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All about Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams
The AP program gives students the opportunity to take college-level courses while they are still in high school.
By GreatSchools Staff

Does your high school student want to get ahead and do college-level work in high school? The Advanced Placement program provides that opportunity.

The AP program is run by the College Board, which develops the curriculum, creates and administers the exams, and provides support for teachers. The AP program gives students the opportunity to take one or more college-level courses while they are still in high school, and to receive college credit if they receive a score of 3, 4 or 5 on the AP test.

What AP courses and exams are offered?

The AP program currently offers 37 courses and exams across 22 subject areas. Schools vary in which AP courses they offer. In 2008-2009 the College Board offered AP Exams in Art History, Biology, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Chemistry, Chinese Language and Culture, Computer Science A, macroeconomics, microeconomics, English Language, English Literature, Environmental Science, European History, French Language, French Literature, Italian Language and Culture, German Language, Comp Government & Politics, U.S. Government & Politics, Human Geography, Japanese Language and Culture, Latin Literature, Latin: Vergil, Music Theory, Physics B, Physics C, Psychology, Spanish Language, Spanish Literature, Statistics, Studio Art, U.S. History, and World History. Due to under-enrollment, the College Board will be eliminating Computer Science AB, French Literature and Latin Literature after the 2008-09 academic year.

The number of students taking and passing AP exams is rising. In 2002, close to 12 % of U.S. high school students scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP test. In 2008, that number rose to 15% of all high school students.

Many schools offer college-level AP classes to prepare students for the AP exams, but students can take exams without completing a specific course. Taking AP courses helps students develop the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for a successful transition to college, and increases a student’s likelihood of graduating on time. AP courses are generally demanding, and require a certain level of maturity and dedication for students to succeed.

On GreatSchools school profiles, you can see which exams were given at each high school. If an exam is listed, it means that at least one student at the school took the exam. This information does not tell you which AP courses are offered at the school. To find that information, contact the school directly.

How much do the exams cost?

Students are required to pay $86 per exam. For those who demonstrate need, financial aid is available from the College Board, as well as from some states, cities and school districts.

Issues to consider

• Students who receive good grades on AP tests can bypass introductory courses and enter with college credit at many colleges and universities. Each college sets its own policy on college credit and advancement to high level courses for successfully completing AP exams. To find specific credit information for colleges you are interested in, check the College Board’s AP Credit Policy Information.
• Although there has been a national debate over whether high school students are feeling pressured to take too many AP courses, several studies have shown that good grades (3, 4 or 5) on AP exams correlate with better grades and graduation rates in college.
• A recent University of Texas study found that students in 10 subjects who used their AP credits to take more advanced courses in college had better grades in the advanced courses than students who took the introductory courses in college instead of AP courses in high school.
• Some critics argue that high school AP courses cannot match the depth and rigor of courses offered by colleges. But others counter that students are more likely to get attention in a smaller high school AP course than in a large lecture college introductory course.
• Many selective colleges and universities look for students who have successfully completed the most challenging courses offered at their high school. That means AP or International Baccalaureate (IB). (IB is an international diploma program with high academic standards offered at some high schools where students take a prescribed course of study for two years in high school. Then, if they pass the IB exams, students receive an IB diploma.)

Questions to ask at your high school

• Find out what AP courses are offered at your high school. Ask what prerequisites are required to take these courses.
• Ask what scores students have received on particular tests, and if the same teachers are teaching these AP courses. Beware of a large number of low scores on a particular test. It may indicate that students are not being sufficiently prepared to pass the AP exam.
• If your child is interested in a particular course, have her talk to the teacher ahead of time to find out what the workload is and what preparation will be necessary to take the course. Some teachers require that students complete work (summer reading, for example) prior to taking the course.
• If your child is interested in a subject offered by the AP program but the course is not offered at your school, find out what support he can expect to receive at the school to prepare for the test. Some states also offer online AP courses.
• Check to make sure that your school is offering the AP curriculum aligned with the AP test. Beware of courses labeled AP Philosophy, AP Astronomy or AP Botany. These subjects are not part of the College Board Advanced Placement program. You can find out which subjects are part of the official AP program here.