Q: My son just finished middle school and got a notice from his high school encouraging him to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes this fall. I was shocked. He's smart, but he's just leaving eighth grade. This is so much pressure! Why are schools pushing freshmen to take AP courses?
A: Advanced Placement courses, essentially first-year college courses, are offered in almost 60 percent of the nation's high schools, according to the College Board, which administers them and oversees their academic standards. Courses are given in subject areas ranging from English language to statistics.
The number of students taking AP classes has more than doubled in the last decade. Currently, more than a million students take AP exams each May. Good scores mean that students can "place out" of certain college courses, which is why they are called Advanced Placement tests.
Increasingly, high school teachers encourage enrollment among students whose records suggest that they're capable of succeeding in AP classes.
There are good reasons, says Lindsay Cohen, who heads up precollege programs for The Princeton Review: "AP classes offer four key benefits."
One, they prepare students for college.
"AP courses are more similar to college courses than regular high school classes," she says. "Exposure to the next phase of a student's educational journey as early as possible helps a student get ready for what awaits in four short years."
Two, they can help your son stand out in college applications.
"Taking AP courses as early as freshman year opens up a student's high school schedule to additional AP courses in subsequent years, allowing him or her to display an additional level of mastery to colleges," notes Cohen. "Universities look closely at a high school student's 'strength of schedule' when making admissions decisions. Taking AP courses shows admissions committees that a student is committed to a rigorous course of study and is a strong candidate for college success."
Three -- and this is a biggie for families taking out college loans -- AP courses allow students to earn credit at many colleges, resulting in substantial tuition savings.
"Students who earn scores of three or higher (on a scale of one to five) on AP exams can place out of certain college courses," Cohen explains. "High scores can save as much as a semester of college tuition costs."
Four, taking AP courses in high school allows a student to look into college electives that interest them.
Cohen says that there's "no compelling research suggesting that there's a benefit in waiting to take an AP course." While AP courses are more rigorous, the growth in enrollment among freshmen shows that many rise to the challenge.
Research AP courses with your son before making a decision. Check out apstudent.collegeboard.org. Browse AP guidebooks. Talk with students who have taken the classes. Meet with his high school counselor.
No one knows your son better than you, says Cohen, who advises, "If you feel like he isn't ready, or you would rather have him ease into the high school experience, that is a decision for you and your family to make. If he decides to pursue the AP path, there's lots of help available along the way."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)