DanvilleSanRamon.com

Living - May 11, 2007

The 411: 'AP can change your life' - for the better?

by Katharine O'Hara

As Advanced Placement test time approaches and the nerves of AP course-takers quickly build up in anticipation of their impending exams, it seems necessary to examine the AP "culture" that has swept overwhelmed high school students off their feet all over the world.

The current generation of students applying to selective colleges has been forced into the AP scene, as college admissions officers - those who determine the fate of competitive college-hopefuls - advise students to take the most rigorous schedule their high school has to offer. At local high schools, this means students are expected to enroll in several AP, honors or advanced courses if they want any chance at getting into selective schools.

The College Board, which offers 37 AP courses and exams across 22 subject areas, boldly announces on its Web site: "AP can change your life," emphasizing that AP courses open students to a "universe of knowledge that might otherwise remain unexplored in high school" and to an opportunity to "earn credit or advanced standing at most of the nation's colleges and universities."

"The only requirements," the board adds, "are a strong curiosity about the subject (students) plan to study and the willingness to work hard."

While AP courses do offer students a great deal of knowledge they could not get in a general education class, I fear that this notion of taking an AP course due to a "strong curiosity" in the subject has been lost among today's high school students.

Instead, I often find that many of my peers enroll in numerous AP classes, regardless of interest or plans to further study the subject in college, or even whether the course is appropriate for the student in question; after all, these are college-level courses. Instead of choosing courses based on these important factors, students select AP classes based on raising their GPA with weighted grades; what they think will get them an acceptance letter to an elite college; or what will allow them to opt out of certain lower level courses in college due to credit earned by receiving a certain score on an AP exam.

"I chose to take the AP U.S. History class and exam in order to get out of a history course I would otherwise have to take in college, as these courses will only cost more money and time in college," said Joseph Carozza, a junior at San Ramon Valley High School and prospective science major, who has little interest in U.S. history.

Though he did not take the course out of love for the subject, Carozza does address some important points. Taking an AP exam in a subject a student doesn't have a particular interest in, but may be part of a required core curriculum in college, allows that student to get that course out of the way, so they can focus more attention on the subjects they actually enjoy or plan to study. Carozza's statement also points out two factors, all-important to today's generation: time and money.

Currently, a significant portion of students are able to graduate college in less than four years due to the credit they accrued in high school from AP exams. This is not only appealing to students, but to their parents: One less year of school means one less year of ever-increasing tuition. However, I can't imagine this goes over well with the colleges and universities, who are losing money due to declining enrollment time per student.

Students enrolled in AP courses are not required to take the respective AP exam, though many might ask, why take the class if you're not going to get recognized credit for it?

"Students should still take AP classes even if they don't take the exams because the courses challenge them to get ready for the next level of studying," said Marah Deininger, who is currently enrolled in two AP classes, but declined to take the exams in these subjects. "You might go through torture during the year, but it will certainly prepare you for college."

As AP test dates approach, I am beginning to feel increasing guilt about opting not to take the AP U.S. History exam, despite being in the class all year. Even though I am taking AP tests in three other subject areas, I can't help but kick myself over the fact that I have put hours of work into a college-level history class, yet voluntarily decided not to get credit for it by not taking the AP exam.

However, when I stop and think about it longer, I am led to question my dilemma and the warped system I have fallen victim to. Whatever happened to learning for the sake of learning? I selected the AP courses I am taking because I have a genuine interest in the subjects and because I enjoy being in an environment with students who aren't in class because they have to be, but because they want to be - because they want to learn.

When it comes to AP courses and exams, there are obviously a number of strategies and factors for parents and students to consider. Students should most definitely take rigorous courses, but within reason. When it finally comes time to decide whether or not to take AP tests, it is important to keep in mind that colleges are continuously raising the bar for what exam scores will qualify for students to earn college credit. As each exam costs $100 (up from $90 last year), and is accompanied by a great deal of stress and anxiety, it is definitely worth considering the likelihood of passing. Regardless, no student should ever feel shame about his or her personal decision. Each student's situation is different from the others, and thus requires thoughtful consideration in the best interest of the individual when making important academic decisions. And amid the stress and studying, it is ever important to remember the joy of learning, in addition to the grades, credit or prestige.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a junior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.

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