By Alex Medina

Boyle Heights Beat

Leslie Morales’ college admission strategy sounds great on paper. She’s a student athlete, a member of College Track –a rigorous college prep program for low-income students – and taking three Advanced Placement courses: U.S. History, Spanish and Calculus.

But her demanding schedule isn’t easy.

“Taking AP courses has made it challenging for me to manage my schedule,” says the 16-year-old junior at Theodore Roosevelt High School. “I do not always have enough time to do everything, which is one of the reasons I have begun to fall behind on all of my school work.”

A growing number of educators is questioning the value of AP classes, which are designed to offer college-level curriculum to high schoolers, in part because of student experiences similar to Morales’.

Stanford University’s “Challenge Success”–an organization that works with schools and families to develop strategies to ensure student success–reviewed education studies on the AP exam in 2013. The analysis found that in 2010, most inner city students weren’t passing their AP exams, that there wasn’t enough evidence that such courses improved learning and that more research was needed to support the claim that AP classes help students succeed in college.

The review also found conflicting opinions on claims that schools with AP programs are better than those without them and that the courses:

  • Give students several advantages in college
  • Help narrow achievement gaps, and
  • Enrich students’ high school experiences.

Debates about these claims continue.

College Success found that some high schools, public and private, have decided to stop offering AP courses altogether. And some colleges, including Ivy League universities such as Dartmouth College, Brown University and several departments at Columbia University – no longer give academic credit for high AP test scores, according to The College Board.

The case for AP classes

High school counselors and college admissions officers often tout AP courses as a way to help students stand out in college admissions, build skills and earn college credit.

“We’re looking for academic potential,” says Kirk Brennan, associate dean and director of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California. “We’re looking for strong students who are willing to get stronger. We want students that are ready to take on even more and want to push themselves even further.”

Yet AP classes are not the best option for all students. Morales, for instance, is still debating if they are for her.

“I have a hard time learning and focusing during class because I get lost at times during lessons,” Morales says, which makes her think “that this is too challenging for me and sometimes makes me want to quit.”

The Boyle Heights resident says she pushes herself to do things she knows will be hard to prove she’s capable. But “when everything starts going wrong, and my grades start to drop, I give up at that moment, and I regret taking AP classes,” she says.

Approximately 2.6 million students nationwide took one or more AP class in 2016, with about 4.7 million AP exams taken, according to The College Board.

While policies regarding AP classes vary by district, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) says that any student can enroll. Most AP courses are offered without prerequisites, which means almost any student can take one, including those who may be unprepared and struggle with the workload.

How AP works

The College Board, a nonprofit organization founded to expand access to higher education, created AP classes. It’s also behind the SAT, a standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States.

The AP Program offers more than 30 courses, including English, foreign languages, art and various science, history and math courses. Few high schools offer all the classes.

A student’s success in an AP course depends not only on the teacher, classmates and curriculum, but also the student’s workload and how well he or she can manage college-level material, studies have found.

USC Admissions’ Brennan says that students are more capable than they may think. “I hope that students are striving to do their best,” he says. “I don’t want students to take on more than they can handle, but I want students to feel encouraged to challenge themselves.”

For Anthony Ho, a junior at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, that challenge seems like something he can handle. “I think that AP classes are difficult, but I think any high school student is capable of taking them,” he says.

Besides taking AP Calculus, U.S. History and English, Ho is on Bravo’s varsity cross country team and a member of two clubs at school. “I’m on one of the city’s top cross country teams,” says the 16-year-old. “All Bravo runners enrolled in APs know the struggle of getting home at six, only to get started on the AP workload.”

More than one path to college

Admissions officers at top schools advise students not to think about AP as an all or nothing formula.

“In general, students who are taking more rigorous courses tend to be the types of students that we prefer to admit,” Brennan says. “There are always exceptions. I think students should recognize that there is a place for them somewhere in the higher education landscape, and they should try to find that place, no matter if they have AP classes or not.”

Although taking rigorous courses in high school makes a student stand out, it’s not the only thing colleges look at, Brennan says.  He says that personal statements, recommendations and extracurricular activities are important.

“There are always reasons to take in a student we feel can make a positive impact on campus.”

AP Exams

-In May, students enrolled in AP courses take the AP Exam. It is designed to measure how well they have “mastered the content and skills of the class.”

-Depending on the college a student applies to and their AP score, they can earn college credits and sometimes place into advanced classes.

-The final score is based on a 5-point scale system. Most colleges award credits only for a score of 4 or 5; some give credit for a 3.

Source: The College Board

Alex Medina

Alex Medina is a graduate of Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School and 2018 alumnus of the Boyle Heights Beat. He is a recent graduate of Hamilton College in Central New York where he majored in Hispanic...

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