This article is a condensed and updated version of my 2016 article entitled Critical Warnings re AP Classes. It has been updated for the 2020-2021 school year.
I can not emphasize enough how big of a problem Advanced Placement (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 returned to teaching at the end of my high tech career to give back to society and try to impart a love for science and math to today’s students because I was worried about the future competitiveness of our country. This has not been easy, as I spend a lot of my time trying to fix problems caused by a flawed education system. My tutoring schedule fills for the upcoming school year around the end of May, and it is almost always impossible for me to help those who call after the year starts, so this article and blog is NOT a self-centered attempt to drum up business.
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. Lyndon Johnson referred to the American public school system as “the only valid passport from poverty.”
- increasing AP test fees (nearing $100 per test),
- demanding college-level curricula given to high school students who often have holes in their prerequisite education caused by earlier flaws in the K-8 curriculum,
- the sheer numbers of AP courses that students feel compelled to take, and finally
- the consequent demand to hire expensive tutors to succeed,
our public schools are essentially becoming privatized which favors the well-to-do, and 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 college admissions to evaluate the thousands of elite college applicants who all have 4.0+ GPAs. The primary purpose of these AP tests is to “spread out the curve” to help with college admissions. The question about whether the methods used in the AP curriculum constitute good educational practice for the vast majority of students who will not attend Harvard and Yale is very much open to debate.
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 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!
- Considerations about accelerated/compacted math classes. 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.
Many prestigious private schools including our local Crystal Springs Uplands school have eliminated the AP curriculum.
The elite colleges are waking up as evidenced in the NY Times 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/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 classes each semester? 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 often stem from issues in elementary and middle schools.
My intent in this article is to offer advice about specific AP math/science (STEM) classes to parents of children coming up through the system. It is limited to math and science AP classes, except for one cautionary note on AP U.S. History below. 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 at times contradicted by other counseling 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 ceiling.
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.
*** AP U.S. History ***
I said that I would focus on STEM classes but I must first make one comment about this history class as I have seen it negatively impact student GPAs in their STEM classes on multiple occasions.
AP U.S. History has a high volume of reading and paper writing. I have seen several students become so exhausted by the demands and late nights devoted to this class, that I feel compelled to issue this warning. This class may negatively impact students’ ability to focus their attention on STEM classes simply due to exhaustion from the workload!
If your student intends to pursue a STEM major in college, no one will care if they take AP U.S. History versus the regular history class! Please do not risk a black mark on your GPA over an unimportant class from a STEM perspective. AP U.S. History in high school makes sense if you plan to be a history or humanities major, but the other AP STEM classes are so demanding that it is foolish to add the burden of this “APUSH” class on top of them!
Having issued the above warning, now let’s start with science. I will use Aragon High School as my example since it is my local high school and most of my clients are from there.
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 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.
The AP pass rates in the SMUHSD remain good, but I think this is due to a combination of extensive classroom test prep and private tutoring. I continue to have serious reservations about the quality of understanding exhibited by AP physics students who are often overwhelmed with complicated material. As noted below, one only needs a score of about 40% to “pass” the AP Physics 1 exam!
I am concerned that students are not receiving sufficient practice problems before they move on to the next topic. This undoubtedly reflects the need to cover the extensive curriculum and finish it by around mid-March, so that the final month and a half can be used for exam prep/cramming before the AP exam in early May. The majority of May is therefore lost for meaningful instruction. This scheduling issue is true not only for AP Physics but for other AP classes.
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. Normally physics students should work enough practice problems that formulas like Newton’s Second Law (F=ma) and the formulas for momentum (p=mv) and kinetic energy (KE = (1/2)mv^2) should simply roll off their tongues. The formula sheet approach/crutch results in students often not knowing this extremely basic information after taking the course for months!!!
Unfortunately the changes in 2017-2018 to Aragon’s previously excellent regular physics program have created a quandary, and I hesitate to recommend the regular physics path even though it has improved somewhat from the initial rollout. 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 AP Physics 1 pass rate dropped by 4% from the year before.
The authors of the Next Generation Science Standards sought to increase student understanding of Earth Science, Space Science and Engineering in addition to the standard subjects of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. 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 influential on national policy!).
However, the SMUHSD and many other California districts decided to adopt a condensed version of the NGSS 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 some 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 regular physics 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.
I will concede that many students at Aragon go straight into AP physics and “do well.” I find, though, that the ones who previously took regular physics tended to understand the AP material better. Sadly, this option has been seriously degraded by the NGSS implementation. The NGSS curriculum is not controlled by the College Board and tends to be more of an integrated science curriculum, mixing physics and chemistry, for example in the pursuit of bigger science “themes.” Regular physics is therefore less suitable now as a stepping stone to the AP classes.
I am therefore hesitant to make a recommendation as to which physics class to choose without a detailed knowledge of a student’s capabilities. For most students I wish that Aragon offered an “honors” physics class that is above the NGSS level but does not include the rushed schedule and trappy problems that plague students on the AP exam.
Note that getting “good grades” in AP classes does not necessarily mean that the student understands the material!!
SMUHSD’s AP Physics 1 2019 pass rate was 71%, up 8% from 2018. This is in part due to the quality of the teaching, but one should also note that many local AP physics students have the luxury of parents who can afford private tutoring.
For the 2019-20 school year Aragon also changed the math prerequisites for AP physics by requiring prior completion of precalculus. This may result in another increase in the AP Physics 1 pass rate in spring 2020. Previously students could take AP Physics 1 and precalculus simultaneously which was a major challenge in its own right.
Nationally in 2019 the AP Physics 1 pass rate (getting a 3, 4, or 5) on the AP physics 1 exam was only 45.4%, as usual the lowest of any AP exam! Even more damning is the fact that one only needs a score of about 40% to get a passing grade of 3. The problem is not with the students; too much material is covered far too quickly!
Please note that I 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 eight years, I have only received 3 requests 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 (often the College of San Mateo) 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. In addition Common Core’s implementation has raised a slew of controversy.
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 hurts 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 take, i.e., a 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?
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. My students (several of whom have gone on to Ivy League schools and Stanford) who have taken both classes emerge from Aragon with a good foundation in the subject. I have also seen top students, who skipped AB for BC, subsequently retain the material learned for a much shorter period of time as a result of the cramming techniques that they resorted to so as not to ruin their perfect GPAs while taking only Calculus BC.
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 skipping Calculus AB turns the subject into a rat race to learn test-passing tricks at the expense of comprehension.
Students would be much better served in terms of comprehension 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. But, of course, if they did this, the worry is that the AP pass rates would fall. We all know that education is not about learning, but simply winning the race to get into a great college….
I also noted above that passing an AP exam in order to “save money” by skipping 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.
Finally, math and science classes rely heavily on students mastering prior material before they move on to the next level. The frantic pace in AP classes often encourages memorizing tricks instead of mastering a subject. Because of this pressure, many students end up avoiding STEM majors in college 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 College Board, Harvard, and others for promoting this style of education.
Having mentioned the precalculus, AB, BC option above, I used to think that 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.
Unfortunately, because there are pretty much only two math streams at Aragon, reports from my students in the regular math classes are indicating that a not insignificant portion of students in these classes have weak math backgrounds. These students can sadly be less motivated, and sometimes disruptive. I have received reports from my own students in regular math classes, as well as from parents of students who I do not tutor, that the better students in the regular classes are not challenged, homework loads are so light that work is often finished in class, and the better students are often bored.
Similar to the changes with regular versus AP physics described above, it is hard to make a recommendation for students who are average to above average, but not math geniuses. Although I was not a great fan of the accelerated/compacted math classes previously, the lower level options are looking more questionable as time goes by, NOT because the teaching is bad, but because the multiple math skill levels and classroom management issues that these teachers have to address are more challenging.
Regarding accelerated classes, e.g., combining Algebra II with precalculus.
These classes were 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, might be a better option instead of cramming two years worth of instruction into one class! Topics are inevitably omitted in these condensed classes.
In responses to the 2019 version of this article, I was informed by a parent that the drop rate from these accelerated classes was high, but this parent had been given incorrect figures from an Aragon staff member. See here for details. However, I strongly encourage those interested in the accelerated program to read the article in the this link and especially the Comment section after it. It contains important information from the school about the accelerated program.
Finally, here is a note on AP Statistics.
AP Statistics is different from all of the other 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.
I also think that students who have completed Calculus AB in their junior year should think seriously about taking Calculus BC senior year instead of AP Statistics for reasons that I explain in the article behind this link. Some students hear that AP Statistics is “easy” and are looking to relax a bit during their senior year. It is more accurate to say that AP Statistics is “different” than other math classes and that the skills required in that class may not be possessed by students who usually breeze through other math classes. It is better to learn this now by reading the two articles above than find it out later by failing “Stats” tests!!