Q: My son's guidance counselor got on his case for bailing on his Advanced Placement course commitment. He didn't do the summer reading. My son is a junior. He's smart but not too organized, so I wasn't unhappy when he dropped out. He gets so stressed, and a low AP test score might hurt his college application. Why was she so upset?
A: Could she see potential in your son that he isn't working to realize? Or does she think that an AP course would help him develop the skills he needs for college work?
Since 1955, the College Board has offered high school students college-level courses that are more rigorous than high school courses. Today, students can take AP courses in more than 30 subjects. (Go to collegeboard.org.)
"We encourage a range of students to challenge themselves with an AP course," says Matt Frahm, the superintendent of the Naples, New York, school district. "Traditionally, schools offered AP to students in honors programs, but today high schools are opening up AP to more students who typically don't enroll."
Frahm says AP courses can benefit students several ways.
"The courses can provide an academic challenge that reflects the rigor of college work, motivate students to improve study habits, offer a rich curriculum in a chosen interest area, show colleges that the student is motivated to do college work, and -- depending on the AP test score -- obtain college credit for that work," he explains.
Westbury High School in Houston encourages all freshmen to take two pre-AP courses, sophomores to take pre-AP classes and an AP course, and juniors and seniors to take two AP courses.
AP tests are scored on a 1-to-5 scale. Scores of 3 or higher are eligible for college credit. Administrators say more challenging classes better prepare students for higher education, even if they score poorly.
"Kids who take AP courses benefit (even) if they don't score a 3, 4 or 5," said Houston Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier. "If they just score a 1 or 2, their likelihood of being successful in college or even going to college is increased significantly."
Parents shouldn't worry about a low AP score affecting a student's chances to get into college, says Frahm of the Naples district.
"Studies show that the rigor of a student's high school courses is the single best predictor of success in college," he explains.
Admission officers would prefer that a student take a challenging AP class and get a low score rather than skate through easy courses. Many colleges recalculate applicants' GPAs, giving extra points for AP courses.
A 2008 study found that AP students had better four-year graduation rates than those who did not take AP courses. However, Stanford University senior education lecturer Denise Pope cautions that AP courses benefit students only if the quality of the teachers is high and students are prepared for the work.
Sit down with your son and his counselor. If he's college-bound, put together a plan, possibly including a study coach, that includes an AP course. He needs to hone those organizational and study skills soon, or he risks wasting time and money in college.
(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.)