Are AP classes beneficial for gifted students... or not?
Countless numbers of gifted students and their families are besieged by this question, especially as the new school year approaches. Are AP classes worth the effort and stress? Do they really replicate college classes? Will they thwart a student's creative drive and turn them into a fact machine? And are they just a racket that supports the College Board?
As most of you likely know, AP (Advanced Placement) classes provide an opportunity for more intensive study in certain high school subjects and include a set format with standards presumably comparable across schools nationwide. Students can elect to take an exam sponsored by the College Board when the course is over, and will receive a score ranging from 1-5 (with 5 considered an exceptional score). Many students - including gifted students - opt to take at least a few AP classes for a variety of reasons, such as a drive to achieve, a strong interest in a particular subject area, or to improve chances for college admissions.
However, criticisms of AP classes and exams have flourished over the years. Concerns include claims that a rigid and formulaic structure thwarts creativity, that memorization is prioritized instead of critical thinking, and that the exams are a money-making venture for the College Board. Some classes (such as AP World History or English Literature) have been criticized for providing a skewed perspective - one that is predominantly White and male. Other criticisms, as summarized here, suggest that AP classes lack depth, do not enhance college admissions chances or even actual preparation for college, and that pressure (internalized or external) to take an overload of demanding classes can be overwhelming and even crushing to the adolescent psyche. Furthermore, Black, Latino, and lower-income students are often denied access to AP classes or do not perform as well as their White or higher-income peers.
I am not an educator, so cannot comment on educational content. However, in my psychotherapy practice, I have worked with many families who questioned whether their gifted child should take AP classes, along with gifted teens who have shared their reactions to the classes. The only complaints I heard reflected the usual worries about grades, homework, or occasionally, frustration with the teacher. Not much different than comments about any given class at school.
What seemed apparent, though, was that most gifted teens really liked AP classes. They were thrilled to finally have an opportunity to engage in a class where academic excellence was not squelched by rote instruction or peer pressure to hide their abilities. They were relieved to interact with students driven to learn on a more intensive level, no longer encumbered by distractions from classmates disinterested in academics. They often felt respected by teachers who appreciated their students' passion and drive. In contrast, much greater frustration and even despair were expressed when gifted students were placed in grade-level classes (often perceived as torturous and filled with boredom or busy work that offended their sensibilities), or honors classes (often viewed as easier or a watered-down version of AP classes). My comments about the benefits and drawbacks of AP classes that follow are based on research, opinions voiced by educators or treatment professionals, my clinical experience as a psychologist and workshop leader, my years as co-chair of a gifted parenting advocacy group, and a few of my own impressions as a parent.
The following are some reasons to consider AP classes for your gifted child (and a few reasons to avoid them).
1. Gifted children thrive when challenged and when provided opportunities for enrichment.
While AP classes may follow a standardized format and sometimes provide fewer opportunities for creative expression or independent and critical thinking, they also may be the most demanding and intellectually challenging classes available in most high schools. Many gifted students feel relief when offered an opportunity to study a topic in depth (even if some of this involves memorization). And although critics have lamented the pressure-cooker environments that compel high-achieving students to push themselves to the brink, most gifted teens will do just fine in these classes. The perfectionists among them may struggle, but most will embrace the challenge. Many teachers also relish teaching an AP class, where they have a captive audience of engaged students who choose to be there. In their survey of gifted high school students, Hertberg-Davis and Callahan reported that AP and IB classes were a relief to many students who finally felt challenged in these classes:
"Nearly all of the students in our study indicated that AP and IB [International Baccalaureate] courses were the first courses in which they experienced genuine challenge, and the first academic environments in which they felt comfortable with their advanced abilities and academic interests. This indicates that many gifted students have to wait until the last few years of their school careers to encounter courses appropriately matched to their needs."
2. AP classes often cultivate an accepting social environment.
AP classes host a collection of peers who value academics, effort, and a willingness to engage in class discussion. Given the trend toward elimination of ability-grouped classes - especially in middle school - gifted teens may be overjoyed to finally share a classroom with other students who want to be there! They no longer feel compelled to hide their abilities to fit in or avoid ridicule. Many times, these classes provide a safe haven, free from peer pressure that demands conformity to the normative high school culture. This sense of relief alleviates stress, and many gifted teens prefer these classes - even if they must work harder than they would elsewhere. Regardless of whether AP classes provide the depth and creativity most gifted students crave, at the very least, these classes provide a brief respite from the social pressures awaiting them once they step outside the classroom.
3. AP classes require hard work and diligence.
Many gifted kids coast through school with little effort. They rarely enlist executive functioning skills, such as time management, organizational strategies, or study skills. AP classes may usher in their first challenging academic experience where they must learn to study, expend effort, and realize that not everything will be easy. This experience is great preparation for college and career. When school is no longer easy, they will appreciate challenging themselves differently and gain perspective on the limits of their abilities. AP classes may provide a rude awakening to students who have never exerted effort in school. Given this reality, some shy away from too much pressure and may avoid taking these classes. Others take a strategic approach and only select AP classes that are compatible with their interests and abilities. For example, students who dislike math and science might choose to take AP Environmental Science, often viewed as the “easy” AP science class. Those who dislike reading might avoid the AP English classes. Participation in at least one AP class, though, provides an opportunity for gifted students to flex their intellectual muscles and work hard to succeed.
4. AP scores still provide a boost when applying to college, and high scores can be used for college credit (at some colleges)
While a recent survey of college admissions officers indicated that a substantial proportion valued honors classes as much as AP classes, the reality in most schools is that AP classes are considered the most rigorous courses available. And that is what admissions departments want to see: evidence of a student's willingness to push themselves and tackle demanding work. After all, colleges expect that their incoming students are motivated and have the drive to apply themselves. A willingness to exert effort in high school is a good sign. An AP exam score of 4 or 5 also confers course credits at some colleges, or at least, will allow students to place out of some introductory courses. While AP class material may be less challenging than actual college coursework, many colleges still provide the option of using these classes for credit, letting students move quickly into more challenging coursework.
5. On the other hand, AP exam scores are not as important as you might think.
Even if your under-motivated, underachieving gifted child scores poorly on the exam, learning advanced material in a challenging school and peer environment is a positive experience. Some research indicates that students with a low exam score of 1 or 2 are still more likely to attend college and graduate on time than their peers, and also have better college outcomes than college students who did not take an AP course or exam. While this research sampled a wide range of students and is not specific to the gifted, it still highlights the benefits derived from merely attending these classes. However, your gifted child is likely quite capable of achieving a higher test score, and other factors may be responsible for their poor performance (e.g., anxiety, perfectionism, depression, rebellion from expectations, or disengagement from school).
6. AP classes may be a better alternative than what is available in many high schools
Although AP classes may not provide enough time for the deeper exploration many gifted students crave, there is no guarantee that gifted students would benefit more from an honors class or other academic opportunities at school. Honors classes may not be comparable across school districts or even among teachers within the same school due to a less standardized curriculum. Many gifted students view honors classes as an easier alternative to AP classes. A critic of AP classes, Gray has suggested that students might, instead: "conduct independent research, volunteer in a lab, write for their school newspaper or even their community weekly newspaper, or tutor students in lower-level courses." While Gray offers wonderful suggestions, most gifted students already engage in many of these activities. They often spend an inordinate amount of time on their own working independently (e.g., writing that novel, designing websites, tinkering with the latest tech gadget), and benefit intellectually and socially from the collaborative engagement and even competition within a classroom of peers.
In an NAGC article, Finn and Scanlon claimed that AP classes benefit gifted students for a variety of reasons: AP classes provide " built-in quality control and rigor," often enlist a school's "most enthusiastic teachers," are "well-understood" by college admissions officers (given the standardized nature of the curriculum), and demand that students develop the study skills that will serve them well in college and beyond. They note that "Advanced Placement remains the closest thing America has to a quality, large-scale 'gifted and talented' program at the high school level."
How can you help your child decide?
Despite these advantages listed above, gifted teens still need your guidance in determining whether to take an AP class and if so, which one(s) and how many. Here are a few guidelines to consider:
1. Some gifted teens struggle with the structured format of AP classes. They may rebel when classes seem rigid or when few opportunities for in-depth learning or creative engagement are available. In these situations, honors classes, or an arrangement for independent study through your school's gifted supervisor, may be more valuable.
2. Encourage an open discussion with your child about choosing AP classes. Some high-achieving students take an overload of AP classes because they think this is expected, or worry that they will not get into the college they desire without an array of AP classes listed on their transcripts. They may need your encouragement to scale back some of their expectations and choose a reasonable number of AP or honors classes that will not be overwhelming.
3. Once your child takes on a more demanding workload, remain supportive when they struggle, but insist that they stay focused and complete their assignments. They may benefit from your help with organizational and planning strategies so that they do not fall behind. Encourage them to speak to their teacher or guidance counselor about how to manage the workload. If they become highly self-critical or show signs of increased anxiety or depression, mental health counseling may be indicated.
4. Remind your child that a high exam score is not required. Let them know that you are proud of them for choosing a more demanding class. They are not expected to take the exam, and if they eventually agree to take it, help them view their score like any other test score - as a snapshot in time of their accumulated knowledge, and not a referendum on their abilities, strengths, or character! As with all things parenting, you can help them put their reactions into perspective.
AP classes are one of many options available to high school students. They are not a substitute for gifted education, though, but offer a more challenging option than what is available in most high schools. Researchers Hertberg-Davis and Callahan further noted that: "Infusing greater rigor into the K-12 curriculum and allowing gifted students to spend at least part of the day with like-ability peers would go a long way in ensuring that gifted students' academic and social/emotional needs are being met throughout their school careers." It is unfortunate that many gifted children must wait until high school to access academically challenging classes. One can only wonder what a gifted child's educational experience could be if they had an opportunity to participate in challenging classes throughout their years in school.