Are Advanced Placement Classes Worth It?

By Elizabeth Smith, retired English teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools

Some of the questions I get when students are deciding whether or not to take my AP Language and Composition class are about the homework load, some are about the reading requirements, but all of them are based on a fear that the class will be too hard and might reveal weaknesses that students do not want to face in themselves. I say that this is exactly the kind of course our students need.

Failure has been vilified in our society to the point that many of our students are frozen in place. Advanced Placement courses, if taught by highly qualified teachers who know their subject matter extremely well, can start melting away that fear. AP Institutes provide teachers with the absolute best teaching practices culled from teachers all over the world and then practiced in AP consultants’ own classrooms. AP Institutes do not offer cookie-cutter teaching units, but require participants to generate their own lessons, a practice that makes the teaching genuine and much more effective.

Advanced Placement courses value learning for its own sake. The guidelines provided by the College Board allow professional educators the leeway to teach in the way that best fits the students in the classroom in any given year. We assess where the students are and work on growth—as writers and readers and critical thinkers in my English class—not teaching to a test. Critical thinking is at the heart of the Advanced Placement class giving value to the process over the product. AP students become owners of their learning as they become more comfortable taking risks in the classroom and learning that making a mistake is an opportunity not a failure.

Does this happen every day in every AP class? No. As I write this post, my students are struggling to see beyond scores on essays. They are still caught up in the focus on numbers that our society uses to measure success. But tomorrow morning when I open the Writing Lab, these young people will start to trickle in to see me to talk about their writing. They will see the places that need work and start the process of marking out and scribbling notes in margins and moving things around. They are writers, and this is what writers do. Advanced Placement makes it happen.

It isn’t enough to just offer these courses to students. For AP courses to be successful, we cannot erect barriers that keep any student out. We have to practice what we preach and let go of worry about what the test scores will look like. Administrators need to trust their AP teachers to cultivate cultures of thinking in the classroom without fear that a class will be cut or a teacher removed from the assignment because of test scores. Schools that nurture curiosity and warmly welcome students into academic inquiry will ultimately see strong test scores, but more importantly, these schools are preparing citizens for the challenges that they will face in our society.

This post is the first in a series highlighting the importance of providing rigorous, early postsecondary opportunities for our students, specifically focusing on AP class expansion.