How Smart Is AP?

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ERIKA LARSEN / REDUX FOR TIME

AP CALCULUS CLASS: Educators consider it one of the best AP offerings. Sonu Poonawala, a high school senior in New Jersey, takes AP Biology too

It's 8:30 in the morning, and the day is cold and rainy — conditions that, biologically, make it nearly impossible for the average teenager to function. Yet the 10 boys and eight girls who pour into the first-period Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus class at McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, N.J., seem remarkably alert. Maybe it's the influence of Victorina Wasmuth, their peppy, diminutive math teacher, who exudes a boundless enthusiasm as she introduces a lesson on Rolle's theorem and the extreme-value theorem, which, she explains, are key underpinnings of calculus. Wasmuth tosses out problems for her students to solve and then roves the room, examining their work. "You're all very smart!" she exclaims. "You're all capable of coming up with these theorems on your own."

Adam Capulong, 17, who sports the collared shirt and tie required for boys at this racially diverse urban magnet school, adores the class. "It brings all aspects of math together," says the straight-A student, who is hoping to go to Harvard. But the challenging college-level course is just one small serving on an academic plate that he has heaped with five additional AP courses, including AP French, AP English Literature and AP Art History. That's on top of the three AP courses he took as a junior and one as a sophomore. Capulong's fellow senior Nayla Scaramello, 17, carries a similar load, and she got an even earlier start on her nine AP courses. As a ninth-grader, she took AP U.S. History, with its daunting college-level reading list. "College is so competitive," she explains, "and you want to stand out. I want my transcript to reflect that I'm a hard worker."


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Capulong and Scaramello may be hard-core overachievers, but they're part of a national trend. The thirst to stand out in the brutal college-admissions game is driving a kind of AP-mania all across the U.S. Last May 1.9 million AP exams were taken by 1.1 million U.S. high school students — more than double the number who took them in 1994 and more than six times the number who took them 20 years ago. During the past decade, the number of high schools offering AP classes has grown a third, to 14,904, or 60% of all U.S. high schools.

To feed the demand, the College Board, the New York City-based company best known for administering the SAT, keeps creating new AP courses and exams. Back in 1955, when AP was introduced, there were 11 courses. By 1990 there were 29. Today there are 34, ranging from Music Theory to Computer Science. Next fall there will be three more: Italian, Russian and Chinese. It's a booming business for the nonprofit College Board, which sells teaching guides and seminars to instructors, study guides and practice exams to students, and charges $82 for an AP exam. (Much of this covers the costs of paying high school teachers and college professors to grade the exams, which include essays as well as multiple-choice questions.)

All this growth is generally viewed as good news by the many fans of AP programs, who include parents, college-admissions officers and school administrators, as well as politicians on both sides of the aisle, who have called for additional funding to make AP courses more available to low-income students. A large selection of AP courses attended by a broad swath of the student body is widely seen as a measure of excellence for U.S. high schools and figures prominently in formulas that attempt to rank public high schools. The more active the AP program, the higher the rank and, often, the higher the school district's real estate values.

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