The AP and IB Arms Race
Sometimes more challenging coursework is a good thing for students. And sometimes more is too much.
Some observers feel the frenzy over advanced placement has gotten out of hand. McLean High School PTSA President Wilma Bowers is one such critic. She is now leading the charge against what she views as a parental arms race that pushes kids to take on more than they can handle.
“That hyper-intensive, competitive mode of operation is probably only appropriate for about 5 percent of our students,” Bowers says, paraphrasing Madeline Levine, a Stanford University psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.
Others, like Yorktown parent Margie Adams, see teachers and school administrators as equally culpable. When Adams suggested that her daughter forgo a sixth year of an advanced language in order to have a free study hall period during her senior year, a teacher reportedly told Natalie that doing so “looks bad” on college applications.
Jon Remedios, now a senior at Duke University, recalls how a well-meaning teacher tried to persuade him to take a fourth AP class his senior year at Wakefield High School, even though he was already class president, yearbook editor and captain of the basketball team. “I had to monitor what I wanted to do, what I really wanted to accomplish,” Remedios says. “Look at the full picture, not just academics. It’s not the only thing, and I think lots of kids miss that.”
But some students contend that they don’t always have a choice when it comes to downshifting their academic load. Those who complete algebra or geometry by eighth grade, for example, are often left with an AP math class as their only logical next step—even if math is not their area of strength. So they end up taking the AP class, for fear that college admissions officers will frown upon a transcript that doesn’t show a math class every year.
And then there’s the friend factor. Peer pressure to overachieve is a powerful force in D.C. suburbs such as Arlington, where 37 percent of adults have a graduate degree and “average” is seen as less than acceptable. Many area students have begun to view regular classes as curricula for “slackers.”
Jay Mathews, an education columnist for The Washington Post, argues that students and their parents are partly accountable for the ever-rising academic bar.
“The Washington-area suburban high schools do not make students take lots of AP courses. The colleges and the students’ own culture are the culprits,” he says. “Selective colleges make it clear these days that they will not consider candidates that have not done AP or IB. Students also are far more likely to take a lot of APs because their friends are doing it. They want to be a part of that crowd.”
Of course, Mathews is sometimes accused of doing his part to fuel the fire. Since 1998, he has been the force behind The Washington Post’s Challenge Index, a national ranking of high schools that’s formulated based on the number of students taking advanced academic tests at each school. Critics have noted that the Challenge Index score reflects only one limited measure of a school (how students actually score on the tests is immaterial to the index). Nevertheless, the index is often interpreted by parents and the press as a showcase of the “best” schools.
Recognizing the fallout for certain students, some experts are beginning to question the conventional wisdom around advanced academic classes and testing. “Some worry that [AP] has been oversold, distorted, and that real collateral damage is being wrought, straining schools, rewarding rigid, superficial memorization, and discouraging true intellectual curiosity in students,” researchers at Stanford University summarized in a 2013 study.
The study, conducted for the Stanford-based educational nonprofit Challenge Success, also investigated whether there is, in fact, a causal relationship between AP classes and college achievement. “Studies that simply establish that students who are involved with the AP program in high school perform better in college do not necessarily provide proof that the AP program caused the students to be successful in college,” lead researcher Denise Pope (who co-founded Challenge Success with Madeline Levine) observed in the study. While correlations have been noted between AP classes and positive college performance, other factors, such as family background and student motivation, also come into play, she says.
Students and parents often blame the Ivy League and other selective colleges for perpetuating the current cutthroat environment, insofar as such schools advise taking “the most rigorous academic program available” (as stated on the University of Virginia’s admissions website).
“What parents are saying is that ‘until colleges change their message, I’m not going to let my kid be the sacrificial lamb,’ ” Pope observes.
But colleges say it’s the literal interpretation of this advice that gets students into trouble.
“What admission officers almost always say…is focus on what lights your fire and take advantage of the most challenging offerings in those areas,” urges NACAC’s Hawkins. “That’s a very different message from, ‘Take all of the AP classes.’ ”
In fact, overemphasizing advanced academics can backfire, notes Jeannine Lalonde, senior assistant dean of admissions at UVA. “We don’t have any expectations as to a certain number of AP or IB classes,” she says. “There’s a balance to be struck on every transcript. In recent years, people have been leaning really heavily on strength of curriculum and then the student has a hard time sustaining good grades.”
This is particularly true, she says, for first-semester high school seniors who are trying to fit college applications in with burdensome homework loads.
Furthermore, AP and IB applicants have grown so common that they no longer stand out on their academic merits alone. “Colleges have hit an upper limit in the ability to absorb Advanced Placement from the admissions perspective,” Hawkins says. “There are so many students taking it now that it’s very difficult to use it as a differentiator during the admission process.”
As a result, some students are finding that their hard work doesn’t reap the rewards they had hoped for.
“A lot of my friends who didn’t do full IB got into the same colleges as I did,” says Madison*, who recently graduated from W-L with a full IB diploma. “Colleges don’t realize that IB is so much harder than AP classes or really appreciate that.”
Most colleges continue to grant course credits to freshman entering with high AP and IB scores, but some are raising the bar. While most high schools count an AP score of 3 as passing, for example, Harvard accepts only 5’s (the highest possible AP score) in order to give the student college credit for the high school course. It accepted 4’s up until 2002.
The same is true of IB exams, which are scored on a scale of 1 to 7. Most elite colleges today will grant course credits only in exchange for IB “higher level” scores of 5 and above (IB courses fall into two strata, “higher level” and “standard level”), even though most high schools count a 4 as passing.
Dartmouth College no longer grants course credits for high test scores—the faculty do not believe that AP or IB classes can replicate the college experience—although it still exempts AP and IB students from taking certain base-level courses.
And there is no guarantee that a backbreaking AP or IB course load will ultimately result in an acceptance letter from a student’s first-choice college. “You could take every AP known to man and still not get into Harvard,” Pope says.