“Enough” in the AP Curriculum Landscape

Written by CIT Consultant Susan Whalen

As high school students begin the new school year, College Board officials have sounded new alarms about students who are “over-enrolled” in AP classes, as well as speaking directly to equity issues posed by high schools that “underserve” their students with feeble curriculum offerings for the potentially college-bound.

At  the AP annual conference for educators in Seattle in July 2023, the head of the Advanced Placement program for the College Board, Trevor Packer, noted that “about 7 percent of students take six or more AP courses before graduation, about 28 percent take one to five, and about 65 percent take none.”

Packer reinforced what educators have known for years: Loading up on AP classes doesn’t improve either college readiness or, later, outcomes for college students. “Our research shows that taking and performing well on more than four to six AP exams does not markedly alter first year college grades and four year degree completion,” Packer said. “Our own research shows that it is not necessary for college readiness. Simply taking one or two AP classes at most per year of high school optimizes the type of college readiness that comes from taking that type of challenging class.”

“There are a few students—2 to 3 percent of American high school students—that take a large number of AP courses, perhaps to their detriment, perhaps incurring a degree of stress or sacrificing other valuable opportunities in high school as some sort of arms race to take as many AP classes as possible.”

The dilemma for high performing, college-bound students and their parents is the pressure students feel to take a bulk of AP courses – not for college readiness, but operating on the belief that this schedule will be most impressive to college admissions officers.

The question college consultants hear so often – How many AP classes should my child take? – is thus fraught with considerations: How many, for college readiness; how many, to provide evidence of rigor to admissions at selective colleges; how many, in order to maximize merit money; how many, to show support of the student’s chosen course of study; how many, because the student and thus the family is already really very stressed out with multiple other obligations.

How many, indeed.  And so as we College Inside Track consultants work to assist our families with choosing the path that is right for that student and family, we can look at long term data that supports Trevor Packer’s claim regarding college readiness as a point of departure for family decision making.

For example:

Q:   Kelly will have completed four AP classes by the end of this year, as a junior — AP US History, Econ, Bio, and Physics.  Is this a sufficient number of AP classes if aiming for highly selective colleges? How many AP classes should she take senior year?

A:  Interestingly, in 2013, a University of North Carolina cohort of educators studied the issue of how many AP classes a high performing student should actually take.

Why?  Highly selective colleges were (and are) increasingly seeing entering freshmen who were completely burned out, having taken 8, 9, or even 10 college-level classes while still in high school.

The results of this study were remarkable, and are frequently quoted in education circles to this day: there is no difference in college performance between students who took five AP classes, and students who took 6 or more.

MORE IS NOT BETTER, was the finding. Not better in terms of freshman college readiness or performance, and in fact — more can be socially counterproductive for the student. In this situation —  If Kelly managed the AP advanced curriculum in junior year handily, talk to her (and ask Kelly to talk to her teachers) about how many AP courses would be optimal for her  final year of high school.

In addition, some advanced classes are particularly excellent in terms of preparing students for the rigors of the first year college writing (e.g., AP Language and Composition; APUSH).  Other AP classes work extremely well to support the major the student will declare (for example, AP Physics for future engineers). Kelly might want to explicitly discuss this element of curriculum planning with her teachers and others.  Put another way:  a moderate number of AP classes, judiciously chosen, may well be the best path forward for many kids.

And remember:  Five seems to do it.  How Much is Enough? Rethinking the Role of High School Courses in College Admissions