Academic Rigor and the AP Dilemma

Jed Applerouth, PhD
May 15, 2019
min read

The Advanced Placement program has had a profound impact on the American high school curriculum. Since its humble beginnings in 1955 - when some 1,200 students took a mere 2,200 exams - the AP has grown into a juggernaut, dominating the high school landscape: in 2018 over 2.8 million students from over 22,000 high schools took an eye-popping 5,090,324 AP exams. This week, millions of students across the country will be taking one of the 38 distinct AP exams. Many students hope to secure a high enough score to gain college credit or impress admissions officers, while others are simply filling in bubbles and writing soliloquies to pass the hours of the exam.

Year Schools Students Exams
1956 104 1,229 2,199
1962 1,358 16,255 21,451
1966 2,518 38,178 50,104
1970 3,186 55,442 71,495
1974 3,357 60,863 79,036
1978 4,323 93,313 122,561
1982 5,525 141,626 188,933
1986 7,201 231,378 319,224
1990 9,292 330,080 490,299
1994 10,863 458,945 701,108
1998 12,486 635,168 1,016,657
2002 14,157 937,951 1,585,516
2006 16,000 1,339,282 2,312,611
2010 17,861 1,845,006 3,213,225
2014 19,493 2,342,528 4,176,200
2018 22,612 2,808,990 5,090,324

The AP program has become a dominant force and it is no surprise that some stakeholders are beginning to push back and question its ubiquity and our collective reliance on the AP curriculum as the de facto standard of rigorous course-taking in our country.

The push for more

The patterns of AP course-taking have shifted dramatically since I attended high school. AP courses used to be the province of the most ambitious students, who took several AP courses to show prospective colleges their strength in key areas. When I started high school in 1990, only 330,000 of our nation’s students took AP exams. I was an ambitious student and took a total of seven AP classes and eight exams over my four years of high school; this was as rigorous a schedule as that taken by any of my peers. I remember how hard I had to work to keep up with the assignments in my AP classes. When I graduated and arrived at Penn as a freshman, I felt over-prepared for the workload, and I had earned enough college credits to complete a dual-degree in four years without impacting my summers. I felt the AP curriculum had served me well.

In today’s world, my seven AP courses wouldn’t seem nearly as impressive as they once did, and my strength of schedule would place me more in the middle of the pack than at the top of the class at many high schools. Many students today are completing ten, eleven, or twelve AP courses, and at top public schools, like Stuyvesant in NYC, some of the most ambitious students are taking fourteen or fifteen AP courses. I cannot begin to imagine what that academic load would look like and how that kind of a schedule would affect my life balance and mental health.

It’s not just the overachievers who are AP-focused. There’s a general understanding that APs (and equally rigorous IB classes) are essential to demonstrate academic rigor to many of the nation’s selective colleges. Parents listen attentively when high school college counselors share stats about which of their students attained admission to particular colleges and universities:

“The University of Virginia took our students with an average of seven or more APs.”

“The University of Georgia took our students with an average of 5.6 APs.”

Parents can read the clues: if their sons or daughters want to get into one of the affordable flagship universities, the number of AP courses makes a huge difference: in effect, AP courses equal direct cost-savings to their families. As a result, I’m not the least surprised to observe parents fighting their high school administrations when they want more AP course offerings for their children.

Can we blame these parents for wanting more AP courses? Can we blame under-resourced schools for pushing the AP curriculum onto students who have little hope of securing a passing score? They are all responding to the consistent messages we are receiving: if you want to compete in the arena of selective college admissions, academic rigor - and those AP classes - make a significant difference.

AP as a signal, for comparison’s sake

With grade inflation running rampant in American schools, having a strong GPA consisting primarily of A’s is not nearly as special as it once was. When an A is essentially an average grade, we need some other way of differentiating students. Admissions officers at selective colleges and universities have shifted to academic rigor as a means of making these distinctions. Many students have A’s, but not everyone has A’s in highly rigorous courses. AP courses offer a measurable yardstick, an efficient proxy for rigor, which is necessary in the current state of admissions where entire applications are processed in under ten minutes.

The pushback against AP expansion

Although AP courses are spreading like wildfire to more high schools and students each year, a small but highly visible cohort of high schools has come to question and reject the AP curriculum. Last year, we reported on the decision of seven prominent Washington DC high-schools to drop their AP programs by 2022.

These schools, highly respected and nationally prominent, do not need the AP curriculum: their students will not suffer without it. Before making the announcement, these schools surveyed almost 150 college and university admissions offices to ensure that dropping the AP program would have no adverse effects on admission outcomes for their students. They learned that their students would pay no price in the admissions landscape; their matriculation lists wouldn’t change, and dropping the AP curriculum would give their teachers more freedom to innovate.

At these schools, the push to drop the AP curriculum came predominantly from within individual departments. The issue was not whether the AP curriculum was innately bad, but whether the AP curriculum was necessary at schools like Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day School, where so many teachers have advanced degrees in their fields of study, Master's and PhDs, and outstanding pedagogical skills. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to allow these teachers to design a more dynamic syllabus, one not circumscribed by the College Board, to reflect their own strengths and interests? There is an element of privilege afforded schools with this level of teaching talent, one that does not easily translate to many of the nation’s 30,000 high schools, where most of the teachers do not have Master's degrees or PhDs in their fields of study.

The decision of these schools to drop the AP program also reflects a desire to take some of the pressure off of their students and change the high-pressure culture of academics. Students felt pressure to stand out from the crowd by taking increasingly challenging courses. But it’s not ideal for students to max out academic rigor at every level, even if they are capable of doing so. There are negative effects, opportunity costs and trade-offs of pursuing too much rigor. There is too much of a good thing.

Impact on college admissions officers

When high schools drop the AP program, it changes the way admissions officers read transcripts. The AP is an easy signal, a countable, measurable yardstick. Without that yardstick, admissions officers have to work a little harder.

High schools who have dropped their AP/IB curriculum find ways to signal the relative rigor of their courses in their school profiles, by using an asterisk, bolding, italicizing, or highlighting their upper-level courses. Some schools assign distinctive titles to differentiate rigorous classes. The Urban School in San Francisco uses the Urban Advanced Studies (UAS) distinction. The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey highlights rigorous classes. Scarsdale High School in New York uses a college-like numbering system to distinguish the level of rigor across classes

Instead of counting the number of APs or IBs, admissions officers end up counting how many 400 and 500 level classes a student is taking, or how many classes are bolded (or highlighted or marked with asterisks) to inform academic strength. Admissions officers need quantitative measures to avoid being overly subjective, and potentially biased, in their appraisal of a student’s academic strength. In the end, we need something to count when making difficult comparisons. Counselors at many independent high schools help admissions officers by completing the Common Application’s secondary school report. They assign a curriculum rating for each student’s course load - i.e., most demanding, very demanding, average - offering another way to measurably differentiate levels of academic rigor across a class.

If we lose the rigor signal, what is left to differentiate students?

If GPAs and academic rigor don’t send a clear signal, admissions officers have another highly efficient yardstick for comparison: standardized testing. However, there is also pushback against the growth of testing in admissions. Other stakeholders propose finding a way to compare students based on non-cognitive variables, signals of character like grit and resilience. There, we run into yet another problem: it’s not easy to appraise a student’s level of grit or resilience, and as soon as you administer a test-of non-cognitive variables, students will learn how to answer the items to send the desired signal. We would need some other way to measure these traits and skills.

What you lose by dropping the AP

One of the hallmarks of the AP program is that it allows students a chance to gain college credit, take more electives in college, and graduate early. In my family, my sister was able to use her AP course credits to graduate from college a full year early. This had a substantial economic impact on the cost of her education. The chance to shorten an expensive college education can be a boon to many families concerned with the cost of higher education. Some highly selective schools like Harvard, Brown and Amherst do not give credit for APs, and many colleges restrict the granting of credit, but the schools that do give credit create hundreds of millions of dollars in cost savings for American students.

Research on academic rigor and APs: curricular strength matters

College admissions offices have long understood that there is a relationship between the courses a student takes in high school and their eventual college success. Researchers have stepped in to help quantify the relationship. Clifford Adelman, a research analyst for the Department of Education, has made significant contributions to the understanding of this relationship through his comprehensive 1999 study, Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment, and his follow-up 2006 study, The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College. Adelman found that academic intensity, what we call rigor, had the strongest relationship with college degree completion, higher than high school GPA or standardized test scores.

Adelman found the best way to measure rigor was to look at the highest level mathematics course a student completes in high school. His research revealed that 83% of students who had taken a high-school level calculus course graduated from college within eight years, compared to 75% of those who had maxed out at precalculus, 60% at trigonometry, and 40% at Algebra 2. However, Adelman didn’t find that AP participation, or the number of AP courses taken, was a significant predictor of college graduation rates.

The College Board entered the research fray and in 2012, they created an Academic Rigor Index (ARI), based on course-taking in honors, dual-enrollment and AP classes. College Board researchers found that, although the rigor index was a statistically significant predictor of college grades, it did not rise to the predictive strength of either High School GPA or SAT scores.

In 2012, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, conducted institutional research to determine the relationship between AP course-taking and freshman-year grades at UNC. Steve Farmer, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions, and Jen Kretchmar, Senior Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions, conducted the analysis.

They found that there was a relationship between AP, IB and Dual Enrollment course-taking and freshman grades, but there was a point at which more college-level courses ceased to improve college GPA. Here’s what they found: students with zero college-level classes had average GPAs of 3.07. As students took one, two, or three AP courses, their future college freshman GPA began to climb. Students with five of these advanced classes had average GPAs of 3.26, but after that, the increase levels off, and students who took ten of these courses still only had a 3.27 freshman GPA. More rigor is better, to a point, After that, it ceases to be predictive - or productive, for that matter.

When Farmer was asked how students could stand out, if AP course-taking was valuable only to a point, he responded, “That’s what we’re trying to work out. We don’t want to repeat the same mistake. We don’t want to put more emphasis on SAT scores, for example, and then find out that beyond a certain number there’s no correlation between the SAT score and better performance.”

Listening to the college admissions officers

Last week, I participated in the national conference of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, where I attended a session on academic rigor hosted by Jenny Umhofer and Steven Mercer. The audience listened as admission officers from Colorado State, Gettysburg, Bucknell, Bard and Ohio Wesleyan discussed their perspectives on academic rigor.

The admissions officers spoke about the prevalent parental mindset that more is better: more applications, higher ranked scores, more AP classes. They also spoke about the standard language that admissions departments give to prospective families: “take the most rigorous course load in which your student can be successful, grade-wise.” It is no surprise that students hear this message and feel compelled to max out their academic rigor.

The panelists also spoke to the declining mental health of many of their students, whose mental health struggles - from stress, anxiety, depression, and more - overwhelm already-strapped counseling staff. When students ask Daryl Jones, Senior Associate Director of Admissions of Gettysburg College, “How many APs should I take?”, he’d answer, “How much sleep are you getting?” Ben Kavanaugh, Associate Director of Admissions at Bucknell University, spoke to his old rule of thumb for admissions: “If you have 6 APs, I’m not concerned about schedule strength.” Kavanaugh mentioned that Bucknell now uses a different rubric for assessing academic strength and personal qualities, but advises students: “It’s okay to sleep and do a little less.” It can be a challenge for students receiving mixed messages: max out your rigor, but also don’t neglect your health. The fear of falling behind can often supersede our desire for self-care.


AP courses continue to grow in popularity and prevalence every year. It is unlikely the move by seven elite private schools to drop their AP curriculum will have a meaningful effect on the 22,000 + high schools who are administering AP courses and exams to 2.8 million students.

As record levels of applications flood college admissions offices, admissions officers must find meaningful ways to make distinctions between applicants, and academic rigor is a relatively easy way to do so. In time, we may shift to other means of comparison, but for now, we are firmly in the admissions paradigm where the quantitative metrics - GPA, rigor and testing - sit firmly atop the list of key factors for admission.

It’s important that parents and students keep academic rigor in balance. Too much academic rigor can degrade GPA, squeeze out other activities (including sleep, a must-have for developing minds and bodies), and create stress and anxiety for students. There is a balance to be achieved whereby students demonstrate their academic strength, investigate areas of academic interest, signal their abilities to colleges, and have balanced, healthy lives. This is the ultimate goal.

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