2017 Thoughts on Advanced Placement

Back in 2015, I wrote a blog entry on AP classes.  This entry is an update to that post.  In the last two years, we have ramped up our focus on student stress here in MBUSD, and we are not alone.  We have joined other districts with a similar interest through Stanford’s Challenge Success initiative.  We study the issue with 6 other high performing districts across the country in the 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium.  So please allow me to give you some of my thoughts about AP classes and student stress.

First of all, I am a fan of well-taught AP classes. I taught AP US History for eleven years, and I loved it. I considered it to be a thinking and writing course using US History as the content. I strongly believe that any student who wants to go to a four-year college should take at least one  Advanced Placement class during their high school career. There is research behind that.  Advanced Placement is as close as you will get to college rigor and it will give students a feel for collegiate rigor. When taught well, AP classes go far beyond memorization, instead focusing on writing, analysis and problem-solving. Right now, 62% of our graduates (up from 48% in 2010) take and pass at least one AP class and exam before graduating. While that is a good number reflecting outstanding progress, I would like to see that number be more like 70%. That is the percentage of our graduates going directly to a four-year college.

On the other hand, one of the biggest concerns that our Board, our counselors, and I have is students who overdo it with Advanced Placement classes. It’s hard to define what “overdoing it” means. Students have different abilities and some are able to tolerate more than others. Using my version of common sense, taking one Advanced Placement class a year is excellent, taking two Advanced Placement classes a year is considerable, and taking three is really the equivalent of taking a full college load while also taking high school courses and all the activities that go along with that. In my mind, taking three AP courses is extreme. This year, our high school limited the number of AP classes a student can take in one year to four.  I believe that’s still too much, but I like the initiative.  Unfortunately, I believe this cap actually encouraged some students to take four AP classes instead of three this year.  We will continue to examine this very important topic.  I strongly believe that one or two AP classes in the junior and/or senior year is a great number for any student wanting to be prepared for four-year college.

I encourage students to take Advanced Placement classes in the areas that they are passionate about. If you know you are going to pursue liberal arts, take your AP classes there. If you are leaning towards the sciences, take your AP classes there. Or you can take my advice to college students on which college courses to take – find the best teachers you can and take their courses. Great teachers can make anything interesting. Students should choose wisely. They are giving up some of their own time by taking too many. And I want students to have as much time as possible that they can call their own.

I heard a telling story this year from a parent who has actually read some of these ideas that I write!  He told me that his daughter was ready to to take three AP classes, but that an admissions officer from a college told her that she should take four.  The father was upset that the admissions officer gave the advice, and the daughter reluctantly took a fourth AP class.  She did well in the class, but did miss out on a class she would rather have taken.  The reward for taking that fourth class?  She got into many excellent schools, but did not get into the school of the ill-advising admissions counselor.  Students should take interesting classes, mix in the right amount of challenge, and not focus on maxing out a transcript.  It will be OK.

I have mentioned before my appreciation for Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz (2015), who states, “We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes.” We should all encourage students to pursue their passions as much as possible while they are in school. What kind of passions am I talking about? Music, acting, arts, athletics, thinking, problem-solving, friendships, building anything, worthy causes, and any other great use of time. Our job as parents and educators is to help our students find and pursue those passions. We cannot do it for them. All we can do is encourage. And if they have no time of their own, there is no time to pursue those passions.

Thank you,

Mike Matthews

The 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium is comprised of Eanes (TX), Edina (MN), Highland Park (TX), Manhattan Beach (CA), Palo Alto (CA), New Trier (IL), and Westside (NE) school districts. The mission of the 21st Century Superintendent’s Consortium is to develop the whole child, preparing learners for a successful life beyond high school.
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