Are AP Classes Worth It? 4 Reasons Why Critics Say No

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Are AP classes worth it in high school? What are the negative effects of taking AP classes?

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are designed to give high school students a head start on a college degree. But critics have called the program a “racket,” and recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized a proposed AP African American studies course as biased.

Keep reading to learn why recent criticisms show that AP classes may not be worth the effort.

Are AP Classes Worth It?

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are designed to prepare high school students for college and give them a head start on their college education. A report by the College Board, the organization that oversees the development and administration of AP courses, says students who take AP Exams in high school are more likely to graduate from a university program within four years than those who don’t. But, are AP classes worth it when they create extra academic stressors for students? Before deciding whether or not to enroll in AP classes, it’s important to know that the AP program has come under fire in recent years, with critics pointing to the policies and procedures as well as the content of some of the courses.

The critics of AP coursework raise the following four objections:

  • AP courses can perpetuate existing inequality, as affluent schools are more likely to offer them than less affluent ones.
  • Taking AP courses can put too much pressure on high school students, causing mental health problems.
  • The courses aren’t really college level, so students who take them and skip the equivalent college course will be at a disadvantage in other courses.
  • Some AP courses are teaching material that conflicts with K-12 policies.

In this article, we’ll help you decide if AP classes are worth your time and effort by looking at each of these four criticisms in more detail, along with some of the counterarguments and proposed solutions. 

#1: AP Courses Can Perpetuate Inequalities

From its inception, the AP program was more likely to be implemented in more affluent schools. This disparity still exists to some extent. Over the years, however, the College Board has pushed to get their AP courses into lower-income schools, in an effort to remedy inequality issues. But, some say it may be doing more harm than good.

The problem is that underfunded schools don’t have the necessary resources and supports to run the program effectively. AP classes tend to be smaller, require extra training for teachers, and require extra support for students. Wealthier schools have much more ability to put all of this in place, and therefore their students will do better in the courses. AP programs without the proper resources may set students up to fail. And since an AP exam costs $96 to take, this means these students have wasted valuable time, effort, and money, only to fail in the end. In this case, AP classes are not worth the effort of these students, argue critics.

#2: AP Courses Cause Stress for Students

Another reason critics say AP classes are not worth students’ time is due to the increased psychological stress. As AP course offerings expand, high school students are feeling increasing pressure to take them, in order to be competitive in the college application process. Psychologists and high school students themselves have pointed to the potential mental health effects this can have on teenagers

When AP courses were a new thing, only the most well-prepared students could take them. In an effort to make them more accessible to everyone, restrictions have been lifted on who can take them and how many classes a student can take. Many students, feeling pressure to excel above their classmates, will take 12-15 AP classes throughout their high school career, beginning as early as ninth grade. Since these classes are more time-consuming than regular high school classes, students experience increased levels of stress and anxiety and get fewer hours of sleep. 

A proposed solution to this problem would be to institute caps on the maximum number of AP classes a student can take.

#3: AP Courses Are Not Equivalent to College Courses

Another criticism leveled at policies around AP programs is that the classes really don’t have college-level standards, making them not worth students’ time and effort in the long run. This means when a student takes one of these classes and gets credit for the college equivalent, they can be put at a disadvantage when they reach upper-level college classes. And teachers don’t have control over the curriculum—they’re given the curriculum and expected to teach it in a way that gets students to pass the exam at the end. 

Former Boston College Professor John Tierney, who has also taught high school AP courses, calls AP classes a “scam” saying “the AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.” By this, he means that teachers have such a rigid structure and so much material to cover that they can’t possibly delve into deeper learning and critical thinking exercises. This is in contrast to college courses, where professors have the freedom to design their own curriculum and can focus on a deeper exploration of the material, rather than just “teaching to the test.” Psychology Professor Peter Gray agrees, calling AP courses a “racket.” Like Tierney, he argues that, although the College Board is technically a nonprofit, it’s run like a corporation, with an emphasis on profit, and this dilutes the value of the program.

Tierney also points to the lack of criteria for taking the courses, arguing that because they’re open to anyone, many unprepared students take them.

In this case, both Tierney and Gray’s proposed solution would be to abolish the program altogether, and in the meantime, they advise parents and students to opt-out.

#4: AP Course Content Conflicts With K-12 Policies

Finally, critics point to the subject matter of AP classes as their last critique for why these classes may not be worth it for students. This is a political issue that has generated controversy most recently with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attempt to ban a new AP African American Studies course, which the College Board is testing. Critics say that some AP classes teach content that shouldn’t be allowed in K-12 schools.

The Criticisms

The targets for this particular criticism are courses that incorporate studies of race, gender, and sexuality, including Critical Race Theory and Queer Theory perspectives—schools of thought that examine society through the lens of inequalities around race, gender, and sexuality. Republican-leaning states have increasingly attempted to ban these critical perspectives in their schools

In January, the Florida Department of Education rejected the proposed AP African American studies course on the basis that it promotes politically biased ideologies. DeSantis claims some of the content in the course violates his “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which bars K-12 schools from teaching any material suggesting that individuals are either privileged or oppressed due to their race. The objection by DeSantis argues that such perspectives are divisive and promote a specific political agenda. 

But DeSantis’ opponents argue that that’s exactly what he is attempting to do, by eliminating specific perspectives that don’t align with the conservative agenda. A judge who blocked DeSantis’s bill argued that this is tantamount to government censorship, and called the proposed bill “positively dystopian.

The College Board’s Response

The College Board has responded to these criticisms by arguing that AP classes are worth enrolling in as they promote critical thinking—the opposite of indoctrination—and reject censorship. Despite that, the College Board announced that they’ve revised the proposed African American Studies course by removing some of the material that may be considered more controversial. Some of the changes to the curriculum include:

  • Elimination of material by scholars associated with Critical Race Theory and Queer Theory perspectives, including content covering Black feminism
  • Making some topics “optional” so that individual school districts and teachers are free to decide whether to include them—including the Black Lives Matter movement and issues of incarceration, police brutality, and reparations
  • Including “Black conservatism” on the list of optional topics

Although these revisions came shortly after Florida’s rejection of the course, the College Board maintains that they were part of the board’s regular process of curriculum revision and were not prompted by DeSantis’s attack. It remains to be seen whether Florida will accept the revised curriculum. Either way, it looks like the College Board may have more revisions to make to their programs in the future.

Are AP Classes Worth It? 4 Reasons Why Critics Say No

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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