If there is one thing Katie Boltz has mastered in high school, it is how to use every minute of her day efficiently. With five Advanced Placement classes, the Dulaney High School senior doesn't text her friends or watch TV so she can focus on homework — but still only manages three or four hours of sleep some nights.
"Originally, I thought I would really like all of these classes," the 17-year-old said, adding that when she is overwhelmed, she questions the decision to take so many demanding classes at one time. "It is definitely a lot."
Boltz is one of a growing number of students in Maryland and throughout the nation juggling a full plate of college-level classes in high school. In the past decade, the number of students nationwide who take more than three AP exams a year has doubled, to about 175,000.
Designed a half-century ago to give a few thousand elite students a chance to skip introductory college classes, Advanced Placement is now the required portal to college for any ambitious teen.
But its widespread acceptance as a national gold standard has altered the nature of high school for students like Boltz, some critics say. They see an education system that rewards top students who take 10 to 12 AP classes during their high school careers — the equivalent of more than a year of college — but narrows the choice of classes they can take and creates undue stress.
The system is driven partly, they say, by colleges that use Advanced Placement — the number of classes taken and exam scores earned — to rank applicants, and by savvy local school administrators who want to boost a school's national rankings. School districts routinely point to those rankings, giving principals an incentive to get more students to take the classes.
Now some parents, educators and even university admissions officers are rethinking the role of AP classes. A Baltimore County parents group wants teachers and administrators to be more upfront about the demands of the classes.
The admissions office for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is advising applicants that there is no benefit from taking more than five AP classes in high school. And a New York public high school has dumped the program in favor of what it sees as a better college preparatory curriculum.
"The relentless marketing effort by many principals to place a greater number of kids into a greater number of AP classes — all in a single semester, as early in a student's career as possible — is backfiring," said Mary Ellen Pease, a co-founder of Advocates for Better Course Choices in Baltimore County Public Schools and the parent of two recent county graduates.
Such protests represent a minority voice, and educators and parents say they have little influence over such a national juggernaut. Most education leaders across the nation have embraced the expansion of AP, seeing it as a way to raise achievement and provide educational equity to students in poorly performing schools.
But its ever-expanding use has meant that high-achieving students are loaded with the courses while some unprepared students at low-performing schools flounder and fail. A Baltimore Sun investigation last year showed that many students are given high grades in the AP classes but then fail the exams.
But AP teachers say having a tough national exam that only 60 percent of test takers pass has pushed students and schools to a higher level of achievement. And Boltz and her fellow students say they are glad to have taken challenging classes that prepare them for AP exams.
Trevor Packer, who leads the AP program for the nonprofit College Board — with members that include more than 6,000 colleges, universities, school districts and education organizations — has concerns about students who take too many AP classes but doesn't think it's a widespread problem.
"I don't love the idea of students taking AP just so they can stand out in college admissions," he said. "I want students to take AP because they want to learn at a higher level and they are passionate about that subject. There is some harm happening there that we all want to acknowledge. ... I just don't think the data support that as a national concern right now."
However, Packer's organization encourages students to take the classes, handing out awards to graduates who have taken a high number of the exams and earned top scores.
Maryland is considered by education experts to be a bellwether state for AP. It led the nation in expanding the program by prodding schools to offer more of the classes. Top-performing high schools such as Dulaney in Baltimore County offer as many as 25 AP classes, from art to calculus to history. And about 30 percent of the state's graduating seniors have taken and passed an AP exam — a higher percentage than any other state.
Few in Maryland or across the nation question the value of encouraging well-prepared students to try AP classes. The vast majority of students — about 80 percent nationwide who take an AP course and the corresponding exam — take just one to three classes a year.
"When taught properly, the richness of Advanced Placement courses allows students to experience content at a depth normally unavailable to them in other high school courses," said Martin Stranathan, Boltz's AP biology teacher at Dulaney.
Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance said it is important to offer AP classes to students as a way of preparing them for college. "When you talk to most universities, they want to see AP on the transcript," he said, adding that he would like each county high school to offer at least 10 AP classes.
Students at Dulaney said taking 10 or 12 AP classes during high school is considered routine among those at the top of their class. They thrive on the community of high achievers who enjoy working hard to get good grades and high scores on the AP exams.
But they also say that maintaining a balanced life with classes, activities and athletics is difficult.
Joe Pezzulla, 17, who takes five AP classes, said he and many students have "that feeling that you need to overload your plate and push yourself on things you don't care about. … There have only been a couple times when I have been in a class that I have been extremely passionate about."
Students say they would have opted for challenging high school-level classes — one notch down from college level — but most of those are no longer offered at Dulaney. The honors classes that are still taught, they say, often are too easy and are taken by students who are struggling to pass.
"If there were more honors classes that were offered that were more challenging, I would have taken them," Boltz said.
The students describe a system that rewards them doubly for AP classes and high exam scores. Not only do the classes look good on college applications, but they add bonus points to their weighted grade-point average, used by many school districts to determine class rank. In addition, students are increasingly reporting their AP exam scores to colleges in the application process, not in hopes of getting credit but as a way of burnishing their record.
"It is a necessary evil with the college application. You have to create your image," Pezzulla said.
Pease and others also say the media, which use AP classes to rank high schools, have helped fuel a push by educators to add more classes, Some rankings use the number of students taking the classes as the sole measure in ranking schools, while others factor in additional measures, as well as exam pass rates.
"I have real concerns about ever using AP exams as a sole criterion for ranking schools," said Packer, of the College Board.
Questioning the system
Admissions officers around the country recognize the pressure students feel to take so many high-level classes, and this year one university decided to use its power to change the system.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told applicants that it won't give them more favorable consideration for taking more than five AP classes in high school.
Steve Farmer, the university's head of admissions, said the change came after his staff began to challenge the assumption that if one AP class was good, then many more were better. About 60 percent of applicants had taken 10 to 12 AP classes, a course load his staff began to refer to as "extreme programming."
Furthermore, a study that the staff conducted using university statisticians showed that a student's freshman-year GPA increased for each AP course the student had taken up to five classes, after which there was no difference.
Farmer hopes the new policy will encourage students to be more thoughtful about their high school education, taking advanced courses they care about while leaving time for "reading the newspaper or learning to play the banjo or becoming a healthier or more interesting person."
"We hope it takes the edge off students and encourages them to make healthy choices," he said.
Packer wants other colleges to play a role as well. He said he asked college and university representatives who are members of the College Board to take a stand that "higher education supports students taking a more reasonable number of AP courses than some are taking."
But no representative of higher education would sign on, he said.
Admissions officers acknowledge that having AP courses on a transcript sends a signal that an applicant has taken challenging classes.
The Johns Hopkins University admissions office wants applicants to have taken the most challenging course work available to them, said Ellen Kim, undergraduate director of admissions. When an applicant's school doesn't offer AP, the student isn't penalized. But, she said, the university does look at AP exam scores, and most of those admitted to Hopkins have 4's or 5's, the highest possible scores.
One of the strongest arguments for taking the classes, proponents of AP say, is that they can save students thousands of dollars in college tuition. But the No. 1 reason that U.S. students cite for taking the classes is the lift AP can give their college applications, a College Board survey showed.
"I don't think getting the credit is a huge incentive for the students who are looking at competitive schools," said Dulaney senior Amica Phillips.
Some colleges are raising the exam score that students must earn to get credit. A passing score is considered a 3, on a scale of 1 to 5, but more colleges are requiring that a student obtain a 4 or 5 to receive credit.
University of Maryland, College Park and the Community College of Baltimore County both require students who have scored a 3 on the biology exam to take the introductory class.
A handful of the most selective colleges, including Amherst College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, do not give credits for AP, though some departments will let students skip introductory classes.
Dartmouth's faculty voted last year to do the same. Hakan Tell, a classics professor who heads Dartmouth's Committee on Instruction, said the faculty was concerned that students had gaps in their knowledge when they didn't take the college's introductory courses.
"There is a qualitative difference in work done in high school and work done at Dartmouth," he said.
Some college professors question whether the AP curriculum is the best option for the nation's top talent.
While supportive of some AP preparation, College Park chemistry professor John Fourkas advised against students using an AP credit to skip over the introductory class. "A university covers more ground than a high school chemistry course," he said, pointing out that high school labs aren't as sophisticated or as well-equipped as those in college.
Towson University math professor Martha Siegel said AP is an excellent program for a select group. But she has concerns that some students are being rushed through material.
"The program is good; it is just abused," Siegel said.
Some critics believe the College Board, which charges $89 per AP exam, wields too much influence.
Changes that the College Board makes to the AP curriculum can have far-reaching consequences. For example, when it decided evolution should be the cornerstone of biology, the curriculum in some schools changed overnight, as it did when it decided to insert a unit on Islam into the AP government exam.
"We sort of have power that states don't have when their educational policy is dictated by elected officials," Packer said.
The College Board is "big and powerful and has a lot of money, and I think when they come out with a philosophy or strategy of getting AP in everywhere, that can be counterproductive," said Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and dean emeritus of admissions at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. "Why have we assigned to it such import that it distorts what you do in terms of educating your students?"
In New York, Scarsdale High School decided to buck the trend and no longer offers AP classes. The public school, in an affluent suburb, substituted classes its faculty developed in collaboration with college professors. The resulting Advanced Topics classes are more interdisciplinary in approach and designed to cover less material than an AP class but are still taught at a high level.
"Teachers have the ability to go more in-depth into topics in the curriculum," Scarsdale Principal Kenneth Bonamo said, adding, "We have seen no impact on college placement."
In Baltimore County, a small group of parents is calling for more balance and thoughtfulness in the process of encouraging students to take AP courses. Pease's group isn't seeking an end to AP, but it has met with county school leaders for two years to encourage more high-level classes that aren't AP, as well as more rigorous honors classes.
They have created a "tool kit" designed to help parents and their children understand the demands of AP classes and decide whether a student is ready for them; it is available on the group's Facebook page.
Pease said she is concerned because some county schools have sent College Board form letters to students suggesting they take AP classes based on their PSAT scores. But if students begin to flounder, they don't always get help, she said. In a couple of cases, she said, she helped parents advocate with guidance counselors, but the students weren't allowed to transfer out of the classes.
Dance said he was unaware that any students were not able to transfer out of classes. "We don't want to set students up for failure, but also want to maintain a high bar for all students to strive toward," he said.
But Syverson believes more districts should be focused on offering excellent high school courses rather than having so many students taking an overload of AP.
"So many kids arrive at college psychically and emotionally exhausted these days," he said. "We are creating a generation of very stressed-out 17- and 18-year-olds."
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Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie researched this article while she was a Spencer Fellow in education reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.