This article is a condensed version of my earlier 2016 article entitled Critical Warnings re AP Classes. It has been updated for the 2019-2020 school year.
I can not emphasize enough how big of a problem AP classes create! Because I run a tutoring business as a part-time retirement hobby, I could just keep quiet and let the school system drive business my way, but that would be both cynical and unethical.
I tried to return to teaching at the end of my high tech career to give back to society and impart a love for science and math to today’s students. This has not been easy, as I spend a lot of my time trying to fix problems caused by a seriously flawed education system. My tutoring schedule is almost always full for the upcoming school year around the end of May, and it is usually not possible for me to help those who call after the year starts.
After battling the problems created by the AP system for the first four years of my business, I felt compelled to address these issues head on by opening this blog, writing articles like this, and devoting my own unpaid time to lobby the local school districts on behalf of our students.
Public education used to be the path by which less fortunate families had a chance to help their children achieve the American Dream. Because of (1) increasing AP test fees (nearing $100 per test), (2) demanding college-level curricula given to high school students who often have holes in their prerequisite education caused by earlier flaws in the school system, (3) the sheer numbers of AP courses that students take, and (4) the consequent need to hire tutors to succeed, the path to upward mobility in our society is closing. For this we can thank the College Board who runs this lucrative system and the elite colleges to whom they cater. The AP system serves as a sorting mechanism each year for the thousands of elite college applicants who have 4.0+ GPAs.
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 (see “Mutual Assured Destruction”).
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 originated 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! Don’t find yourself calling for tutoring help for your teen in the middle of October or January after you are surprised by a poor report card! The good tutors will all be booked by that time.
As an additional inducement for careful consideration, I have composed the following summary of topics covered herein to encourage you to read on:
- The AP rate race and its negative impact on learning
- Recommendations regarding AP biology
- 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)
- Recommendation on what math courses to take, and in what sequence, particularly why one should NOT skip from precalculus directly to calculus BC!!
- Why all AP teachers should slow down!
- Why you should NOT take a combined algebra/precalculus class to “accelerate” your math studies. How families are “accelerating” their kids in math.
- Notes on AP Statistics
In a separate article, I addressed the 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.
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. High school juniors are instead usually steeling themselves for a year of staying up after midnight doing homework and dealing with continual sleep deprivation.
The elite institutions are finally starting to wake up as evidenced in the NY Times here. Many prestigious private schools including our local Crystal Springs Uplands school have eliminated the AP curriculum.
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/cram 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 simplifying (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 it for their individual cases.
OBVIOUS, but necessary, WARNING – be careful not to overestimate the ability of your child.
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.”
Aragon High School often recommends not taking more than two AP classes at a time though this advice is usually ignored by students who are trying to compete with their “smart friends.” Unfortunately this advice is often contradicted by other advice telling students to take “a demanding schedule” in order to get into a top college.
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 schools always have teaching resource limitations.
Be sure to know what your school’s drop policy is BEFORE your child embarks on a challenging set of courses.
Let’s start with science, and I will use Aragon High School as my example since it is my 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, and 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. 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. In addition to the lecture classes, 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 was quite good, but the adoption in the 2017-2018 school year of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for the regular physics classes has created problems as noted in the following links in both the regular and the AP program.
My personal preference is that students take regular high school physics first and then take AP physics. It makes little sense for the majority of high school students to take a college level physics class without first having taken high school 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.
Unfortunately the changes to Aragon’s previously excellent regular physics program have created a quandary, and I can no longer recommend the regular physics path. Sadly, when the change to NGSS was made in the 2017-2018 school year, some of my students were told by counselors to take AP physics as it was more like the old regular physics class. This resulted in some students taking AP physics who were not ready for the class with unfortunate results.
The authors of the NGSS standards sought to increase student understanding of Earth and Space Science as well as Engineering. This is a laudable goal in light of, for example, the persistence of climate change denial in some members of the public (some who are very important!).
However, the SMUHSD decided to adopt a condensed version of the standards and integrate this new material into the existing three physics, chemistry, and biology classes instead of implementing NGSS in the preferred four course format. The inclusion of this new material meant that material previously covered in regular physics had to be cut. The new NGSS regular physics problem sets were also significantly less challenging than many of the previous sets.
The old regular physics program attempted to teach students how to visualize what is actually happening in a physical situation instead of immediately jumping to mathematics, i.e., to develop their “physical intuition.” This is an important skill to acquire before diving into mathematical physics, but this class option has been damaged.
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.
I will concede that some students at Aragon go straight into AP physics and “do well.” I find, though, that the ones who previously took both classes tend to understand the AP material better. Sadly, this option has been seriously degraded by the NGSS implementation.
Note that “doing well” grade wise in AP classes does not necessarily mean that the student understands the material!!
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 have heard rumors that Aragon may be considering changing prerequisites in 2019 for AP physics by requiring that students have already completed precalculus. Previously students could take the two courses simultaneously which was a challenge in its own right.
I will update this section when I hear further details on this issue. In the interim students’ physics options remain problematic except for those at the top who are not intimidated by the kind of tricky word problems common in AP physics.
I do not have comments on AP chemistry. Surprisingly, although I have had several regular chemistry students over the last several years, I have rarely received a request for help with AP chemistry which I hope is a good sign about that class.
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. See my article How Students are “Accelerating” in Math at Aragon for details
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 attempted to slow things down to strengthen students’ math foundations, but this effort attracted a lot of flak from parents with advanced kids.
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 sometimes hurt this effort.
Personally, although I know that the multivariable calculus class at Aragon is a matter of school pride and is taught by an excellent 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.
Some colleges, having recognized problems with AP mathematics, require their students to repeat calculus anyway, even if they have taken AP calculus.
So what classes should a “good” or “very good” student who may not be a “genius” and doesn’t spend after school time many days each week at, e.g., the Russian School of Math, 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 part of the first semester (August through October!) 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.” I frequently find that even students who get A’s in BC, do so through short-term memorization and test-taking strategies instead of truly understanding the material.
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 GPA, a much better understanding of mathematics, and not be burned out by the subject.
One note about accelerated classes, e.g., combining Algebra II with precalculus. This class was created 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 can be a recipe for disaster.
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 class! Topics are inevitably omitted in these condensed classes.
[Note added 2/16/2019 – In responses to this article, I was informed privately that the dropout rate in these accelerated classes may be high. See here for details. This controversy has been resolved and was due to the release of incorrect information from Aragon. However, I strongly encourage those interested in the accelerated program to read the article in the previous link. It contains important information from the school about the program.]
Finally here is a note on AP Statistics.
AP Statistics is different from all of the other more mainstream math classes. Instead of doing a lot of traditional mathematics problems, the course consists almost entirely of real-life word problems which makes it seem like a very practical class.
However, because true understanding of statistical techniques requires more advanced mathematics than possessed by high school students, AP Statistics tends to present students with a lot of statistical formulas and statistical tests simply as “facts” that need to be memorized without proof.
If your student is not good at memorization and deciphering word problems, I would think very carefully before taking this class. I wrote about AP Statistics elsewhere in detail and strongly recommend that you read that article before signing up for AP Statistics.