On AP Exams and College Credit

I strongly disagree with Michael Mendillo’s argument of not letting high school courses count for college credit. He argues:

Advanced Placement courses are taken by students 15 to 18 years old. At those stages in their education, students focus on remembering facts and, under the best possible situations, learning the methods of assembling and evaluating those facts. For high-school students who do well in, say, AP physics, that would be a terrific start to being a physics major. They could enroll in the highest introductory-level freshman physics course offered. The original goal of the AP concept would have worked.

For students not majoring in science, however, that same success has quite a different consequence. Lost to these nonscience students is an exposure to cutting-edge science and the methods of science taught by professors active on a daily basis in their exploration of nature. In how many AP classes in high school does the physics instructor say, “At the last American Physical Society meeting, one of my students presented a paper on this very topic”? Or, in an astronomy class, “My upcoming observations using the Hubble Space Telescope will address this dark-energy issue”? Identical scenarios exist, of course, for science and engineering students who miss out on university-level introductions to the humanities and social sciences taught by active scholars in those areas.

The end result is that in many introductory college courses, the top students are simply not in the classrooms. For them, faculty-student interactions are not possible and the overall value of a university education is diminished. All of these aspects of educational disservice are due to the existence of the AP system.

I took ten AP courses in my high school. The remarkable difference between the AP courses and the regular (“gifted”) courses I took was that the AP courses were significantly more difficult, thorough, and taught students invaluable comprehension skills (rather than rote memorization). I believe that AP courses are actually superior to many freshman college courses. In an AP course, you are instructed five days a week for a semester (and two semesters for subjects like biology and chemistry). You can’t compare that to college courses taught three times a week and condensed into one semester.

The AP exam is a three hour duel; it is more comprehensive than the typical college final. If you received a 5 on AP Biology or AP Calculus, I have no doubt in my mind that you know your stuff and should rightly get the chance to skip these introductory courses in college. I did and I never regretted my decision. In fact, because I exempted out of so many introductory college courses, I was able to take fewer courses every semester, which allowed me to devote more attention to each of my classes than I otherwise could have done with a denser schedule. As a result, I asked more inquisitive questions, had a chance to work on extracurricular problems, and learned the material more deeply than if I never got my AP credits.


What do you think? If you’ve taken AP courses and did well on them, how did you feel about exempting those courses in college?

34 thoughts on “On AP Exams and College Credit

  1. I never understood why anyone would use an AP class to place out of a college course. Instead, you take the college course, which is essentially a review of what you already know, get an A, pad your GPA and have extra time for partying.

    However, your argument about interesting anecdotes from a professor in introductory physics is unrealistic. The introductory classes are largely taught by grad students – the teacher and the students are both their to punch their ticket and move on.

    • I think you’re forgetting about the cost associated with every class you take in college. Is an A worth thousands of dollars and the lost opportunity to learn something new? Maybe, maybe not.

    • I took that approach, and I regretted it. I wish I had taken AP English courses so I could have skipped the infuriatingly basic introductory courses that the college offered. Part of the class actually took us to the campus library, where we “learned” what the difference between a journal and a magazine was.

      Granted, some people might not know. But I did, and if I was able to skip this class, I would have because it was terribly boring and unchallenging. The A I earned also failed to teach me the lesson. I took a few other “easy” classes, and each time, I ended up getting less than an A because I likewise became bored, only by that time, I had gotten the hang of college and realized that attendance was optional, and so I’d miss a pop quiz that would bring down my grade.

      In the end, the GPA doesn’t matter. It’s what you learn. And I wish I took a couple more interesting and challenging courses than make the attempts to pad my average.

    • >The introductory classes are largely taught by grad students – the teacher and the students are both their to punch their ticket and move on.
      Where did you go to school? At Georgia Tech, the introductory physics, calculus, and chemistry courses are all taught by professors.

      >Instead, you take the college course, which is essentially a review of what you already know, get an A,
      Actually, this is a faulty premise. What may end up happening is that while you do know the material, your overconfidence may cause you to study less for tests than you should (and thus that “A” may become out of reach). A lot of my friends who skipped out of Calculus I (even though they got 4 or 5 on the AP exam) regretted their decision of taking Calculus I in college.

  2. I completely agree. I took 2 AP classes my Junior year and 4 my Senior year. They were more challenging and interesting than the college level courses they replaced. I entered college far more prepared than students with no AP classes, and I tutored fellow freshmen taking the courses that I had scored 5s on the exams.

    As a result of passing AP credits, i was able to enter higher level work more quickly. I took a Junior level French course and a Junior level history elective my Freshman year and did very well in them both because I had passed the AP exams with 5s in those subjects.

    Mr. Mendillo’s suggestion will dumbdown high school for gifted students. Without those AP courses, I would have been so bored. I probably would have been better off going to community college my senior year than slog through the boring regular courses. I took 2 regular courses my senior year, and they seemed like vacation or study hall in comparison.

  3. There is also a financial component. Many students take AP courses so they can earn enough credits to graduate in three years instead of four- a huge savings.

    • Absolutely. A lot of people neglect this component. By exempting courses through AP credit, students can reasonably graduate on time (say, four year in a typical college) with some room for error (when they drop a class and need to retake it later).

  4. I Mendellio’s argument is completely backwards-we should be encouraging more students to take AP courses, not less. My only regret from high school is that I did not take more AP courses.

    AP courses exempted me from many introductory courses that would not have been value-added, due to the huge class sizes and allowing me to focus on other topics in my eventual major, History and Politics. Taking AP US History and Politics saved me time and allowed me to learn other sub-topics in those fields. And I know as fact that AP US History was more rigorous than the US History courses at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. I knew students who took the course, saw the syllabus, etc.

    And taking AP Biology forced me to realize that my knowledge in the subject, while strong (I got a 4 on the exam), would probably not cut-it in becoming a physician.

    Too many AP classes is the least of the problems in higher education. And Mendellio’s focus on it is is laughable.

    • >Mendellio’s argument is completely backwards-we should be encouraging more students to take AP courses, not less. My only regret from high school is that I did not take more AP courses.
      Thank you. I agree.

      >And I know as fact that AP US History was more rigorous than the US History courses at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
      Indeed. When I took the AP US History exam, it was considered the most difficult exam on the AP curriculum. Less than 8% of all test-takers received a 5 on the exam. It was one of the best courses I took in high school.

  5. I took AP calculus and AP English at my local community college during the fall semester of my senior year in high school, and fell in love with the new learning environment so completely that I immediately applied as a full time, early admission student. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. The American High School totally demotivates bright, ambitious learners, particularly in their senior year. The notion of sticking around for another year of forced infantilization made me cringe.

    Believe me, you would not have wanted to keep me around as an exemplar for my fellow students. And that’s not what happens anyway. The implication in Mendillo’s piece that any signficant number of introductory science course students will be taught by first rate researchers (rather than by their graduate assistants) is sheer fantasy.

  6. Agreed on all counts. I, myself, managed to get 42 credits for college from my AP courses and this allowed me (as an engineer) to take all kinds of liberal arts courses, thus broadening my education. 2 other important arguments I would add:

    1. I have yet to see many college professors at huge research institutions–while they are teaching huge introductory physics classes–say things like “My upcoming observations using the Hubble Space Telescope will address this dark-energy issue”?

    When they are teaching Freshmen, they almost always (95% of the time)–phone it in–or just teach the lecture as fast as they can.

    Any real instruction for the students comes from the TA’s–and in the sciences and esp. mathematics–half or more of these are from foreign countries and their English is so bad that students are bewildered and/or go looking online for help with the course material. This leads to a far worse retention of the information than what would have happened in high school.

    2. What about the financial argument? Earning AP credits in high school is one way of reducing your overall credit load and can allow students to finish early and/or get into grad school faster. One of my fellow high school students who had 25+ AP credits used this to finish his engineering degree a year early and to get into the masters program such that he had finished a masters degree the same time I was finishing my bachelors (with my 170 hours of credit..).

    Overall–The argument by Mendillo seems predicated on a lot of idealistic assumptions that have little to do with the reality that students face.

    • >I, myself, managed to get 42 credits for college from my AP courses and this allowed me (as an engineer) to take all kinds of liberal arts courses, thus broadening my educatio
      Very impressive! I myself came into Georgia Tech with enough credits to enter as a sophomore by hours.

      >Any real instruction for the students comes from the TA’s–and in the sciences and esp. mathematics–half or more of these are from foreign countries and their English is so bad that students are bewildered and/or go looking online for help with the course material. This leads to a far worse retention of the information than what would have happened in high school.

      That is a strong generalization, with which I mostly agree. In a highly technical/engineering school like Georgia Tech or Caltech (where I went), manny TAs were foreign (my intuition is that they wanted to ease their tuition bills by working as TAs). And yes, in introductory courses like Calculus and Chemistry, the recitation sections were supplementary to the material professors taught. Recitation is where I could ask the TAs specific homework questions.

      >What about the financial argument? Earning AP credits in high school is one way of reducing your overall credit load and can allow students to finish early and/or get into grad school faster
      Indeed. Others have mentioned this as well. It was applicable to me as well, though in my case, I graduated in four years by taking fewer hours (and thus being less stressed out in the process) every semester than my classmates.

  7. Just how often are introductory university courses taught by “professors active on a daily basis in their exploration of nature” instead of adjuncts and TAs? It’s been quite a while since my college days but my understanding is that the top academicians are more involved with upper level courses…

    • I don’t have numbers for this, but from my experience, even tenured professors had a teaching requirement (say, one or two courses per calendar year). From the courses I took in college, a lot of top professors taught introductory courses.

  8. No question I agree here and feel strongly about this. Another unstated benefit of AP classes, assuming success (4 or 5) on the AP test, is the freedom it gives a student to take classes he/she may not otherwise have the time/space to take if in a rigorous program. I was in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and if not for AP classes, would not have had the schedule space given the detailed and specialized core curriculum, to take Shakespeare and other “liberal arts” classes.

    • Excellent point!

      In my junior and senior year of college, I took at least one elective course each semester that was completely unrelated to my major. For instance, I took a course on Postmodernism (in Literature and Film), a course on European history, and a course on Literature in the Enlightenment.

  9. I agree with all the above, but there is also the practical aspect of it. My daughter was in the IB program in high school, which utilizes AP courses extensively. Thanks to that head start, she finishing her bachelor’s in three years, saving (at least) an entire year’s worth of tuition and other expenses. And with the skyrocketing cost of college education, I can’t tell you what a blessing that has been to our modest working class family.

    It sounds to me like Mr. Mendillo is just sore that he doesn’t get to do what he likes best about his profession anymore. In which case, perhaps he should teach high school AP courses instead. I’m sure many, many schools would be happy to have him. Or is that beneath him?

  10. I completely agree — introductory classes at colleges are rarely taught by professors who are extremely active in that particular field of academia. AP classes in high school are taught by the best secondary teachers in the country — dedicated, trained professionals. Intro classes in colleges are often taught by 23-year-old grad students. Which do you suppose provides the better experience?

    As for my experience, the 4 I scored in the AP Physics exam was not considered adequate to place out of Physics 111 (the intro calc-based class) and yet I attended maybe one lecture in five of that course and still managed near-perfect grades.

  11. First, beware of any comment on education that begins with “Well, I was in high school once, and….”

    A.P. classes in the social sciences, at least, are useless. I have taught a few of them, grade the AP U.S. history exam and teach the U.S. history survey at a reputable four year university, and here are my reasons to diss the AP:

    1. The instructor has no control over the exam. This might sound like a good thing, but to hedge their bets, teachers are forced to water down the content in favor of breadth. So, for example, in U.S. history, the students receive a little bit of knowledge about 400 years of content and achieve no mastery of the material. The essays I grade are a nightmare. The vast majority so facile that someone sitting on a bar stool with cable access to the History Channel would score about as well.

    2. The exam drives out the teacher’s expertise and idiosyncrasy. I do not mean to imply that all high school teachers do not know the material, I have taught with many brilliant secondary educators. But, the AP does not reward their area of expertise. Professors, yes, even three days a week, have the luxury of being able to use their area of interest to get at fascinating, larger themes in the course and they are trained to know which texts are most relevant, and boast the best research skills to pass on rather than the latest credential in how to promote collaborative learning and group work.

    You want to learn how to write? You want to learn how to research? You want to learn how to weigh evidence and argue a point? Do you want to learn how to think? Then get out of AP and take the college course with the prof. who trained with Alan Brinkley at Columbia, or John Lewis Gaddis at Yale, or, if you’re lucky the great men themselves.

  12. Taking AP classes allowed me to get the fundamental courses “out of the way” so I could explore a huge catalog of offerings once I attended college.

  13. At my alma mater, AP credits were transformed into general credits that counted towards the overall number of credits needed to graduate but didn’t exempt students from taking those specific courses again. This worked out rather well for me as the most relevant AP course I took had been during my sophomore year of high school, so it was good to get a refresher during the intro college course. But at the same time, the extra credits I had on my transcript meant that I didn’t have to take quite so many courses my senior year, which left more time to focus on my thesis.

  14. There are so many possibilities for variance here, so I’m very hesitant to make sweeping claims, but my experience was completely different from yours. I took 10 AP courses as well in high school, and got a 5 on all but 3 of them. Like you, they were a significant step up from any other courses that were offered at my school, even though it was widely regarded as the best high school in my county (we had 15 high schools, all with over 1500 students, so I think that is meaningful). I went to a top 30 university, as defined by US News, and frankly, I got my butt kicked freshman year, particularly in the sciences. The school made it possible for students to exempt out of the two semesters of freshman biology with a 5, provided that we show up for day 1 of the class. I very clearly remember the professor saying to a class of 150 students:

    “Probably half of you in this class got a 5 on the AP biology exam, so you’re just itching to get out of this class and move on. You are certainly allowed to do that. But that would be incredibly unwise. I don’t set quotas on grades ex ante, I just teach and test on the material that this department believes is necessary to prepare you to succeed in this program. Historically speaking, that has usually meant that at least 60% of the class has gotten a C or lower. And the AP exam has not been an accurate predictor of success.”

    Guess what? He was absolutely right. All of the tests given over those two semesters (8 total, I think) were harder than the AP, even though most of them was on the exact same material. Both he and the Biology II professor tested for comprehension and critical thinking in ways that the AP hadn’t.

    I asked a lot of upperclassmen about their experience, and would continue to ask underclassmen as they came in over the next few years. The consensus was that the level of difficulty had stayed constant over the 7 or so years that I was able to ask about.

    It wasn’t quite that bad in chemistry or calculus, but most of us had to fight pretty hard to get good grades in those courses. I don’t know about the intro-level humanities courses, I managed to exempt out of all the general education requirements for those departments.

    After my freshman year, I stopped pursuing any type of physical or biological science major, and switched over to economics and international relations. I ended up taking a fair amount of upper-level math in the economics department, but it wasn’t nearly as hard. None of my AP credits went towards either of those majors.

    I’m certainly not saying that my experience was typical. It depends on the school, the department, and the particular cohort of professors that controls the intro courses. I’m just saying my personal experience was basically the opposite of yours.

  15. I took a number of AP courses as well, and in most cases placed out of the corresponding college course. In the two cases in which I didn’t (French and Physics) I ended up taking the college courses.

    In both cases, they were a joke compared to my much more rigorous high school AP course. Based on working with friends and classmates for the courses I placed out of, I believe this was also the case for the classes I didn’t place out of.

  16. I placed out of 54 hours. It would have been a huge waste of time for me to have sat in the classroom for those courses that I had already mastered. Yes, my college experience was not as “rich” in some ways. But, my path to my Computer Science degree was very clear. As you said, it allowed me to take less hours each semester and focus on my major. My student loan debt was a fraction of what it would have been.

    High school and college have been dumbed down somewhat. For the bright students who can progress faster than the average, we need some path that does not bore them and waste their time. It’s really just a matter of respecting the differences in ability.

  17. I didn’t take quite so many AP courses as you – History, Latin, and Statistics – but I do agree that, on whole, my experiences in those AP classes was more challenging and inspired more intellectual growth than probably any class I took in college. They also allowed me to jump over introductory classes my freshman year – classes which, if judged by those I had to suffer through, were more a challenge of memorization than true comprehension.

    I also must laugh at Mendillo’s description of what is lost to non-science students. Cutting edge technology? Seriously? Name-dropping academic conferences? Even at a school as prestigious as Vanderbilt, the intro science and math classes seemed rather standard issue, with slightly dated textbooks, old equipment, professors who’d plainly rather be teaching a more advanced class or working on other academic pursuits, and so on. Perhaps things have changed in the decade since I last set foot on a college campus. Back in 2002, the internet was just leaching into lecture halls. Laptops were relatively rare. I understand that’s all different now, and maybe it’s impacted the way these introductory courses are taught. But I kind of doubt it.

  18. Um . . . the problem is not allowing any AP credit, its how much. At my university we have students who routinely come in with 20-30 hours of credit (dual enrollment is another issue entirely) which places them in upper-division courses, and they have little if any time to try other majors. Second, the quality of AP class instruction varies, and the scoring system is not perfect. You can have students who place out of College comp who know how to write college level papers, and those students who have the credit but cannot. The other problem is AP credit is usually done in a vaccuum. Most students do not have adequate college counseling and take AP courses because that’s what is expected of them. This becomes a problem when the student has no direction when the get to college and don’t have time or money to explore majors. From an administrative position it looks like AP, dual enrollment are used as a way for the student/parents to save money considering the rise in tuition. Which is not a bad thing by any means, but different when we’re talking about college preparedness, and college educated.

  19. Couldn’t agree more. Plus, why does Mendillo single out AP courses? One of his main points is that you should only get college credit from the college you’re attending. By that logic, we should also eliminate all community college and junior colleges as well as the ability to transfer from one school to another. Mendillo puts forth a very small-minded argument.

  20. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that AP courses are more challenging or interesting than intro college courses, but the major benefit is that it allows college students to take more advanced courses sooner. I appreciated getting out of “Intro to Expository Writing” in college thanks to my AP exam, and was then able to take more specialized English courses right away.

  21. 1. Agree ad nauseam with the hilarity at the Hubble telescope professor teaching Physics 101. At my university entry level classes are taught by adjunct and un-tenured professors. While some of them may be on NSF grants it would be rare for them to make such statements.

    2. Colleges and universities are aware of all of the failings of the AP system and choose to deal with it their own way (usually on a department by department basis). Back in the stone age when I went to college my AP Bio 5 didn’t get me out of Bio 101. The Biology department kindly granted one the opportunity to take the final the first week of class if you still felt this was unfair but you needed to score something like 95% or better to test out of the class. Other schools I am familiar with just use AP credits to give students priority enrollment.

    3. Yes there are problems with students who come in unprepared for college yet who look good on paper. This is bigger than AP classes/credits alone.

  22. One thing that I haven’t seen really addressed much is that if you make students both take an easier high school class and then take a slightly harder college class, many students will get bored.

    I know that I would have been bored out of my mind if I hadn’t gotten to take intense honors and AP classes. I went to a residential high school, which gave me many options. I took eleven classes my senior year (some optional classes were held after the “normal” school day”) and kept a GPA over 4.0. I would have lost interest in my education if I had not only been in a traditional setting, but couldn’t even take AP classes, which are more in-depth and comprehensive.

    Furthermore, when I got to college, I likely would have lost all interest in my education if I had to go through those same classes AGAIN. I had a really hard time when I had one or two classes that I wasn’t allowed test out of for various reasons, because I already knew the information. It was a waste of time for me, and I was unmotivated to do the work. If that had been my entire freshman year, I would have floundered and I don’t know that I would have continued my education.

  23. I took 4 AP classes while in high school: American History, European History, English, & Calculus 1. I got credit for all four, but in the following way:
    I only got credit for Calculus 1 by taking & getting a C or better in Calculus 2 in college. I got credit for the English & history classes because a college-designated professor read the essays I wrote for the tests & deemed my writing on the topic worthy of my college. Although my scores were good, some Carleton students with good scores did not get credit. I also got out of taking the freshman writing course but was able to serve as a teaching assistant for it in my senior year.

    As a result of those credits (plus some college courses I took while in high school), I was able to graduate in 3 years with a double major (history & literature).If I had not taken the AP classes & the college classes in high school, I would have graduated from high school in 3 years just to get out the door — but faced with a choice of early college or early high school graduation, I opted to go through college more quickly because of the cost.

    Re: getting credit in high school & with admissions people for 1 set of classes
    All the AP classes I took were in my senior year. When I applied to schools (mid 1970s), you had to have the applications done by January 1, so my transcript only showed 1 marking period’s worth of grades. Therefore, the colleges really had no way of knowing whether my school fluffed my grades nor did they have a long-term sense of how well I’d do. I’m sure I got some boost on my college applications for having AP courses, but I probably also got a boost for taking honors courses — no one is arguing against that.

    Re: getting credit in high school & in college for classes
    Not all colleges give class credit or full credit – sometimes you just get out of prereqs. Also, I took a the AP US History test at the end of my junior year without taking a course, because my father suggested I should do it for practice in taking that kind of test. Neither of us expected that I’d get a 4 (any school that gives credit for the tests gives credit for a 4) — we thought I’d take the class in my senior year & redo the test more seriously for credit at that time. Doing better than expected on the test meant I had to create my own AP European History course independent study to fill up my schedule. I have always done a lot of reading in history; I enjoy it.

    I don’t know what NJ now requires of its high school graduates, but when I went, it didn’t require much. I had met all of the graduation requirements by the end of my junior year with 3 exceptions: 1 year of English, 1 year of gym, & driver’s ed. So only the high school credit I got for AP English in any way contributed to my graduation.

  24. AP classes create a better challenge for highschool students, regardless of whether they take the exam.

    AP classes allow students to immediately enter higher level courses without having to repeat things they already learned.

    Win win. What is not to like?

  25. I firmly believe AP credentials should not be abolished on account that they are not required and when a high-schooler applies the extra effort in which is essential to complete an AP class, just like an extra-curricular activity, they should be recognized for the work and time applied. In taking an AP class you are making a commitment to apply yourself to an extra amount of work and teachings, not required by the high schools. The main reason high-schoolers take an AP class is to get the credits transferred to a college so by abolishing that system the interest in AP would be abolished as well. I believe if a student is willing to take the extra steps in informing and preparing their selves they should absolutely get the credit for it!

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