Is the Shine Off the A.P. Apple?

By Nina Hurwitz and Sol Hurwitz

Meghan O'Connor took her first Advanced Placement course as a sophomore at Floral Park Memorial High School in suburban Nassau County, N.Y. "You go from ninth grade, where you're working on study skills and keeping different colored notebooks, to 10th grade A.P. European history, where you're reading 50 pages a night and writing essays based on evidence gathered from historical documents," she says. "After my A.P. courses" -- she had taken five by the end of senior year -- "I knew I could handle a heavy workload in college and balance my time. And I was prepared to think analytically."

Widely regarded as the gold standard of academic excellence, A.P. courses show admissions officers that students like Meghan are poised for success in college. More than 3,000 American colleges and universities recognize the A.P. program by placing college freshmen in advanced classes and giving college credit to high school students with satisfactory grades on final A.P. examinations. Students with enough qualifying A.P. courses sometimes enter college as sophomores.

As the college admissions race grows ever more intense, enrollment in A.P. courses is soaring. Today nearly 950,000 students worldwide take the college-level classes, more than double the number a decade ago, and 60 percent of U.S. high schools offer them. "Our goal should be 100 percent," says former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Established by the nonprofit College Board in 1955 as an elite program for the academically gifted, the Advanced Placement program has become that rare specimen in American education that garners near-universal approval. School boards and administrators value the aura of high standards that A.P. bestows on their districts. Teachers vie for the chance to teach courses that allow them to probe deep into their disciplines, while working with the brightest students. "We become learners as we teach," as one teacher put it.

Parents want A.P. courses for their children, mindful of the weight they carry in the college admissions process. Motivated students who yearn to share a fast-paced academic experience with like-minded peers clamber to sign up.

Hard pressed to raise standards in America's high schools, educators are pointing increasingly to A.P. for its rigorous college-level curriculum combined with an external assessment -- a nationally administered examination -- for each subject. "The A.P. program is the model for all standards and assessment programs in the country," boasts College Board president Gaston Caperton.
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