Too Many AP Courses? It's Possible, Official Says

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

How many Advanced Placement courses are enough? Here in the Washington area, a hotbed of AP mania, the College Board provided an answer for the first time yesterday: Five is plenty in a high school career. Any more, the official response suggested, might be just showing off.

Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program, said he had spoken to a number of college officials about how many of the college-level courses were needed to impress admissions officers and prepare for the rigors of higher education. They told him that "three, four or five AP courses are sufficient" in a high school career, he said. Under that scenario, a student could max out with one AP course as a sophomore and two each in junior and senior years. "Beyond that, they are interested in seeing students participate in other activities."

Many college-bound students in recent years have been spurred by parents, counselors, admissions officers and other advisers -- as well as peer pressure and self-motivation -- to pack their transcripts with tough courses. Many believe the more, the better.

Yesterday, Packer addressed AP overload for the first time at the College Board's annual release of its AP Report to the Nation in downtown Washington. The report once again showed Maryland, the District and Virginia among national leaders in participation on the three-hour AP exams. About a third of graduating seniors in each jurisdiction took an AP test last year, higher than the national average of about a quarter.

Although area students who take a dozen or more AP courses or tests might be overdoing it, Packer and College Board President Gaston Caperton said, the national problem is not that high school students take on too much college-level work but that they take on too little.

Two students on an expert panel convened to discuss the AP report acknowledged that they were guilty of exceeding the five-exam mark. Kyle Daniels, a University of Maryland freshman who graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County, said he took at least six AP exams. Celina Guerra, a Harvard University freshman who graduated from Edinburg North High School in south Texas, said she took at least nine. Both said that they took so many they could not recall the exact number.

College Board data showed that only 2.7 percent of AP students took six or more tests in the past three years, as Daniels did. But he said he was glad he did. "College is a competitive place," he said. "Competing in high school is good preparation for college."

College Board officials reported that 2.3 million AP tests were given in 2006 in 37 subjects. Among 2006 high school graduates, about 24 percent took at least one AP exam, up from about 16 percent in 2000. About 15 percent got at least one grade on an AP test high enough for college credit (3 or better on a 5-point scale), up from about 10 percent in 2000.

The five states with the highest percentage of public high school seniors with at least one credit-worthy AP test grade were: New York, 22.7 percent; Maryland, 22 percent; Utah 20.8 percent; Virginia, 20.7 percent; and California, 20.1 percent. The District's mark of 6.6 percent exceeded the percentage in 19 states. In addition, Maryland had the sharpest six-year increase in the nation; its mark in 2000 was 14.1 percent.

Several area high schools had standout test results. They included St. Anselm's Abbey School in the District, in comparative government and politics; and Eleanor Roosevelt (chemistry and physics), Georgetown Preparatory (calculus), the Key School (French literature), Landon School (microeconomics) and the German School (German language) in Maryland. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia excelled in calculus, chemistry, French, U.S. government and politics, and U.S. history.

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