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

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To its credit, the College Board has taken its detractors seriously. The National Academy of Sciences report offered "really good criticism," says Trevor Packer, executive director of AP programs. In response, Packer says the company has sought funds from the National Science Foundation to improve its biology, physics and chemistry courses. A retooling of the U.S. History program is also under way. But those changes will fix only part of the problem. AP courses and exams are created by teams of university professors who periodically revisit the curriculums, but the program information they send out is simply a guideline for classroom instructors. There is no mandated curriculum, nor is there any required training of teachers for AP classes, which is why the quality of the courses can vary widely from school to school. "Ultimately, our quality control is in the exam," concedes Packer.

It's not a perfect tool. As a 10th-grader, Todd Rosenbaum, now a junior at the University of Virginia, took a biology course that met just twice a week and offered no labs, but he crammed so successfully for the AP exam that he earned a 5 (tops on AP's 5-point scale). That score allowed the high school valedictorian to skip introductory biology at the university, but he found himself woefully unprepared for an upper-level course. "Pretty much as soon as I got in, I realized that there was no way I'd survive," says Rosenbaum. He withdrew from the course and wrote an essay for the college paper urging the university "to take a more skeptical approach in accepting AP scores."

At least Rosenbaum took the AP test (actually, he took 16 of them). About one-third of students who proudly list AP courses on their transcripts never take the exams, which are optional. Many top universities, including Harvard and M.I.T., have tightened their terms for granting credit or advanced standing on the basis of AP scores. They recognize that an exam-oriented class taken by 10th- and 11th-graders, no matter how bright and hardworking, is generally not the equivalent of a rigorous college course. "If you're being told that this is a college course, you're being told things that are not true," says Douglas Taylor, who chairs the University of Virginia biology department.

But even as some college department heads downgrade the value of APs, admissions officers continue to regard them as a hallmark of the student who enjoys a challenge. "If the school offers APs, we expect that the students are taking them," says Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at M.I.T.

"This is not a case of whoever has the most APs wins," insists Stanford director of undergraduate admissions Anna Marie Porras. But as kids like Adam Capulong and Nayla Scaramello know, it certainly doesn't hurt. This fall 424 students at McNair Academic signed up for AP courses. That's three-quarters of the student body.

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