Number of advanced placement classes at area schools has soared

By Brad Hundt staff Writer bhundt@observer-Reporter.Com 6 min read
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Brad Hundt/Observer-Reporter

Iain Callan, a senior at Washington High School, works out a math problem. Callan has taken several advanced placement courses.

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Brad Hundt/Observer-Reporter

Washington High School students, from left, Danielle Phillips, Caprice Johnson and Anand Karamcheti talk in a classroom this week. All three students are taking AP courses.

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Courtesy of the Canon-McMillan School District

Ella Neiderer, a 2023 graduate of Canon-McMillan High School, scored a perfect 5 on the advanced placement art and design test with her portfolio.

Until she arrived on the University of Pittsburgh campus in the 1980s, Trish Craig was in the dark about advanced placement classes.

“I didn’t even know what AP was until I got to college,” said Craig.

Now, as the principal of the junior high and senior high in the Fort Cherry School District, she has become well-versed in advanced placement courses, as have administrators like her in this region and around the country. Forty years ago, advanced placement classes – or AP classes, as they are widely known in shorthand – were typically found almost exclusively in upscale districts where most students were college-bound and limited to a handful of bread-and-butter subjects. Now, they have firmly taken root in thousands of American high schools. By the time they graduate, at least 35% of American high school students have taken an advanced placement course, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, in subjects ranging from music theory to Chinese language and culture.

And there can perhaps be no better illustration of the ubiquity of advanced placement courses than their presence in the Fort Cherry district. Despite having only 321 students enrolled in grades 9-12, there are nine advanced placement courses being offered this academic year, including chemistry, physics, psychology, U.S. history and political science. Similarly, Washington High School, with an enrollment at a little more than 400 students, has both advanced placement and College in High School courses, the latter of which allows students to earn college credits before they leave high school.

“If students are motivated and willing to put in the work, the opportunities are available,” according to Robert Mihelcic, curriculum director for the Washington School District.

Devised by the College Board, the 123-year-old nonprofit that produces and administers standardized tests, including the SAT, AP classes allow students to study areas that are part of the high school curriculum, but with a focus and rigor more typically found in a college classroom. An advanced placement English literature class, for instance, might require students to read classic novels by Charles Dickens or George Orwell, or explore the themes in a Shakespeare play like “Hamlet.” At the end of an AP course, students take a College Board test that is graded by college professors or AP teachers not at the student’s high school. If a student gets a score of 3 or above on a 1-to-5 grading scale, they can earn college credit at many institutions and skip over some required courses. Given the steep costs of attending a college or university, that can be an undeniably strong lure for students to take AP classes and test out of required college courses.

“We tell students that college is expensive and you might want to save some money,” Craig said.

Some students at Peters Township High School tested out of so many courses, in fact, that they were able to arrive on the Pitt campus as mid-year sophomores, according to Lori Pavlik, the school’s principal.

Altogether, the College Board offers AP courses in 38 different subjects, and more than 4 million AP exams were given to more than 1 million students in 2022. The expansion of AP courses has not been without controversy. In Florida, the state’s department of education rejected a pilot AP African American studies course, alleging it was “a vehicle for a political agenda.” Criticism has been leveled at AP psychology courses for their approach to sexual orientation and identity.

Then, there are critics who say advanced placement classes place yet more stress on already harried high school students – they feel obligated to take AP courses, detractors say, so they can remain competitive in college admissions. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, wrote in 2021 for Psychology Today that pressure to take AP courses causes “immense psychological harm.”

“When the AP program first began, decades ago, the courses were relatively rare and only the most able students took them, but now, in some schools, many quite average students feel pressured to take them,” Gray wrote. “They believe they must, to have a chance of admission to the college they desire. They also believe they will look like losers to their high-achieving classmates if they don’t take the courses. Some students take as many as 12 or even 15 AP courses in their high-school career, which leaves little time to think and hardly enough time to breathe.”

However, administrators say it can be to the benefit of students to take college-level courses before they reach a university.

“We really encourage our students to take at least one AP course while they are in high school,” Pavlik said. In the decade she has been the principal at Peters Township High School, the number of students taking AP courses has shot up from 30% to 40% to a little more than 70%.

She added that the courses allow students to “get that experience before they leave us and challenge themselves a little bit, and I think that has paid off.”

Enrollment in advanced placement courses has dipped slightly over the last couple of years at Laurel Highlands High School, according to Randy Miller, director of curriculum and instruction for the Laurel Highlands School District, but overall it is “not a significant change.” Miller believes the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could be a factor, along with some students thinking about pursuing careers after high school that don’t require a college degree. This is reflected in the increasing enrollment at the Fayette County Career and Technical Institute, he said.

One of the students at Laurel Highlands High School enrolled in advanced placement classes is Matthew Schwertfeger. The junior is taking AP courses in American history and and chemistry this year, and says “they are a step up” from other courses available at the school. Iain Callan, a senior at Washington High School, has taken several AP courses at Washington High School since his freshman year. He hopes to major in math and physics at the University of Chicago and says taking AP courses now will allow him to use his time as an undergraduate more efficiently. Another Washington High School senior, Anand Karamcheti, hopes to become a surgeon and is taking a menu of AP courses in preparation for a college and university career that will include medical school.

He hopes the AP work he is doing now “will help me excel in those classes.”

Canon-McMillan High School offers 22 AP courses and more than 300 students have signed up for them. Last year, 53% of students scored a 3 or higher on AP tests, and one of them was Ella Neiderer, who is now a freshman at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. She ended up scoring a perfect 5 on the AP art and design test with her portfolio in her senior year at Canon-McMillan. Neiderer believes AP courses are worthwhile for high school students.

“I would say definitely take them if they’re interested in the subject, because it pays off in the end,” she said.


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