Are AP classes worth it? Absolutely, say some Georgia educators

Kenneth S. Lawrence is the 2016 Muscogee County School District Teacher of the Year. Christine Hull is director of advanced learning and gifted programs for the district. In two essays below, they respond to a column I wrote about how some schools are questioning the value of Advanced Placement courses and exams.

AP courses are college-level courses created by the College Board and offered in high school. Students have the option of taking a standardized test at the end of the course, which is graded on a 1 to 5 scale. Students can earn college credit from scoring a 3, 4, or 5.

In Georgia, there is a push to get more kids to take the classes and the exams, which are $93 each. (Policies vary among districts as to who pays and for how many tests.) And colleges, including the University of Georgia, urge applicants to take the most rigorous courses offered at their high schools, which are typically AP courses. So, we now have students graduating with as many as 11 AP classes.

Some schools around the country are re-examining AP classes and exams. In DeKalb, school board member Stan Jester recently questioned awards given to school districts based on how many students take AP exams, rather than how well they do on the AP exams.

He said: “At best, it is giving people a false sense of progress and success at their school. At worst, it undermines instruction in both AP and non-AP classes. There is also the opportunity cost. This money could be redeployed to another use that did produce an increase in student success in some way. What is absolutely, specifically clear right now is that the AP exam pass rates at many schools in DeKalb are a robust indicator that something isn’t working well with the district’s emphasis on AP courses and their exams.” (Despite Jester's doubts, DeKalb remains committed to AP.)

I invited Georgia educators to share their view of the worth of AP to their students. Here's what the two Muscogee educators had to say:

By Kenneth S. Lawrence

Are AP classes and tests worth the investment?

Jihira Lipford, a freshman at Kennesaw State University, thinks so. In a recent conversation with my former student, she seemed shocked this was an argument that had garnered any traction.

“I can’t believe people think that free money for school is a bad idea,” she said.

Jihira was referring to the nearly  $1,000 she saved by scoring high enough on her AP English Literature exam to satisfy her freshman English credit at Kennesaw State.

We have become a very “bottom line” society. We are constantly asking what gets the job done and what does not. For Jihira and thousands like her, AP exams have done the job of making college more affordable, while preparing students for success in college and life.

Jihira expressed regret in not taking more AP exams while she was in high school, “I have a friend that I met here at Kennesaw who was basically a sophomore upon entry because she scored high on multiple AP exams.”

Money remains a major stumbling block for students (especially from low socioeconomic backgrounds) in attending college. Upon being named AP Coordinator at G.W. Carver High School in Columbus, my first goal was to increase the number of students who took AP exams. I knew the $93 exam fee would be problematic and was elated to realize the state would pay for one exam (with each additional exam coming at a reduced price).

With these funds we were able to increase our numbers of exams taken from 6 to 95 in my first year. Carver increased from 95 to 135 exams taken the next year, and we earned the 2016 Georgia AP Champion Award in the process. In Muscogee County, our mission is to inspire and equip all students to achieve unlimited potential.

AP exams assist us in accomplishing this goal and students like Jihira are the outcome to which all districts should aspire. Through our state’s dedication to a similar vision, we were able to help multiple students have access to college at a cheaper rate, while simultaneously fortifying their own efficacy for college success.

Isn’t that the goal of education, to provide a more rich experience for all students? AP coursework and our investment in it is not “false progress” because Jihira and students like her are real. Investment in AP does not undermine education, it undergirds it.

By Christine Hull

In response to your question regarding the return on investment from AP courses and exams, we would like to offer positive feedback as we have seen great gains from growing AP opportunities throughout Muscogee County.

We have increased the number of AP exams students have taken by 37 percent from 1,536 in 2012 to 2,013 in 2016, and we expect to see a rise in test takers this May as well.  We have also experienced a 27 percent growth in students who scored a 3 or higher from 2012-2016.

Alongside this data, we have increased our composite SAT scores by an average of 22 points over the past five years as well as our graduation rate from 76.6 percent in 2014 to 86.1 percent in 2016. We know that our participation in AP programs has helped us increase rigor, prepare more students for college, and improve our graduation rates.

In addition to this quantitative growth, we also would like to share some qualitative, personal examples of how AP aids our students in their educational careers and in life:

Derek Huell, a junior at Columbus High School who has taken 10 AP courses to date, says, "The rigor of the AP curriculum has allowed me to truly challenge myself and expand my knowledge significantly quicker than any other portion of my academic career.”

His peer, Vivian Wu, also a junior at Columbus High School who has taken nine AP courses, says, "Before taking AP classes, I found that ordinary classes were lacking in both material and benefits."

Lisa Mills, an AP teacher at Columbus High School, points out, “Research indicates a direct correlation between completion of AP courses and success in college. Each year, after taking the SAT, many of my former students thank me for the material they learned in AP English Language. The AP program is not about the exam and/or score, but it's about what students learn in the process.”

At Northside High School, a school that increased the number of exams taken at their school by 114 during the previous school year, Romie Ingram, a junior who has taken six AP courses, says, “You’re surrounded by people who want the same level of challenge, and it’s a balance between keeping up with the classes, but also being in classes that keep up with you. My AP peers don’t take their education for granted, and that motivates me.”

Her AP English Language teacher, and a Top Three Teacher of the Year for the district this year, Tabitha Ginther, says: “The beauty of AP is that it truly demands (and provides resources for) teachers to complicate their students’ thinking — to take the world in which we live and look at it through a critical lens. The experiences they have in their AP courses help groom them to be savvy consumers of information and help them develop skills to be independent thinkers and doers and dreamers.”

Michael Lynch, an AP calculus teacher from Spencer High School says, “For our students, a major benefit of AP classes is the fact that they are surrounded by students who also have chosen to take the course with the greater challenge. They have bought in to the idea that being challenged with a tougher work load will, in the long run, have the greater payoff. "

We hope that you will take into consideration our position as a district that we have seen only positive outcomes from participating in what AP offers.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.