Advanced Placement Isn't the Only Road to College Success

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dear Extra Credit:

Your overzealous attachment to AP leads you astray statistically sometimes.

You said: "The data show that taking and doing well on an AP test correlates with higher college graduation rates" [Montgomery Extra, June 8]. Surely you know that correlation is not causation. Most of the students who did well on AP exams undoubtedly would have done well in college whether or not they took AP in high school.

I went to a chump public high school with no AP classes or exams, had average SAT scores for Duke [University], yet finished high in the class despite my lackluster educational background. Smart kids do not need AP courses to do well in college. They just need opportunities to excel once they get there.

Thank goodness I didn't have to take five or six AP courses my junior and senior years of high school. Instead, I got to work on my social skills and enter college with a sense of balance (did you read the recent article on cutting among Ivy League students?) and a focus that was less on individual achievement and more on community building (many of my high school friends were in tough family situations, and we learned how to cope by relying on one another).

My biggest issue with high schools and colleges pushing every bright student toward a course load that is 75 to 80 percent AP (this is what competitive colleges tout at information sessions at our AP-rich Montgomery County schools) is that it limits self-discovery during the high school years. For creative types, this expectation seems especially cruel. Do you know how many hours they devote to homework and class work, taking in and regurgitating information, and how little time there is for the would-be Jim Henson's of the world to create their own information, discover their unique creative talents or simply take in the world around them? My bright, artsy writer daughter is transferring for her junior and senior years to a private school that stresses intellectual pursuits and extracurricular discovery and is less about factory production of AP students.

I think you and the educational establishment (colleges in particular) are doing many bright students a disservice by pushing AP to such an extreme. These kids would do well in college anyway, and they are sacrificing their childhoods, which are so important, and are taught to obsess over individual achievement at an early age.

Yvette Chocolaad

Chevy Chase

You make a good point with which I suspect many readers agree, although at first I did not read your letter as carefully as I should have. I thought when you said that smart kids did not need AP to do well in college you meant all smart kids, including those in inner-city schools, which often don't offer much AP. You assured me in a follow-up message that that was not the case. You said you shared my view that some form of challenging courses should be available for all students. Your emphasis, you said, "was on the overloading of AP for bright kids in AP-intense schools" who hope to go to selective colleges.

I think you are right to be concerned about some students taking more AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses than are good for them. There are many otherwise intelligent people in Montgomery County who think you have to take eight or nine AP or IB courses to have a chance to get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Amherst, Stanford and colleges of that ilk. Some kids find themselves on an AP or IB treadmill that does, as you say, deny them a chance to enrich their lives with reading or writing for pleasure, basket weaving or whatever else suits them.

I have written a book about college admissions, interviewed hundreds of high school counselors and admissions officers, and know for a fact that selective colleges are happy to see just three or four AP or IB test results, enough to know that the student has tackled some college-level courses and shown an ability to handle them. It is not the number of AP courses that separates you from the pack in the competition for selective college admission but, curiously enough, those non-homework passions I just mentioned. If an admissions officer has one applicant who has taken nine AP tests and has the usual collection of class offices and clubs and sports teams, and another applicant with three AP scores and a collection of published poetry, the selective college admissions officer -- all other things being equal -- is going to take the poet every time. Interesting and unusual after-school passions are the gold standard of modern college admissions, so loading up too many AP courses can actually hurt you.

Our only disagreement is over who is to blame for these students getting the wrong idea. You say the colleges and the high school counselors are the culprits. You told me in a follow-up message about a counselor who gave your daughter this impression. I urge you to call that counselor and see if this wasn't just a case of miscommunication. I have yet to hear any high school counselor or college admissions officer say you need to have 75 to 80 percent of your courses be AP or IB to get into a selective school.

My interviews with bright Montgomery County teens convince me that most who choose heavy AP or IB schedules do so because they think the alternative courses are boring or dumb, and because they want to be with (and compete with) their like-minded friends. That may be shortsighted on their part, but part of growing up is making choices and seeing how they work out, just as your smart daughter is doing.

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