Taking Too Many APs?

Jed Applerouth, PhD
January 17, 2023
min read

What is right level of academic rigor for your high school student? How many APs or IBs or dual-enrollment classes should your high school student take? As noted in a previous article, APs and other advanced classes have taken hold of American secondary education, and admissions offices around the country closely evaluate applicant’s level of academic rigor, attending to the number of AP, IB, and dual enrollment classes.

The expectations for academic rigor continue to escalate, even in the face of mounting evidence that more APs, beyond a fairly low threshold, do not predict greater college achievement. However, they do predict higher stress levels for students. Against this backdrop the College Board has announced new APs, such as PreCalculus, while its CEO, David Coleman, publicly advocates that colleges “stop the madness” and consider no more than 5 APs for college admission.

I’ve been working in this field since 2001, and living in Atlanta, I know how closely parents and students attend to the level of competition for our highly economical flagship state schools, UGA and GA Tech. When I began coaching students who were interested in attending UGA, the general wisdom was that the admissions office wanted to see at least 2-3 AP exams to demonstrate academic preparedness. Having no advanced classes on the transcript made an acceptance at UGA less likely. When I read the most recent stats for the Early Action acceptance data for UGA, my jaw dropped. The middle 50% of the 8,253 accepted students had 8-13 AP, IB, or dual-enrollment classes. That means ¼ of the accepted students had more than 13 of these advanced classes. (I was also stunned that the middle 50% had a 32-34 ACT, 1370-1510 SAT, and 4.16-4.38 core GPA, but that’s another article).

In 1994, I graduated high school at the top of my class having taken 7 AP classes and 8 AP exams. Nobody was close to taking 13+ advanced classes. The idea would have been ludicrous. And now ¼ of students getting accepted early into UGA early are operating at that level. Inevitably there are trade-offs here, opportunity costs, and other costs. What is being sacrificed to the altar of academic rigor? What activities are reduced, social engagements missed, sleep diminished, anxiety and stress enhanced?

If there is no cap on academic rigor, then students will continue to push into higher and higher number of rigorous classes. Seeing as we are entering a time of greater anxiety and depression and stress for teens, it’s impossible to ignore how the greater academic burden may be contributing to the teen mental health crisis. Our young adults need more than advanced classes to form a self, and be ready for the next steps towards adulthood. Things are clearly out of balance, and we are seeing the effects of the imbalance, at a national level.

Parents and schools need to consider the overall well-being of our young people and not myopically focus on academic success. The goal, after all, is to build healthy adults.

The problem is not a simple one, and the competitive dynamics fueling the runaway growth in academic rigor need to be addressed. The ultimate fix will have to come from colleges, and then high schools setting limits for students. Parents need to be very mindful of the need for balance, and the natural tradeoffs that occur when students place such a tremendous focus on maxing out their curriculum, rather than on having a healthier, more balanced young adulthood.

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