score? In previous years, I had informal discussions with many other AP teachers at my school regarding these questions – we never arrived at a consensus.

There are two schools of thought regarding which students should take AP courses. The first is that AP courses should be open to the broadest spectrum of students. The argument goes on to say that even students who score a 2 or less on the exam will benefit from taking a rigorous, challenging course such as most AP courses. According to this school of thought, the AP experience, even if unsuccessful as far as an AP exam grade is concerned, will show the students what college level work means and will serve as a wake up call for those whose attitude and/or performance had been lackadaisical.

The second school of thought maintains that admissions to AP courses should be selective – only students who had previously demonstrated academic maturity should be encouraged to undergo further challenge. If the AP classes are heterogeneous in terms of ability and work ethic, the argument continues, the performance of the class as a whole will suffer since the instructor will have to slow down, repeat and generally not challenge the students as much. This school of thought tends to measure success by the number of 4s and 5s in the exam rather than by passing rate or by non- numerical, “positive thinking” measures.

Through experience and perhaps personal inclinations, I belong firmly in the selective approach school of thought. My arguments are as follows. First, although we could argue – and rightly so – that AP courses are good examples of the level of work required by students in college, it remains unproven that exposure to more rigorous courses in high school leads to change in work habits later on in college.  I would argue that if and when students perform better in college than in high school, it is not due to the “wake up call” of high school AP courses, but rather in the fact that students in college are faced with more individual responsibility and a much clearer and more practical relationship between academic preparation and a career.

My second argument has to do with the consequences of poor preparation for those students who come to an AP course without a strong background. The consequences include stress, a lower GPA – perhaps precluding admission to the college of choice – and sometimes parents who complain to administration that “Ms./Mr. X is too tough, my son/daughter never got a C since they’ve been in school”.

Consider the following example. At our school, the pre requisite for taking AP Statistics used to be a grade of C or better in Algebra II. As far as I can tell this is not unusual. Last year I had a large number of students who took AP Statistics without first taking Pre Calculus. Now, for those not teaching AP Stats, you should know that what we teach in Pre Calculus is NOT used in AP Stats – the latter is much more of a conceptual course than the traditional algebraic-based math courses. What happened is that ALL the students that had not taken Pre Calc started having difficulties early on in Statistics.  Parents started calling saying how stressed their children were, how they were losing sleep, how their extra curricular activities suffered, how their college acceptance was threatened by their low grades. At the end of the first semester, all these students dropped out of AP Stats. What these students had in common was the lack of academic/math maturity that the extra year of Pre Calc gave the other students, even though this had nothing to do with the actual subject matter.

Obviously this did not mean that having taken Pre Calc insured a student’s success in AP Statistics. However, it did point out that at least one of the prerequisite of success (even if success is only defined as completing the course) is a good academic preparation and maturity.

Finally, instead of a final exam in the second semester, my AP Stats students do a project. One group looked at the performance of AP US History (APUSH) students at our school.  Traditionally, at our school, APUSH students are very successful on the AP exam. The pre-req for APUSH is World History. The AP History teachers make every effort to tell prospective students how much more rigorous APUSH is than World and they show the demands for APUSH, including a pretty hefty summer assignment and exam. As a result, most of the C students in World do not go to APUSH (they take the regular US History course). As my group showed, the success of APUSH is directly related to the selectivity of admission in the course.

As far as I am concerned, I changed the pre-reqs for AP Stats for this year – students must have at least a C in Pre-Calc and I added a pre req of a B in English. My class will be half the size of the one I had last year, but I am sure it will be a better class.


5 responses to “Who should take AP courses?

  1. This is my 4th school so I have seen a variety of approaches. I just finished my first year of teaching AP Stats and my first year as a department chair at my current school. The prereq I chose to set is a B in Algebra II Honors or B in Precalculus (non Honors) or C in Precalculus Honors. I think that not having Precalculus will not be an issue (I don’t even know how many Alg II Honors kids I’ll see) but I do think that a C in Algebra II is a pretty low standard. Unfortunately, the way many of us grade, a C can be earned with very little conceptual processing. Processing concepts is at the heart of the AP Stat course. Learning procedures will not get you through this course well at all.

    Just my $0.02

  2. Hi Jim,
    “Unfortunately, the way many of us grade, a C can be earned with very little conceptual processing” – couldn’t agree with you more. I am more hardcore than most of my fellow teachers, but even I slip?bend? sometimes. I have often asked myself why and what can one do about it. A partial answer is a very tight and well-communicated rubric. Still, the translation to a letter grade is the rub.

  3. Dean,
    I would probably fall into your camp as well regarding grades. I think many of my students might call me hardcore about how much I expect from them in the realm of displaying conceptual understanding. I think that is why I would be more comfortable raising the grade level bar rather than raising the course attained bar. I only just finished my first year of AP Stats but I already am an advocate of it as a more meaningful course – in many ways! – for some students than the precalculus course. We have a number of bright kids at our school who are tired of the algebra train and would benefit from AP Stats rather than yet another year on the golden road to Calculus. I have taught Calculus (AB and BC at different times) for 17 of my 24 years of teaching and I love it, but it is clearly not for everyone.

    Enjoy your writing – just ran into your blog from one of your posts on Sam Shah’s blog. Keep it up, I just subscribed for regular updates!


  4. A 3 on an AP test is a relatively low bar. To me, if a student doesn’t have the combination of ability and work ethic to get a 3, they should not take the class.

    Your comparison of AP U.S. to AP Stat is not an apples to apples comparison. If you google SAT vs AP scores, the college board provides some interesting statistics. Given students with the same PSAT scores, a much higher percent will get a 3 on AP US than AP Stat. It is much more difficult to get a 3 on Calc, Stat, Gov, Chem, and Physics than Psych, US, Lit, Comp, and Bio.

    • You are right on both counts – a 3 is a relatively low grade and Math and Science APs are more difficult than the others.
      Having said that, who takes an AP course – in my experience – is rarely just the teacher’s decision.
      We can deny permission based on the score in a previous course, but – at least at the school that I am – students will tend to avoid hard course and the result is that I had enough students for AP Stats only every other year.
      In addition, administration encourages the faculty to open AP courses to a broad section of the student population. The metric an administrator will tend to look at is how many students take AP courses not how well they do in them.
      Having said that, as I wrote in my post, I raised the prerequisites for taking AP Stats. As a result I have only the barely minimum number of students necessary to make the class go. Since these kids are committed, I feel now more pressure on myself to guide them to better scores than my last year’s classes.
      Thank you for your comment.

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