Junior Payton Payne studies in the Woodruff Library for her AP Biology test. Photo: Kathryn Hood

In Washington, D.C., eight private high schools announced in June that they are dropping their Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and will have completely phased out the courses in their curriculum by 2022.

The schools released the statement: “Collectively, 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.”

These schools are not the first to question the value of AP courses. Though the AP course was created for educational equality, as ideally each student would have the same curriculum and take the same exam, critics have recently said that it creates educational inequality, because schools with lower funds have a harder time successfully implementing AP courses.

Many students take AP courses to boost their chances of getting into college, but critics have said that so many students take AP classes, that it no longer makes a student stand out. Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts stated, “The expansion of the AP program failed to promote real parity between the educational haves and have-nots… Once the AP Program reached a critical mass, it lost its functionality as a mark of distinction.”

AP classes give students a chance to go more in depth and explore new horizons in learning, but are often accompanied with hours of homework, heightened stress levels and less time for a social life. A record 1.17 million students took at least one AP course last year. The average Pace student generally takes five or six AP courses, though some students take 10 or 11.

Students most of the time take these classes thinking the higher level courses will boost their chances of getting accepted into a desired college, but many factors go into whether the AP class will help a student in the end. These recent critiques beg the question: are these demanding AP courses worth it?

Despite critics like Schneider at the University of Massachusetts, many, if not most, say that AP classes help distinguish one from other applicants when applying to college. It can also help you graduate from college faster, thus saving money. Getting a 5 on an AP exam looks impressive to colleges. It shows them you are more advanced in a subject than 80-90% of other advanced students. “I would say doing well in that class certainly boosts your chance of getting into the college of your choice, though if you don’t perform well it probably doesn’t,” said Head of Upper School Mike Gannon.

Juniors Francesca Vaneri and Payton Payne both take all offered AP courses junior year at Pace. A benefit of an AP course is that it can not only help you get into more selective colleges, but it also can help prepare you for college. “It’s important when you’re applying to colleges that you’re taking hard classes,” said Vaneri.

Mr. Gannon, who also teaches AP U.S. History, agrees. “The other piece of the AP that matters is that there’s real money on the line,” he said. “If you earn a score on the AP exam at the level the colleges require, they’ll give you credit towards graduation.”

Though AP classes can help with college, they aren’t for everyone. “Anyone can handle an AP, but maybe some people shouldn’t take multiple AP’s,” said Payne. “They tend to stress people out who may not be able to handle that work.” The pressure of AP classes can lead to many sleepless nights, which can be harmful not only to your health, but also your performance in other classes.  

When taking AP classes, it’s important to maintain a balance between the work demanded by those classes and one’s life outside of school. Class of 2019 Dean Erica Barbakow teaches AP Literature and Composition to juniors. She believes that balance is a necessary aspect of choosing how many AP courses one needs to take. “You have to think about who you are as a student in that moment,” she said. “If you do what you’re doing at this point well, you will have many options. If you overextend yourself and take too many AP’s, you’re going to burn out before you get to college.” She adds that “if you’re not happy, and not getting enough sleep, this is not a good placement for you.”

There can definitely be downsides to AP classes. A study led by the University of San Francisco College of Education found that a high percentage of students in accelerated programs had higher levels of stress compared to the rest of the school population. Researchers reported that the high pressure academic environment created increased levels of stress, an increase in mental health problems and reduced happiness, fewer friendships and disengagement from school. “It’s very stressful,” said Vaneri. “It’s a lot of work. You have to learn to organize your time very well.”

Though this may seem discouraging to those want to take an AP class, this does not apply to everyone. AP courses are rigorous, and are more complex than other classes, so not being interested in the class can make it hard to complete the course work well. Mr. Gannon’s main advice is to take classes one is interested in and desires to do well in.

Pace, unlike some schools, does not try to prevent students from taking AP courses, and instead wants students to take classes they are interested in. “If you want to take AP U.S. History, you can take AP U.S. History,” said Mr. Gannon. “You should pursue what you’re interested in pursuing.” This was also Payne and Vaneri’s main advice. “If you enjoy a class, you might as well do it at the highest level you can,” said Vaneri. “If you like a subject and you’re pretty good at it, [the AP course] is definitely worth it.”  

All advice comes down to the fact that how many and what kind of AP classes a person should take depends entirely upon the individual. Ms. Barbakow advises to talk to your dean about what you’re looking to study when you enter college, and choose classes and courses based on that.