TO AP or NOT AP — Are AP Courses a “Value Added” to STEM Education?

imgresThere are many questions in my mind today as a parent of a high school senior. I wonder if his education has prepared him for what is ahead–the world of the future.  The school claims it is doing this, and very well I might add, as they publicize their success on a variety of standardized tests: SAT, ACT,  and AP.  He has taken everything that is supposed to be the  most rigorous, yet his school has little to no understanding or support of anything STEM.  They believe that if they increase their access to technology-note I said access not development and understanding of what technology is(something new answering a want or need)–and offer the science and mathematics courses that are advanced, students will be prepared.  According to US News and World Report, this high school is ranked 11th in the state of Colorado, and #408 in the US.  A reminder that these rankings are based on very specific facts: the methodology is HERE. You can take what you will from their method to arrive at these rankings. As with ranking anything; it is what it is. It doesn’t define anything but exactly what they have measured.

This school also received a ranking of #128 as a STEM school. To determine the top science, technology, engineering and math schools, U.S. News looked at the top 500 public schools from our latest Best High Schools rankings, and then evaluated their students’ participation and success in Advanced Placement (AP®) science and math tests. Click for the STEM methodology. Just FYI, STEM is not just science and math renamed. Why would we need to do that?

So a rational conclusion would be that any  child who has participated in the large amount of AP classes, especially high level science and math, would be ready to pursue STEM subjects in higher education. I think this conclusion is false because I am not sure that those courses prepare students. At the same time, they could. Students need to study engineering design, understand design thinking and as a result, become excellent managers of their own education in addition to being problems solvers and great critical thinkers–all of which is not easy to test. These learning skills for the most part are observed through students’ reasoning skills, writing with detailed explanations and application of knowledge. These criteria are the ones that give value added to prepare for STEM literacy, college or career. My point is AP courses are not all created equally and doing well on the test may or may not mean a student is really prepared for higher education and the rigor of the science and mathematics offered there. So not taking AP courses doesn’t seem like the best option either.  Could or should one expect to be prepared in the “regular” science and math?

I find myself wondering what is the teacher training and criteria to teach an AP course?  Do the teachers follow the outline from The College Board? Does he or she use old tests as a guide?  Does one stress and expect rigor, depth and application of knowledge? Is there a teacher measuring stick to have an appropriate amount of content knowledge? Do you think that smart, capable students will thrive anyway, so you don’t worry about whether or not this is really good preparation for the future?

Excerpted from The Hechinger Report article on AP tests and current and future changes: Dartmouth’s Psychology Department gave more than 100 students who received a perfect five out of five score on the AP Psychology exam, a condensed version of the school’s final for its introductory  psychology course – 90 percent failed.

Recent time and research has shown that instruction is everything. It is the knowledge and methods of the teacher that guarantee success. It is worth putting the most effort into this area of education: provide high quality excellent instruction and results and outcomes will be the best. It is not the courses that the students take or what they learn, it is how they learn it and what applicable knowledge they take away from that learning experience and file away for use at a later date.

Does AP offer a value added education for students to  prepare for the future? The answer is very specific-it depends of who is teaching and how it is taught. Can AP demand more rigor to truly replicate college instruction? I don’t know the answer to that. But, it seems to me that if we are going to offer this education to students we must find a way to ensure that they get what they think they are getting. Taking AP courses should not be simply a medium for students to raise their GPA and artificially enhance their achievement. Schools participate in this practice BIG TIME. In the long run, what does that teach?

If we want a value-added STEM education to prepare students for college and career, and above all, make them STEM literate students, how do we do this? STEM education, AP or not, should be for all, not for just those who are considered capable for AP courses. Again, another reason for a paradigm shift in teacher training and successful instructional models.imgres-1


Categories: 21st Century Education, Common Core Standards, creativity, critical thinking, Education reform, evaluation, foster workforce readiness, Innovation, mastery, math, problem solving, professional development, Professional Learning Communities, science and engineering, science education, STEM education, teachers


  1. Asking if AP is adds value is a good question. Of course, like anything, it depends on the teacher teaching the class. Teachers do receive training to teach the class, or are supposed to get trained. The teach from a syllabus, and use an approved text, but the instruction is designed by them. Classes are different from teacher to teacher, and I think this is positive as it lends to each teacher’s unique styles. They are held accountable by the assessment and AP teachers I know work and rework their lessons thoughtfully to increase their students’ achievement. Anecdotally, most students I have spoken to who go on to university have told me they were very well prepared by their AP courses. As a former curriculum director, this is what I want to hear. However, if you compared AP classes to most high level STEM classes, I would say that they are lacking inquiry and a strong foundational process like the Design Process. With the revisions in AP Chem and Physics I think we are seeing more inquiry based – but in my opinion, nothing to what we would see in a STEM approach to such a class. I would recommend students interested in AP to add courses to their load from STEM if they can find the time. They would benefit greatly from the process of thinking like an engineer and/or designer, prototyping, failing fast, and revising, revising, revising. Thanks for the post!

    • Thank you Diane for your thoughtful and detailed reply. All good points! I agree and I hope that AP will expand their offerings or curriculum to a more inquiry based option using the engineering design process or applied math and science where possible. My son has had AP Chem and is currently in AP physics and there is not much experiential or inquiry based happening unfortunately. The Chem was the revised version and I think better than previous offerings, but still needs to be expanded, IMHO. Some of this as you say, would be in the hands of the teacher and their understanding of the importance of a real-world based protocol and the content knowledge and application they bring to the classroom. I think so much can be learned from the Engineering Design Process at the center of instruction. It could change the way students learn and the way they think about learning–failure is a great learning tool!

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