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Do AP Classes adequately prepare students for college?

  1. Sep 6, 2015 #1
    I was always aware that AP classes were, in general, not equivalent to their respective college courses, but I'm beginning to wonder if the gap is much larger than what I previously thought.

    Many of my suite mates are engineers/physicists, and so most of them are taking the same physics classes together. One day when they were doing their homework, I found that a lot of them were stuck on the same question. It was a question that required them to find out, given a velocity function, the time at which velocity was at a maximum.

    Normally I wouldn't mind this as much, as I know there are people who haven't taken calculus in high school yet. However, what shocked me was that all of them had taken, at the very least, AB Calculus, and have scored at minimum a 4 on the test. I would think that with such a background such a question would be an elementary exercise for them. There were other questions that some had trouble on, such as determining the direction of net acceleration of a person that, while in free-fall, started to suddenly slow down. I know this was not only in their case, as I saw over social media (Yik-Yak to be precise) people asking answers to similar questions.

    To add my own experience, two things that stuck out like a sore thumb to me were my performances on my AP Bio and AP US History tests.
    One of my friends was already a beginning researcher in biology, working with organisms such as C. Elegans since 9th grade and is considering a research track. I had nothing but a high school level knowledge of biology going into the test (Oh god the teacher was boring.) We both ended up getting a 4 on the exam, and it annoyed her to no end.
    I didn't pay attention the entire year in my APUSH class and crammed the entire curriculum into a week with youtube videos. I somehow ended up getting a 5 on the test.
    I will be the first to admit I don't know anything about these two subjects.

    So I'm wondering what the general consensus is on this forum regarding the rigor of AP tests. Do they adequately prepare students for college level work? Or are they more there to pad college resumes?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 6, 2015 #2
    Well, my brother is taking AP Physics C and I'm surprised at how similar that class is to Physics 1.
  4. Sep 6, 2015 #3


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    I really don't understand the push for AP courses and tests. If you want to learn calculus, physics, or any other subject, just take it at the community college and earn real college credit that'll transfer to wherever you end up going. I am somewhat skeptical of AP courses generally because I've seen some asinine decisions made by teachers of those courses because they focus on passing the test. That said, I'm sure there are many AP courses which are perfectly fine.

    As far as your particular example goes, I wouldn't be too surprised if students who didn't take AP calculus encountered the same roadblock. Applying math is a big obstacle for many students. Yes, they know how to find the critical points of a function, but ask them to find the maximum velocity and it's like a completely different, unrelated question in their view.
  5. Sep 7, 2015 #4
    A couple of years ago I got together with some other high school science teachers and also some science faculty at a local ivy league college. The professors at the college seemed to all be in agreement that AP courses did not show any sign of giving students an edge in college and that a student's performance on the AP tests does not provide a useful measure of how well they will do in college science courses. I believe it was the professor who taught introductory biology that said he compared students AP scores to their final grades in the course. Regardless of the students' final grade in the course (A through F), the most common score on the AP biology test was a 5.
  6. Sep 7, 2015 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    The point is that you also get high school credit.
  7. Sep 7, 2015 #6
    In my state you can enroll in two college courses for free at any state college and have it count for both high school and college credit (one course during junior year and one course during senior year). I bet other states have similar programs. To me that seems like a much better option than AP courses for reasons of credit and experience. Whether or not the student actually learns the material depends on their intellectual maturity (and perhaps the quality of the course).
  8. Sep 7, 2015 #7
    I think it really depends on the instructor. I had 4 AP teachers in high school - 1(Calculus AB) taught very much toward the test, skipping sections of text book, making our test questions retired test questions, and so on. The other 3 (Chemistry, English Lit, European History) seemed to care much less about the test, and more about their subjects. I got similar scores in all the classes (5 on chem, 4 everywhere else) but I can tell you that I felt much more confident about my Chemistry, European history, and English Lit afterward than I did my calculus.

    I think, given the only metric for an AP class is the test at the end of the year, and a lot of teachers are evaluated according to their class' scores, most of these teachers are driven to teach to the test. I think this is why I was less confident on the calculus. The other subjects I had actually developed an appreciation for. Calculus, I developed how to look for wording in the test that hints at the answer without fully understanding what I was doing.
  9. Sep 7, 2015 #8
    Here in California, I believe that high school students can take classes at an accredited junior college for free. Not sure max per semester, but I always had a cuban refugee kid in most of my classes that took the bulk of his courses there. He is a senior in high school now, and has completed all the math and physics offered at the community college level.
  10. Sep 8, 2015 #9


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    ... and SOME preparation, although not every student masters everything taught the first time through.
  11. Sep 8, 2015 #10
    This. Many high schools require that you take a math/science/history/whatever course. You can either take it at the AP level in high school, or take it at a lower level in high school AND the higher level at the local community college. Plus, I know that my high school didn't allow you to leave during the day to take a class somewhere else, which meant only night classes. And given that the average high school student works and/or has other evening activities scheduled, not so convenient.
  12. Sep 8, 2015 #11
    Honest answer? No. I don't think they adequately prepare students. Then again, this is based on my personal anecdotes.

    Like vela said, one of the problems with a lot of AP classes is that they only care about passing the students. I remember in my AP calculus class, there was just way too much rote learning.

    If you plan on taking higher level physics and math courses in college, I would say don't take the AP physics and calculus classes. If you just want satisfy general education or major requirements, then it's probably not a bad idea.

    Again, this is all based on anecdotes.
  13. Nov 29, 2015 #12


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    AP classes are high school classes, not college level, with high school teachers, schedules, homework, expectations, and competition. Unfortunately colleges are intimidated into granting college credit for them to lure the most qualified students. These students are often quickly distressed at how much more difficult a college level class is. The best option is usually to go into a beginning, but honors level, college class after AP preparation. That way you are in a class you probably are prepared for, and you are among honors level students, and have an honors level teacher. The worst thing you can do is skip the biginning college level class based on your AP course and enter in a second year course, for which you are almost certainly not prepared at all. This advice is based on my personal experience teaching college level math for some 30-40 years. The saddest students are the freshmen entering into second semester calculus in their first Fall semester after only AP high school preparation in first year calculus, Eventually I began to essentially reteach the whole first semester as a "review" during the first part of the second semester course. Still the level was so much higher than what the students were used to, and so much faster, that they could barely keep up even with the review of material they had supposedly already learned. Moreover, to make matter worse, at my university students entering in Fall had usually not reviewed their work over the summer to prepare for school, and thus had actually forgotten most of what they had passed tests on in the spring. In my son's high school some teachers were so cynical that after the students had taken the AP tests in early spring, they stopped teaching math for the rest of the semester, (and this was in an AP calc class!), ignoring the fact these students also wanted to be ready for college in Fall, not just ready for a spring AP test.

    That being said, because of the very fact that so many ill prepared AP students enter colege, the level of college courses has been steadily coming down to accomodate them for years, and thus in some cases you will find the college course has been dumbed down to the extent that AP preparation is adequate. Of course you still lose in this exchange compared to what you would have learned with the older version of the college class. And if you have an old fashioned professor like me, this does not happen as much. Now that we oldsters are retiring, it may be that the younger generation of teachers is adjusting to the lower level of preparation by gradually teaching easier and easier classes, at least at state schools. But if you go to a more competitive school, like an ivy in the US, you are probably still going to encounter high expectations.

    In 1960 at Harvard, without AP calculus in high school, I entered as a freshman and took an honors calculus course that covered the material at the level of Spivak in one semester. We began with axioms for the reals, and infinite sequences and series, and defined the trig functions and exponential functions by their (complex) power series. The spring semester did linear algebra, several variables, and differential equations. The second year course was similar to Loomis and Sternberg, covering calculus in Banach spaces. The first year course no longer exists there but the second course survives as math 55. Anyone entering math 55 today with only high school AP preparation would be in serious trouble in my opinion; although a very brilliant student might do it, I would not recommend it. The students I know who took this course recently had prepared with graduate level actual university work while still in high school.

    To sum up, yes AP classes can prepare you for beginning college level classes, but they usually do not enable you to wisely skip college level classes, even ones for which the university is willing to offer you credit based on an AP score.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2015
  14. Dec 1, 2015 #13
    Mathwonk states: AP classes are high school classes, not college level, with high school teachers, schedules, homework, expectations, and competition. My high school AP course required Homework every night. My college course required HW every week. The total amount of homework in my high school course, exceeded my college course. I learned most of the calculus that I use through the high school class. My honors college calculus course (for future mathematics majors) taught mainly "proofs". As a physics major and graduate, I can say the calculus I learned in high school was far more valuable. I have had to do more derivative and integrals than stating and proving Rolle's Theorem, or the Intermediate Value Theorem. My college course was all theory, and my college gave credit for Real Analysis after 4 semesters in the honors curricula.

    I used to help my roommate with his Calculus II homework so my year long AP calculus course was far ahead of one semester of the college (non-honors) calculus course for engineers.

    My high school teacher was not the professional mathematician my college prof was but he could invest more time with his students. In general, courses are what the student makes of them. I will say the calculus I learned in high school was stronger than the AP Chemistry or AP Biology that I completed. My College Chemistry course far exceeded my AP Chem Course. I also have to qualify all this by saying this was in 1973-4.
  15. Dec 1, 2015 #14
    AP Calculus AB left me woefully unprepared for second semester calculus, to the extent that I did so poorly that I had to retake calculus 1 despite having a 5 on the AP Calculus AB exam. In retrospect, it was most likely due to the fact that I made the idiot mistake of taking AP Calculus in my sophomore year of high school, which left two years of doing no math before I started college, and my college would not allow me to take calculus 1 my in first semester because having AP credit would technically have made that a retake, and they have a weird policy on that. Just a complete mess all around, honestly.

    However, my other AP classes, physics and chemistry, which I took in my senior year of HS, did prepare me very well for the continuations of those courses in college. I also had much better teachers in those courses than I did in calculus.

    So I guess it can depend a lot on the teacher, how insistent they are on presenting not only college-level material but also on running a course that places similar expectations on students as does a college-level class, when you take, and the expectations of your professors when you reach college.

    So in general, I'd say that AP classes are good preparation, but don't take them before your senior year of HS if you plan on taking their continuations in college.
  16. Jun 12, 2016 #15
    The critical gap is one of power dynamics. The power dynamics of high school classrooms are shifted heavily towards students and parents whereas that is not the case in undergrad. As a result high school teachers are forced to balance the rigor of the curriculum with the commitment and ability of the students in front of them. Sometimes teachers are undermined by their colleagues who teach joke classes because they do not want to deal with grief. While this also happens on the college level, the fundamental difference is that teaching assignments for high school teachers are usually static. So once you get that coveted AP teaching position you are there till the administration replaces you with someone else, and usually that occurs when there are parental complaints about the rigor of the class. Much of this could be solved pretty easily if colleges required students to report their AP tests and scores on their transcripts and if the College Board required an audit of student grades and put high schools on probation for having wide disparity between student grades and AP scores. As it stands right now, AP classes are for the purpose of padding transcripts.

    A pretty ridiculously low raw percentage is required for a 4 on Calc AB, it's like 53% and it is a pretty easy exam and course. But I think the larger issue is that you are not taking into account how the vast majority of students of that age group actually approach learning - they cram and dump. So they never really learned Calculus, and I would argue based on my observations that they never learned algebra, trigonometry or analytic geometry. Generally they view the whole enterprise as a series of memorized factoids, with no structure. I had a student in my physics class who actually tried to memorize every possible integral for u substitution. As opposed to actually carrying out substitution which requires only the slightest thought. This person was ranked 3rd in her high school class of 350 students and will be attending an Ivy League School in the fall.

    I think there are as many levels of college level work as there are levels of rigor of the same AP classes. What I mean is this: as an AP teacher you may have a class with students ranging from those who are heading to community college to those who are heading to MIT. So the rigor of that class will likely over-prepare the student going into community college but will under-prepare the student going to MIT. Generally universities do not have this issue.[/QUOTE]
  17. Aug 30, 2016 #16
    To me this problem arises because they can not connect what they learned in Maths to a situation in Physics. It is not so simple always. That is to bridge the gap between Maths and Physics. For example in my class when I ask whether R = V / I ( well known Ohm's law ) is constant quantity? Nine out of ten would apply their knowledge of ratios in Maths and say yes by keeping either 'V' or 'I' constant we can vary 'R'. This is where a Physics teacher has to point out that these are not mere numbers but certain physical quantities and one can not keep either of them constant and vary the other. I feel this can be done by a Physics teacher and one should take care to point out in all similar situations.
  18. Sep 1, 2016 #17
    I can understand your viewpoint. However, I do not agree with it. You learn in calculus that the derivative of a position function is a velocity function and so on. This is covered, to the point of overkill, in a typical college calculus course. This is a great example of students in AP courses, not understanding what they are being taught, or if any teaching is going on. I can understand finding the moment of inertia of an object, or even writing newtons laws in the form of differentials. These can be seen as tricky things, that maybe it would be hard for students to apply previous calculus concepts.

    Math classes in high school are not formal math calculus. These classes are devoid of proofs. Instead the math is motivated by plug and chug. If the class is decent, it is motivated by physical examples.
  19. Sep 2, 2016 #18
    My high school calculus course had proofs. The teacher did them. In general, he did not ask the student's to do them on the test, but he still did them. Otherwise, how do the student's learn that the calculus is valid?
  20. Sep 2, 2016 #19


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    This reminds me of a poster in the academic section the other day looking for a way to begin as a freshmen taking junior level E&M. Obviously, I personally don't believe it advisable. Could it be done successfully? Sure, and I'm sure it has been done already by some segment of bright students who had the opportunity.

    But I always wondered:

    From the students perspective, what drives the desire to skip introductory college courses within your major area?

    From the universities perspective, what do they get out of accepting AP credit as equivalent introductory course work?

    It seems both parties should have a vested interest in not skipping/allowing students to skip these courses, but it still occurs.

    Mathwonk suggested a good reason for the second, the students who take AP courses are well prepared for college. So granting them credit to bypass introductory coursework might attract those who want to get to more "advanced topics" quicker. You'd think most students who were well prepared wouldn't actually want to do this though... especially in their major.
  21. Sep 12, 2016 #20
    The question concerns whether AP physics prepares students for college physics. Some schools will prepare the students better than others. The college advisors may use AP scores to recommend the student to elect to take honors physics rather than the workhorse physics course, or the workhorse physics course rather than physics for social sciences (or maybe life sciences).

    I hope few college advisors would be misguided enough to accept a 5 on the AP to directly proceed to the tensor calculus in some junior level EM texts.
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