Critical Warnings re AP Classes

Extremely important information about high school AP math and science courses gained from “bitter experience.” Parents and incoming students should carefully study this article BEFORE they sign up for classes each year.

(NOTE – This was the first article published on this blog on October 20, 2016.  A newer version updated for the 2020-2021 school year can be found here: SMUHSD Class Sign-up Time – Please Read This First!)

I originally published this content to my local community on during the last school year, but am updating it with new information for the 2016-2017 school year because students continue to be impacted by the problems described herein.

I can not emphasize enough how big of a problem AP classes create!  Because I run a tutoring business, I could just keep quiet and let the school system drive business my way, but that would be both cynical and unethical.

Please, if you have students currently in high school or who will be moving up from middle school soon, take the time to study the information below!

Each year I see students get themselves in over their head because of academic, parental, and most commonly peer pressure to take “challenging” class loads.  Parents need to be more involved in course choices up front instead of letting things slide and then dealing with the fallout from a crisis after the fact. A lot of my business originates from responses to these crises, many of which are avoidable!

This is a long article, but the information in it will save parents and students much grief if they study it carefully before they make their math and science course selections each year!  As an additional inducement for careful consideration, I have composed the following summary of topics covered herein to encourage you to read on:

  1. The AP rate race and its negative impact on learning
  2. Recommendations regarding AP biology
  3. Recommendations on taking regular physics versus AP physics (and a notice about the dismal national pass rates on the AP physics exam due to too much material covered in too little time)
  4. Recommendation on what math courses to take, and in what sequence, particularly why one should NOT skip from precalculus directly to calculus BC!!
  5. Why all AP teachers should slow down!
  6. Why you should NOT take a combined algebra/precalculus class to “accelerate” your math studies.


In a separate, upcoming post, I will also address the increasing problem of student GPAs being trashed by the premature inclusion of tricky AP exam questions on classroom chapter tests when students are still in the process of mastering basic subject material.  AP pass rates and exam prep unfortunately sometimes seem to be taking precedence over helping prepare students for college and fostering a love for the subject material…


The AP class rat race is getting national attention. The December 2015 cover story of The Atlantic talked about the extremely serious problems right in our back yard at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Pressure from intense Silicon Valley parents is cited as a primary cause which leads to those problems, but, fortunately, it is also obvious that the vast majority of students go through the AP system without it leading to such tragic results.

The elite institutions are finally starting to wake up. Here is a link to a recent NY Times article called to my attention by my friends John and Michele Phua.

The following link gives a few selected reader reactions, and the report referred to in the Times story can be found here.

Since Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et al. have created this problem, I have long said that it won’t go away until they take action. Unfortunately, the top schools appear to be only talking about the issue at this point.

Let me say from the start that individual AP courses can be both challenging AND interesting. However, I have grave reservations about the tendency of such classes to become exam prep classes instead of meeting students’ learning needs.

The biggest problem stems from students feeling the need to take large numbers of AP classes to get in to top schools.

The University of California campuses (not Berkeley) are largely on the quarter system. 16 units was usually considered a full load when I went to college, perhaps 18 max. That would correspond to 4-4.5 hard classes. Given this, why should a high school student take 5+ AP classes plus other classes for a total of 7? The reason is NOT to learn subject matter, but to prove one’s superhuman abilities.

Almost every year I have advanced calculus students (some of the best in the high schools) ask me shyly when no one is looking, “Why when I am doing (x+5)/5 can I not just cancel the 5’s?”

These students get A’s on the calculus tests! I have brought this up to other high school teachers numerous times, and their experience is similar. Students become adept at learning methods (sometimes unethical) to pass exams for their own sake. Unfortunately learning is not the goal; the goal is getting over the hurdle.

These math foundation problems stem from issues in elementary and middle schools which I will address elsewhere.

My intent in this article is to offer advice about specific AP math/science classes to parents of children coming up through the system. It is limited to math and science AP classes. This advice stems from my experience tutoring local students. I am sure that it will not apply to all students, and each parent will have to tailor (or ignore 😉 ) it for their individual cases.

OBVIOUS, but necessary, WARNING – be careful not to overestimate the ability of your child.

There is always a struggle to find the right balance between challenging a student and overwhelming them, and unfortunately life usually lets a person rise until he/she hits a wall. The best thing to do is to take corrective action early if this happens, but unfortunately high schools do not always let students change classes in midstream. My opinion is that there should be additional add/drop flexibility for AP classes, but there are always teaching resource limitations. Be sure to know what your school’s policy is BEFORE your child embarks on a challenging set of courses.

SECOND WARNING – Kids often impose the AP burden on themselves due to subtle peer pressure. They take classes because they want to “keep up with the other smart kids.”

Let’s start with science, and I will use Aragon High School as my example since it is our local high school.

I am only going to mention one teacher name in this article because she deserves special credit for her outstanding dedication. Please note that there are several excellent AP teachers at Aragon, but I do not want to get into “playing favorites,” especially when my focus is primarily on math and physics.

Katie Ward, the AP biology teacher, is one of the crown jewels at Aragon. Fortunately, she is still young, but it will be a very sad day when she eventually retires from the school. She has inspired many students, my younger daughter included, to pursue careers in the life sciences.

Please note, though, that the AP biology class has a very high workload. I am not sure what the current schedule is, but I believe that students have to attend early morning labs before school, so I would think carefully before combining this class with precalculus (which is not an AP class) or other AP classes.

The AP physics program at Aragon is also quite good, but my personal preference is that students take regular physics first and then take AP physics.

Those who go straight into AP physics often get caught up in memorizing formulas and trying to use the “these are the variables I know; what formula on my formula sheet uses them?’ approach to physics.

Regular physics attempts to teach students how to visualize what is actually happening in a physical situation instead of immediately jumping to mathematics. It is my understanding that Einstein stood out above his peers because of his excellent “physical intuition” more so than his mathematical expertise. (Aside – He was good in mathematics despite anecdotes to the contrary, but colleagues like the mathematician Minkowski commented sarcastically that “physics was too hard for the physicists” when Einstein was developing general relativity. In the end Einstein was almost beaten to the punch by the mathematician Hilbert.)

I know people will immediately say, “How many students take two physics classes in high school?” which is a valid point. Nevertheless I believe it is important to lay a solid foundation first which is the reason for my recommendation above. Some high schools are now beginning with regular physics in 9th grade.  I think this requires a really excellent physics teacher to implement this successfully, so results with “Physics First” can be very mixed at different schools.

I will concede that some students at Aragon go straight into AP physics and do well. I find, though, that the ones who take both classes tend to understand the AP material better.

Nationally in 2015 the pass rate (getting a 3, 4, or 5) on the AP physics 1 and 2 exams was only 47%!  Even more damning is the fact that one only needed a score of 41% to get a 3, 56% to get a 4, and 71% to get a 5.  Very sad when only 47% of kids nationally can score over 41% correct on a test!  The problem is not with the kids; too much material is covered far too quickly!

I also do NOT recommend that AP physics at Aragon or anywhere else be used for AP credit to skip the introductory college physics class for the following reason: Colleges have much larger budgets for lab equipment. Very few high school AP courses will give a student the lab experience that they will receive in a college course, so it would be another foundational error to use high school AP physics to skip introductory college physics. This same reasoning applies to AP classes in any other experimental science.

I do not have comments on AP chemistry. Surprisingly, although I have had several regular chemistry students over the last four years, I have rarely received a request for help with AP chemistry which I assume is a good sign.

Now for math!

There are students at Aragon who have started their freshman year in precalculus, gone next to Calculus BC (which is officially supposed to mirror SECOND semester college calculus), then took Multivariable Calculus (3rd semester college calculus) as a junior, and finally had to take other subjects or go elsewhere for math as a senior.

No one should protest that Aragon does not offer its students accelerated math options!

However, students such as the above are clearly the exceptions and should NOT be the basis for general educational policy decisions. When “good” or “very good” kids try to keep up with these geniuses, the results are often disappointing.

Now for the controversy — Common Core is apparently attempting to slow things down to strengthen students’ math foundations, but this effort is getting a lot of flak from parents with advanced kids. I respectfully suggest that such parents quietly accelerate their kids through the system or go to a private school if they can’t get satisfaction, instead of giving the schools a hard time at public meetings!  The high schools are trying to solve the much greater problem of poor mathematical foundations among their incoming students, and special pleading from parents of advanced students can hurt this effort.

Personally, although I know that the multivariable calculus class at Aragon is a matter of school pride and is taught by a good teacher, I would much rather see students emerge from high school with a solid math foundation and take this subject in college rather than rushing through the math program to score resume points. I believe that schools like Berkeley require their students to repeat calculus anyway, even if they have taken AP calculus.

However, clearly, my bias is towards learning, not resume-building for Harvard.

So what should a “good” or “very good” student take? I would say that, AT MOST, precalculus as a sophomore, calculus AB as a junior, and calculus BC as a senior.

It makes no sense to me to have students, except in rare instances, skip the first semester of college calculus (which is AB) and go straight to calculus BC from precalculus. This latter option is only made possible by the fact that the BC course rushes through the AB material in the first semester and then moves on to additional topics. This puts a lot of demands on students who choose this option, often because their “smart friends are doing it.”

Calculus is not only an important foundation for the physical sciences (and, increasingly, other fields such as economics or financial engineering), but it is a beautiful and interesting topic in its own right. Unfortunately the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has turned it into a rat race to learn test-passing tricks at the expense of comprehension.

Students would be much better served if AP teachers taught the subject at the rate at which their individual classes are absorbing the material.  They should slow down and repeat topics if needed, rather than turn the class into a fast-paced, trick-filled, examination test prep course which “has to” cover all of the material.  This tendency is due to the perceived need to leave copious time for review as early as March, before the AP exams in early May which are well before the end of school!  The last 3-4 weeks of school in May are often wasted as a result!

Of course, AP teachers will respond that they need to operate in this fashion to ensure high AP exam pass rates.  I have argued above that passing an AP exam in order to skip the corresponding class in college is often a very bad idea because high school AP classes, particularly in science, are NOT equivalent to college classes.  Also, math and science classes rely heavily on students mastering the material before they move on to the next level.  The frantic pace in AP classes encourages memorizing tricks instead of mastering a subject.  Students get trapped in this system because of their perceived need to build sterling resumes to get into college.  Because of this pressure, many of them end up hating math and science which is the exact opposite of the result that teachers should want to achieve.

NOTE – This is NOT a specific criticism of the Aragon AP teachers!  They are doing their job as required to teach these classes. If you want to blame someone, blame the ETS and Harvard et al., for promoting this style of education.

Having mentioned the precalculus, AB, BC option above, I think the great majority of good students would be doing well if they just took geometry as a freshman, Algebra II (called Algebra 3/4 at Aragon) as a sophomore, precalculus as a junior, and then calculus AB. A slightly more modest sequence would just be Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, and precalculus, but students should not feel that they are irretrievably behind if they choose these options. In the long run, they may very well end up with a much better understanding of mathematics and not be burned out by the subject.

I have one final note about combining Algebra II with precalculus which I assume is currently being done in response to parental pressure due to discontent with Common Core changes. Precalculus has been a notoriously difficult class at Aragon. Trying to cram Algebra II together with precalculus is a recipe for disaster for many students, in my not so humble opinion.

If you feel the need to have your student take advanced math courses, then taking the prerequisite classes during summer school, or at the College of San Mateo if possible, would be a better option instead of cramming two years worth of instruction into one!

So that’s it. I’m done with my comments about AP. Some parents of “high achieving students” may be aghast.

Did I just hear someone yell, “Incoming!” ??

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

3 thoughts on “Critical Warnings re AP Classes”

  1. Class sign-ups are in progress for the 2017-2018 school year.

    Since posting a link to this article on NextDoor on February 28th, 2017, well over 300 readers have accessed this article in the last few days. Several comments were posted on Nextdoor, and I am reproducing them with the permission of the comment writers in the Comment section here.

    I started this blog because Nextdoor’s reach was very limited and did not reach significant parts of our local high school attendance area, much less the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) as a whole. Nextdoor’s range was recently expanded, which has helped tremendously, but this blog remains the only site accessible to everyone in the SMUHSD. Thus my decision to transfer the comments here along with a renewed invitation to readers, not only to read these articles, but also to post questions and comments about them here.

    If you are having problems with your child’s education along these lines, I might be able to provide some insight.


    David Kristofferson


  2. The first exchange was with a Highlands resident:

    anonymous from The Highlands · 3d ago
    Thanks David. This is fascinating to read. As a parent of younger children and someone who has gone through the AP system nearly 20 years ago, it’s fascinating to learn how the standards have changed. Back then, you had to take Calc AB before taking Calc BC. At my High School, you also had to take regular Physics before taking AP Physics. These classes laid the groundwork for me to be a Physics major in college!

    David Kristofferson from The Highlands · 3d ago
    Thank you. The changes have not been for the better unfortunately. I started tutoring as a retirement hobby because I was concerned that all of our kids were becoming business majors and were no longer pursuing science and engineering as many in the U.S. did in the 60s. I found that the current supposedly rigorous system often ends up turning kids off from these pursuits. I wrote about this in the follow article:

    “How to Interest Kids in Science, Engineering, and Math”

    Or how to really make great American scientists again… 😉 Parents, here are suggestions for how to engage your kids.

    anonymous from The Highlands · 2d ago
    Unfortunately, physics major in college turned into finance career. 😦 Sorry!

    David Kristofferson from The Highlands · 2d ago
    No problem! I subsequently got an MBA too! In the 60s we trained too many scientists and there were not enough jobs in academia and elsewhere to soak them all up. Now we are possibly in danger of going to the other extreme. I’ll bet your physics training enabled you to understand things like Black-Scholes option pricing models! Many physicists went on to do very well on Wall Street!


  3. N. Lewis from The Highlands · 2d ago
    For a different perspective, both my kids went through Aragon, and took as many AP classes as they could reasonably handle. I’m sorry to say, but it is simply true, that on average the AP classes were better taught than non-AP classes. Case in point: APUSH vs regular 11th grade history. One was a great class. One was truly busywork that resulted in zero learning. Also, you mentioned that pre-calc is hard at Aragon. That’s the opposite of what we found – very little material BUT badly taught. I do think the senior year MV Calc is worth taking if the child likes math (VERY well taught), but it did not satisfy any college requirements in that both kids had to retake it in college to get credit (including at UCB). That was not the case for most other AP classes – like Bio, English, Calculus, etc. so it allowed my kids to skip some college English general ed classes, which they deeply appreciated, and didn’t need. All that said, I think this really depends on the child. The typical advice is that if they love a particular subject, that’s the one they should take as an AP class because they will get more depth. My personal wish is for AP courses is that particular attention should be paid to ensuring that any homework provides the most learning per time spent. It’s the homework that’s killing these kids – not the class time. I don’t pretend to know the answer here. But I completely agree that kids shouldn’t be pushed to take AP classes just because their pals are, and they should view skipping some of them as a strategic decision, not a failure. And I hate to point out the elephant in the room – but AP classes absolutely affect college admissions, whether we like it or not.

    Medea Bern from Hillsborough · 2d ago
    Katie Ward is a saint. My son studied under Ms. Ward at Aragon and he still talks about her 8 years later. He taught himself regular physics over the summer, took AP the following fall and did ok but not great on the exam. That said, he graduated from UCD with two engineering degrees. The kids should study what interests them (in addition to the basics) and not chase APs. My younger son nearly killed me taking five AP classes at a time at BHS. It served to earn him a full year of credit for UCSB, and he loved the challenge, so perhaps that is really the answer…

    David Kristofferson from The Highlands · 2d ago
    Thank you for your replies. I would like to point out that there is no “answer” to the AP class dilemma. Every child is unique. My purpose in writing the article is to point out common problems that I have encountered repeatedly with students, and to provide this information to parents for their consideration before their child finalizes their class schedule. Far too often I find that the parents are completely in the dark until their child is in over their heads. I then get a frantic call for help and have to tell them that I am already completely booked and can’t assist them. This happens every single year like clockwork which is why I decided to start my blog.

    Having noted the above, N., I have to disagree strenuously about precalculus at Aragon. Your experience runs counter to almost everyone that I have worked with and also others who have called me frantically after receiving the first report card of the year. It sounds like your children were very talented in math, but, for far too many kids, precalculus at Aragon hits them like a brick wall. I repeatedly receive calls from parents saying that “my child always received A’s in math prior to taking this class, and now I don’t know what went wrong.” I know Aragon staff members outside of the math department who have commented that “precalculus is where 4.0’s go to die…”

    The precalulus program has changed somewhat since your kids went through it, but it still seems to provoke parent-teacher-counselor meetings every year. Last year on Nextdoor before starting my blog, I wrote about the disasterous CPM textbook trial that was abandoned at year end. Those articles are archived at

    Regarding multivariable caclulus, if a student has to skip from precalculus directly to BC in order to take multivariable in high school, it is my experience that they have a weaker grasp of calculus than those who go through AB and BC sequentially, and that is my main concern about that class. I agree that Mr. Shahrvini is one of the best teachers in the math department. Since your kids had to retake multi anyway in college, why not at least get a solid foundation in AB and BC in high school?

    Again, your family’s experience may have been fine, but, on average, your individual results do not jive with what I see repeatedly. Of course, the very top students will not seek out tutoring help, but I have had some excellent student nonetheless, four of whom have been accepted to elite private colleges in just the last two years. You are right that AP classes count towards college admission, but, if they end up destroying a student’s GPA because they tried to take “a bridge too far,” then the result is completely counterproductive. Getting this balancing act correct is each parent’s problem, so I want to give them as much information as possible to assist them in their decision.

    Medea Bern from Hillsborough · 2d ago
    You are right, of course, David–the tragedy is that kids extend themselves hoping to actually earn self-esteem, then because they have bitten off too much and still have to cure cancer and win a gold medal in curling, they might (horrors!) earn only Bs or even, god forbid, a C, thus bringing down that holy grail, the GPA. We parents are assured that colleges consider courses taken, weighing APs higher, but really? When the application reader is looking at an e-stack of 800 apps, it’s 11pm, and the deadline is looming, what actually happens?

    I taught Great Books for three years at Aragon and though those kids had presumably signed up for the class voluntarily, the lack of preparation and the sheer apathy literally made me weepy. Something drastic has to change or our kids are going to be working for the bots.

    David Kristofferson from The Highlands · 2d ago
    Now that I have more time this AM, I would like to respond to one other part of N.’s comment above:

    “My personal wish is for AP courses is that particular attention should be paid to ensuring that any homework provides the most learning per time spent. It’s the homework that’s killing these kids – not the class time. I don’t pretend to know the answer here.”

    I think that the solution to this problem actually lies with the curriculum design. In both the math and physics areas that I teach, the AP program tries to cover too much material. If you look at the score categories and pass rates for AP physics nationwide (cited in my article in the first post above) you will see that they are pretty dismal. The sad thing is that the cited results are AFTER the College Board modified the curriculum to reduce the number of physics topics, so the test designers themselves were aware of the problem, but did not fix it as well as they hoped.

    I repeatedly see cases where many students in a class bomb a test, but the teacher feels pressured to move on anyway to complete the syllabus instead of reteaching the material immediately. The teacher probably hopes that she/he will fix the problem during the final test review portion of the class in March/April. Thus, it is not atypical for an AP class to rush through the entire syllabus by early to mid-March followed by 1.5-2 months of doing practice test problems. The test occurs in early May and then the last 3-4 weeks of school are sometimes wasted!!

    This is what happens when one “teaches to a test.” The more material that is on the test (and AP tests are very tricky!), the more students have to cram instead of learn.

    There is potentially a solution to this problem, but it would hit the College Board in the pocketbook big time, and would require adjustments in processing college applications:

    Use the AP curriculum, but get rid of the standard exam!

    This would, of course, eliminate the college credit option, but many top colleges have come to realize that the quality of learning in these classes is currently low and do not provide college credit anyway as I wrote in this article:

    We should let the teachers teach the material at a rate at which *their* students can absorb it, and give their own tests on their own schedule. There would be no penalty for not covering the entire syllabus, so it would be more likely that the material covered would be taught more effectively. If some high school teachers are incapable of designing good tests at this level, the College Board could provide a website to teachers (and collect their fees from schools/students this way) that would provide pre-made tests (software could modify questions to create different tests).

    N. notes that her kids did well in AP classes and mentions UCB, so I assume at least one of them made it in there. One of my daughters was also valedictorian at Aragon and attended UCB where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Parents like us tend to advocate vigorously for our kids and get the “oil” from the schools. However, I typically work with 15-20 students each year from a variety of skill levels, so I see how the system affects a broad range of students.

    Only a handful of kids from each high school get into these top schools. The high schools also have a responsibility to educate the rest of the students, many of whom may not be quite at the top but are still very good students, and who have every right to get an education and become productive members of society. Sometimes these students are just as smart as the ones who get the top grades, but, because they might be a bit more shy, might not be sufficiently aggressive in asking questions in class.

    It is students like these who suffer the most from the current system. Changes along the lines that I mention above would help more students learn the material without penalizing the top students. The current high school system seems designed more to wash people out of contention than to instruct them. This great sorting mechanism can be postponed for higher education when people pick their specialties. In high school we should be trying our best to educate children in as many subjects as possible instead of trying to wash them out of the system at a young age.

    When I look at the effects of the current system I can see why our society is fragmenting. It starts happening right from the beginning in the hyperkinetic environment that we have created in our schools.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: