Education’s Latest Scam: AP Classes

The next SAT test date is coming up on November 3rd, so it’s probably safe to say that lots of high school kids hit the books on Halloween night rather than going trick-or-treating. Many of these students, along with striving for good test scores, also take Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school in hopes of getting into a top university. But do AP courses actually help students get ahead… or are they a scam?

The College Board, a large non-profit that also oversees the SATs and PSATs, is the organization behind AP classes. It claims that AP courses are intended “to offer college-level courses and exams to high-school students. The courses allegedly provide students the kind of rigorous academic experience they will encounter in college as well as an opportunity to earn college credit for the work” (The Atlantic).

AP classes and tests a scam?

John Tierney, a former college professor and high school teacher, has many criticisms of AP courses. He believes that they not only do not live up to their ambitious goals, but that they are “one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.”

In a critical article in The Atlantic, Tierney makes several good points.  Here are some reasons he believes that AP courses and tests aren’t as good for students as most people think:

1. AP courses often do not teach the same level of material that is taught in college classes. Tierney is a former college professor, so is very familiar with college curricula. He believes that, while AP classes are more accelerated than most “regular” high school classes, they do not stand up to college classes in content.

2. The College Board states that part of their mission is to allow high school students to receive college credit for taking AP courses, ultimately saving them time and money in college. But an overwhelming number of colleges and universities don’t give students credit for AP classes. They do allow students to opt out of intro classes in whichever subject they took the AP test for, which often puts them at a disadvantage amongst their peers at college.

3. The classes are targeted towards white, affluent students who already excel in school. The students who take AP classes are the ones trying to get into competitive colleges and universities. AP does nothing to help the students who need it the most–minorities, students from low-income families, and struggling students.

4. Although it’s a non-profit, The College Board generates impressive revenue, largely from the high price it charges students to take its AP exams — $89 a pop. What is the College Board doing with their profit? Could they lower the prices of the tests to make them more accessible for low-income students?

5. Tierney also criticizes AP for its strict curriculum, which doesn’t allow for variation between different schools and classes. He argues that one curriculum cannot work for every student in every school in the country.

What can you do?

All this may be true, but when colleges look favorably upon AP classes on students’ transcripts, what can you do? Do students who opt out of AP courses put themselves at a disadvantage? Probably.

In high school, I took a wide range of AP classes, including Biology, Psychology, Economics and Government. I had no business being in the Biology or Economics classes — without a strong aptitude for the subjects or a strong motivation to study, my grades were mediocre at best. But many college admissions counselors will tell you that just taking an AP course is the most important thing you can do, even if you get a bad grade. This seems to be true, as I ended up getting into my first choice college.

I did find my AP classes to be much more challenging than my “regular” classes, but it’s also evident that the College Board profits from this program, and that the culture surrounding AP courses has grown to such proportions that taking one or two may make the difference into getting into a certain college.

How should students and parents handle this AP dilemma? Is it better to take the classes and hope for the best, or boycott the system entirely? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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Photo: MC Quinn/flickr


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

my credits from AP classes carried over, and they weren't difficult, but then again neither were the actual college courses. Turns out if you actually read the text book (gasp) the classes are a breeze. I got credit for 7 classes thanks to AP, and so I only have positive things to say. I was a semester ahead :)

Lisa W.
Lisa W.4 years ago

they are good! AP gives high school students inexpensive college credit... much less costly than even taking a class a community college! though I do feel it does serve people who are already successful and in the middle class, who can afford the extra $$ materials and have support already from teachers who know them already from the district, hand-selected colleges already chosen. b/c of that it does not so much the lower classes and minorities as it could, but still a VERY GOOD boost!!!!

Colleen Prinssen
Colleen Prinssen4 years ago

oh good. now I don't have to feel retarded because I dind't have AP and College Prep classes in highschool. I think my art class was an AP one.


June Lacy
June Lacy4 years ago


Steven J.
Steven J4 years ago

Hi Everyone,

I don't know if a story this has been done on this yet, but I've set up a peition for another education related subject, and I hope Care2 can write a story about this as well:

Thanks for sharing,

Harley Williams
Harley W4 years ago

Some AP classes are a scam some are not. It depends on the school. As for saying they are for white affluent children. You should come see the schools where I taught and helped in AP classes. White were a minority.

The problem is many children do not want to learn. Many do not want to go to college. But instead of helping students get ready for Tech school many schools push College only. I have seen students discouraged and ready to quit because they cannot understand some classes. When they could get a good job and feel better about themsleves if we helped them get a trade.

I know of Mechanics who make more money then I do with my college degrees.

Donna B.
Donna B4 years ago

I took all AP classes in high school and was grateful for them. I learned alot and never got the chance to go to college. Graduated from high school in 1982. Thx for the article.

Christine Stewart

I was glad for my AP English class- saved me from having to take entry level English in college...

Lawrence E.
Lawrence H E4 years ago

Having graduated from school in 1964, I took courses that were acredited by the Catholic University in the hometown. I do know this. When I enrolled at the local city university I did not buy an anthology for my first two years of literature because I had already read the books to be taught those years. In the classes where discussion was encouraged I learned new ways to interpret old lines. In those that were professor centered I did not learn as much. Headed to my 50th year anniversary soon. AP works if it is rigorous and doesn't when it isn't

Talya Honor
Tal H4 years ago

Thanks for the share!