The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why I regret letting my teen sign up for an AP course


It was 11 p.m., and I was preparing to go to bed, when I noticed the light under my 15-year-old son’s door. “Still awake?” I asked, peeking in.

He was hunched over his desk, his heavy textbook open, surrounded by piles of papers. “AP World History,” he said wearily.

He did not need to elaborate.

When my son registered to take an Advanced Placement class during his sophomore year, I was proud. My boy had done well as a freshman at his public school, and now he felt responsible enough to commit to an additional degree of academic rigor.

I did not understand what he was getting into. The rural high school I attended offered no AP options, but course work on the undergraduate level would surely boost the educational opportunities for my son at his decent — but not outstanding — big city school. The classes would give him college credit, allow him to explore advanced academics and provide a preview of what was ahead.

A few months into the school year, I’m wondering whether I was wrong to let him sign up. Had I done some research, I might have discovered a 2013 Stanford study reviewing the literature on AP, which concluded that parental assumptions like mine are often unfounded. Yes, ideally, AP classes enhance the standard high school curriculum, but because the AP experience differs widely from school to school, and is dependent primarily on the skill of individual teachers, it’s impossible to predict whether a student will benefit. Not all colleges give credit for AP courses, the Stanford researchers found. Although students who opt for AP tend to do better in college, it’s unclear whether their success results from the courses, or simply reflects these students’ higher level of academic motivation.

My misgivings started when the homework began to pile up. I knew my son would have a lot of material to cover — the syllabus had been explicit about the required reading. But most of his homework seemed to consist of filling in charts. Night after night, I watched him spend hours scanning the pages of his textbook for relevant facts about ancient civilizations. He was not reading to learn but simply to plug correct bits of information into appropriate boxes.

“But you talk about this stuff in class, right?” I asked him. “You discuss the Code of Hammurabi, and all that?”

No, he told me, they did not. They took notes from the teacher’s slideshow presentations.

This did not remind me of college.

I graduated from an academically rigorous liberal arts school. In my freshman humanities class, I read a book a week: philosophy, literature, biographies, social science. But my classmates and I did not spend our time charting the number of syllables in Emily Dickinson’s poems or listing all the noble houses in Ssu-ma Chien’s chronicle of Chinese history. We were asked to think critically, raise questions, cite relevant passages and discuss a work’s implications in the wider world.

Nothing like that appeared to be taking place in my son’s AP history class. But I kept my mouth shut.

“I would enjoy learning about this,” he told me one night, “if the whole point wasn’t to go through it as fast as possible and then take a kajillion quizzes.”

“I’m sure that’s not the whole point,” I said.

At back-to-school night, I looked forward to meeting the teacher, who would undoubtedly put all this in perspective. Instead, she talked for 15 minutes about tests and grading policies.

At the end, my husband raised his hand. “What’s the main thing you want students to get from this class?” he asked.

I leaned forward expectantly. Now, surely, the teacher would mention an appreciation for the sweep of human history or the importance of an informed perspective on world events.

“Test-taking strategies and study skills,” she said briskly. “That’s the main thing.”

Our boy was right. The whole point really was to pass a regimen of tests and quizzes while hurtling from the prehistoric era to the 21st century. Once I got over that, I appreciated his teacher’s honesty. High school students need study skills. and they are not always taught explicitly. By June, our son should be an expert.

Although the course is not what either of us expected, I admire his diligence on these late nights. He’s learning to manage his time and assimilate information quickly, skills which will undoubtedly serve him well in life. But part of me wishes I had dissuaded him from signing up for the AP class. A college-level class should get kids excited about undergraduate coursework, not turn them off to learning. I worry that after this, he will be reluctant to take another history course. And that would be a shame.

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. She lives in Portland, Ore.

You can find more parenting coverage, and sign up for our newsletter here. Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news.

You might also be interested in:

‘Swallows and Amazons’ forever: Why a now-obscure children’s novel is great summer reading

The myth of the straight-A student, and six ways to debunk it

What college admissions officers say they want in a candidate