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What You Need to Know About the AP Exams

By Dr. Bruce McMenomy
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #99, 2011.

What are the AP Exams and how do homeschoolers go about taking them?
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Dr. Bruce McMenomy

Some AP Exam Topics

The Advanced Placement (AP) program began shortly after World War II as a way of allowing students to get a head start on college. It’s a two-pronged program comprising authorized AP courses and a set of exams each May. The exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 to 5 considered passing work by many institutions. Today the College Board administers over two million AP exams annually in 34 subjects, and several thousand colleges and universities in the United States offer (at their own discretion) some benefits for doing well on them.

The AP program also has a kind of shadow existence. It drives a ratings engine, among other things: U. S. News rates high schools partly by the number of AP classes they offer. Because of this somewhat artificial prestige, and because they objectively quantify student achievement, AP is sometimes seen as the gold standard by homeschooling parents. There are some good reasons for that—and also some poor ones.

Remember that AP was originally designed for the sake of placement. That is, if you go to college with a year of AP Physics, Calculus, or Economics and a good exam score, you may be able to skip elementary physics, calculus, or economics courses, and proceed directly to the next level. Many schools accept one or both of the AP English exams in lieu of freshman composition. That’s probably the best use of the exam.

AP exam scores are also used in many cases for credit. This is not the same thing as placement. Our son took the AP Latin: Vergil exam, and was able to get credit for it at his college, but he never went on to take any more Latin while he was there. This is no longer about placement: it’s about chipping away at the high cost of college, in time, money, or effort, or providing a little extra cushioning for the transcript. Many schools grant AP credit; some don’t. If this is your primary goal, check the schools you’re applying to for their specific standards.

Some people use AP scores for leverage against admissions. This is more dubious. Yes, AP courses on the transcript suggest that a student is serious; high AP scores suggest that he or she is bright. The exam itself, though, is a fairly blunt instrument: an assessment reduced to a 1–5 score supports almost no nuance. At a state university with very objective admissions standards, that may count for something; at a private school with more personalized selection, the SAT II is almost certainly a better diagnostic.

Other limitations are subtler. AP does not cover a number of legitimate subjects. The College Board recently eliminated Italian, French Literature, Computer Science AB, and Latin Literature. There has never been an exam for Greek. In light of their original placement function, however, that may be moot. In the Economics department of a large state university, the professors don’t have time to custom-craft each student’s experience: AP scores allow them to sort students quickly. When I’ve sent students off to college with five to seven years of Greek or Latin, though, they normally test into upper-division classes right away, with or without AP scores. Why? Because classics departments are hungry and small: any classicist worth his salt can grab a copy of Herodotus or Sallust and determine a student’s reading level in about a minute.

What does this mean for the homeschooler? Well, first of all, official AP courses are not something you can do by yourself at home. The College Board reviews the syllabi for all courses petitioning for AP status, and without their say-so, it’s not an AP course. Their review process is peculiar and sometimes fickle; they have been known to reject a curriculum from one person when they had accepted the same one from another. Legend has it that they even rejected one syllabus that they had previously posted as a template for teachers to work from. Many schools and teachers, frustrated by that, have bailed out of the program altogether in recent years.

On the other hand, one of the beauties of the AP system is that the playing field is not stacked against homeschoolers. You can take an AP exam without having taken an officially recognized (or any) course. In most cases, one score of 4 or 5 is as good as any other. The chief exception is in the sciences: you can take those AP exams too, but colleges are much more reticent to grant credit for the exam without a course behind it, since the curricula stipulate specific laboratory content, which the exam doesn’t test directly. The colleges, reasonably, want you to have the lab experience.

Because AP courses are effectively college courses, they require expertise that may be beyond even a pretty engaged homeschooling parent. Online offerings are one way to help close the gap—but it’s a complex market out there. Having taught online myself for the last 16 years, and having watched the field grow, even I find it daunting. Many provide excellent content; some don’t. It takes some looking to find one that matches your disposition, learning style, and pocketbook.

When looking at a course, here are a few things to consider.

First of all, is it AP-certified? If it’s not, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. A number of teachers have chosen to depart from the AP specification—which is very narrow in some places—for sound pedagogical reasons. Find out what those reasons are.

Second, whether you go with a certified course or not, make sure you’re getting real substance. You should be able to see the syllabus up front. If you don’t, ask for it. It should be detailed and specific. Many online schools post these on their websites. Having those in front of you will allow you to compare various courses fairly objectively for rigor and scope.

Used properly, the AP program can be intrinsically valuable. I still remember my own high school AP English class. It was the toughest course I’d taken in high school, and easily the best: Mr. Ward’s writing instruction still influences me.

AP can provide a head start on a college major or fulfill distribution requirements; it can offer credits at a real bargain compared to college prices.

Whatever your reasons for turning to it, though, don’t lose sight of the real goal. Prestigious and economical as they may be, AP credits—or any other grades or credits—are not themselves the education they represent. If you have to choose between them, go for the education rather than the “AP” brand name. It will sooner or later prove itself.

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