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Practical Homeschooling® :

Getting College Credit for Your Homeschool

By Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #15, 1997.

Susan Richman tells us how to prepare our children for the AP Exams and beyond.
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Howard and Susan Richman

I drove my two boys, ages 17 and 14, to the local public high school and dropped them off for three hours. Their morning's work earned each of them college credit.

Curious? They were taking Advanced Placement Exams, otherwise known as AP Exams. Homeschoolers across the country are slowly realizing that AP Exams offer a good way of getting college recognition without going through correspondence work and without taking a specific course at your local school.

What are AP Exams?

The AP exams are 2-3 hour exams designed for high school students that test the knowledge covered in introductory college courses. Students can take the exams at any grade in high school - starting in ninth grade if they feel ready - right up to the last semester of 12th grade. If students pass the tests, they get college credit, the chance to opt out of an intro-level course, or advanced placement in higher level courses at the chosen college. Colleges set up for independent study, such as Thomas Edison State College in NJ, also give credit for the tests. A growing number of colleges offer students who have passed three AP Exams the option of entering as sophomores. This could really lead to a savings.

The exams are scored on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the best score. Most colleges give credit for grades of 3 or 4 and above, depending upon the particular exam. Each college develops their own unique policy towards AP, so families need to check with the colleges that their student is interested in.

Many of you may have seen the wonderful film Stand and Deliver. It tells about the dedicated teacher Jaime Escalante and how he coached his inner-city minority students to prepare for the AP Calculus exam. Not your usual topic for a film, but it's a great story. Anyone thinking about taking an AP exam should rent it at their local video store. I guarantee you'll be inspired, and you'll understand a bit more about AP, too. [Editorial note: Stand and Deliver is rated PG-13, because of language. So be warned before you show it to your 10-year-old!]

The exams are developed by the Educational Testing Service, the same College Board folks in Princeton, New Jersey who offer the SAT I and II and CLEP Exams (College-Level Examination Program - similar to AP, but generally not as challenging or widely accepted by universities). The AP program has been in place for years - the first one was given in 1955. I remember taking AP Calculus (I didn't receive a passing grade - I got a 2, which translates as "possibly qualified") and the AP American History Exam (I passed that one with a 4, which means "well qualified"). ETS has been expanding the program steadily and now offers 29 different exams (or in the case of studio art, a portfolio assessment).

Here is the full break-down of exams offered:

  • Art History
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Calculus (two levels - AB is intro, BC is harder)
  • Economics: Micro or Macro
  • English: Language & Composition or Literature & Composition
  • French: Language or Literature
  • Government and Politics: Comparative or US
  • History: European or US
  • Latin: Vergil or Latin Literature
  • Music Theory
  • Physics (B exam doesn't include calculus, two different C exams do)
  • Psychology
  • Spanish: Language or Literature
  • Studio Art: Drawing or General Portfolio

It's Easier Than You Think

So how does a homeschooler take part in all this? It's easier than you might think. You do not have to take part in any particular high school class. You can easily prepare at home if your child has good preparation materials and someone to answer questions (this can be a parent, someone online, a friend with expertise, or a friendly professor). Excellent guidebooks are available directly from the AP headquarters for a reasonable fee (see address below). These guides detail the expected coverage, give sample questions, and provide tips on preparing and designing a course of study. All exams have both a multiple-choice section and a free-response section, where students either write essays or solve specific problems (showing all steps). Other helpful study guides are available, too. PA Homeschoolers can supply many of these.

But first, how do you sign up for these tests and where do you take them?

I had my info from the AP folks, and I'd been told that homeschoolers would be welcome to take the exams - we'd just have to go to a school that offered the tests and take them there. (No "at home" administrations are allowed - AP teachers in schools can't even proctor their own students taking the exam!)

Taking a particular course is not required - students can prepare through independent study if they are "not currently affiliated with a school" or if they simply prefer it that way. Many times students cross district lines if their school doesn't offer the exams. Schools are used to having outside students come in to take the tests.

I thought I'd have to take my son Jesse into Pittsburgh, an hour drive, to take the tests. I'd heard that our local schools might not offer the specific exams we were interested in.

The reality was much easier. I called the local public high school in Jesse's junior year and spoke with the guidance counselor (he was the local AP Coordinator, the one who monitors the exams and handles the red tape). He couldn't have been friendlier. He said that the school gives exam information to all the students, and the students let him know by February if they want to take one. He orders the required number of tests, and gives them on the specified dates in May (each test has a separate time-slot and date, for test security reasons, and also so students can take several exams if they want). He said he'd never given the AP U.S. History test that Jesse was planning on, but that wouldn't be a problem - just call him in February and he'd be happy to give the test to Jesse in May, even if no one else wanted to take it.

That's what happened. I took Jesse to the school on the proper day, we met the guidance counselor, and Jesse took the exam in the school library (with no disturbances; a sign saying "Testing in Progress" was posted on the door). We paid the school the required fee ($72 per exam) that day. We waited (anxiously!) until mid-July to get our results; it takes a while for the reading of all the essays. We're very glad we did it. Jesse not only passed, he got a 5, the highest score you can get. I'm sure this had an impact when he was applying for a college scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh's Honors College. He was chosen to receive their top award - four years full tuition plus a room-and-board allowance!

AP exams show college administrators that your homeschool student has been willing to put in time and effort to attain college-level abilities at home.

Challenging the Student

I have talked with several other homeschoolers who have also taken AP exams. I found that all of them took the challenge seriously and felt it helped them set their goals higher than they normally might have. They used more advanced materials, got advice and help from others, used appropriate study guides, and honed their writing and analytic skills. These are not exams where you simply spit back memorized information - students need to think, relate factual knowledge, take a stand, and back up their assertions. Realizing this, the homeschoolers really stretched themselves to move beyond their previous accomplishments.

We now know of at least nine students in Pennsylvania who passed AP's, and several took more than one exam. Our younger son Jacob, who was just finishing ninth grade at age 14, passed both the Calculus (AB level) and one of the Physics exams this year, with top scores of 5 on both. Jesse passed both the English Composition exam (with another 5, allowing him to skip all intro writing courses and move right into advanced composition) and the Calculus AB (only a 3 there, but that was enough to earn a semester's credit and opt out of further math study if he chooses).

Jesse is choosing to use his AP credits to aim for a double major in college, as well as go for Phi Beta Kappa standing. His extra credits will give him much more flexibility and allow him more options as he designs a strong college program. I know that passing AP exams has made both boys realize that they should continue to set strong challenges for their learning and not just take easy paths.

My kids and I were listening to the radio when William Bennett, former Secretary of Education under Reagan and author of the popular Book of Virtues, was being interviewed. He mentioned that he thought strict educational standards were extremely important. A student could accomplished something worth being proud of, rather than just aiming for wishy-washy "feel-good" goals. He specifically mentioned the AP exam program as one of the best ways for high school students to gauge their progress against tough standards. I agree. And I hope more homeschool students look into this option.

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