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AP courses can boost GPA, but too many can overload a student

Karen Gardias instructs her class in AP music theory at Davis High School  on Thursday. Music Theory is one of 24 Advanced Placement classes offered at the high school. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

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June 3, 2011 |

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Davis High School offers 24 Advanced Placement courses, including:

Studio Art AP (seniors with teacher approval)

Art History AP

Calculus AB AP

Calculus BC AP

Biology AP

Chemistry AP

English Literature and Composition AP

Micro/Macro Economics AP

French 5 & 6 AP

German 5 & 6 AP

Human Geography AP

Japanese 5 Language AP (pending approval)

Physics AP

Music Theory AP

Spanish 5 & 6 AP

Statistics AP

U.S. Government & Politics AP

U.S. History AP

At Davis High School, the wide array of Advanced Placement courses available to students is both a point of pride and a matter of concern.

The AP courses offer students an opportunity to do college-level work while in high school, and satisfy some requirements for a college degree.

Because AP courses come with “weighted” grades, many students who take multiple AP courses can boost their grade-point averages.

“You get an extra grade point if you take an AP class or an Honors class,” explained DHS head counselor Courtenay Tessler. So a student who gets an A in an AP course receives five grade points, rather than the usual four. A student who gets a B in an AP course gets four grade points, rather than three.

“So you have some B’s on your grade card, and still get above a 4.0 grade-point average,” if a student is taking several AP courses, Tessler said.

“When you see those GPAs that are 4.6 and higher, those students have taken AP courses in several core subjects,” Tessler continued. “They’ve taken the most rigorous course.”

A glance at the grades for this year’s graduating seniors illustrates this trend. DHS shared a GPA list — no names, just numbers — with The Enterprise. Of the 516 12th-grade students on the list, 127 students (nearly 25 percent) had a GPA of 4.0 or higher. The highest GPA on the list was above 4.8.

There were 36 students with a GPA of 4.3 or higher. A student with a 3.90 GPA would rank 170th in the graduating class, well outside the top 10 percent. The average GPA is 3.46.

Earlier this year, DHS was one of 37 high schools in California that was honored by inclusion on the AP Achievement List, which is compiled by the College Board. The College Board noted that from 2008 to 2010, DHS increased the number of students in AP classes from 489 to 551, while improving the percentage of students earning qualifying scores on AP exams.

‘Go after what you love, and the grades will follow’

Many students are tempted to take multiple AP courses as a means of boosting their grade-point averages. Many parents encourage their students to do this, or even push them to enroll in multiple AP courses, thinking that a higher GPA will help the student get into “the right college.”

This strategy works for some, but not others. Some students thrive on AP courses, and enjoy the challenge. But others struggle. As the DHS website notes, an AP course “often takes more time, requires more work, and goes into greater depth than other high school courses.” Some students “bite off more than they can chew,” as the saying goes.

Earlier this year, DHS science department chair Wayne Raymond surveyed some of his students, and found that about two-thirds of them felt pressured to take AP or honors courses in order to compete; about half felt “enormously pressured.”

Raymond told The Enterprise in February that “I have students who are really struggling and look shell-shocked.”

DHS Principal Jacqui Moore said sometimes “our students stress themselves out by taking a lot of AP courses. They need to manage it in such a way that they’re working on the quality of what they do. It’s critical. I’m worried about them.”

Moore suggested that as students enter high school and think about taking AP classes, “you might want to start with one AP class, and phase into it. Some students start right off the bat with three or four AP classes, and then find themselves stressed midway into the year.

“What you are learning should be the guiding factor in why kids take classes, not how much they are going to boost their grade-point average,” Moore said. “What we should be about is going after your passion. That’s what I’ve told my own children. Go after what you love, and the grades will follow. Don’t go after the grades just because of the grades.”

Pamela Burnett, interim director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California Office of the President, said the UC system looks at the AP courses a student has taken, but considers other factors as well.

“Completion of AP courses demonstrates that the students challenged themselves by taking the most rigorous courses available to them at their high school,” Burnett said. “This is considered a positive factor in the review process.”

She added that campuses consider the number of AP courses at each high school (according to the school’s UC-approved “a-g” course list), whether the student took advantage of the opportunity to enroll in such courses and the number of AP courses completed. (The same applies to the number of UC-approved Honors or IB courses).

In other words, students are not disadvantaged for not taking more AP courses if their school only offers a limited number, Burnett said.

Last fall, UCD released an academic profile showing a typical high school GPA for incoming freshmen of between 3.85 and 4.21. For transfer students, many arriving from community colleges, the GPA range was 3.18 to 3.72.

Tessler said parents need to remember that there are many other important factors in terms of college admission.

‘There is no number’

“I just went to a breakfast meeting with representatives of Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania,” Tessler aid. “And I asked them ‘How many AP courses do you expect students to have taken when they apply?’

“They said ‘There is no number. That’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for their contributions, and what their high school experience was like. We’re looking for problem-solvers, people who could be leaders. We’re looking for special talent.’ ”

Continued Tessler, “Those schools aren’t saying they’re going to take a student because that student did one more AP class. It’s about who you are, and what you are interested in.

“So if you really have an interest in science, and you’ve done classes, and an internship, and it’s all connected, that is what you want to do. But if you just say ‘I’m doing this AP class because I’ll get a high GPA,’ they may not want you. This is the key point that people are missing.”

Tessler said many DHS students do not score particularly well on the written essays that are typically part of a college application.

“When we look at some of our students’ essays, what they’re missing is passion,” Tessler said. “Sometimes they don’t know what to write about, because they’re not passionate about anything. When you ask them what they’re passionate about, they don’t know what to say.”

Tessler acknowledged that most DHS seniors are keenly aware that a handful of their classmates have a GPA in the 4.4 to 4.8 range.

“And for some of those (high GPA) students, it’s easy,” Tessler said. “We have some very, very talented, high-caliber kids. They are able to take these classes, they get through the homework quickly and excel, so that they can spend the majority of their time on things they are passionate about.”

‘They get stressed out, and get depressed’

But not all students can cope with a schedule that is top-heavy with AP courses.

“(Some of our students) try to match (the students with a very high GPA), thinking, ‘If I take all these AP classes, I will somehow get into these big-name schools,’ ” Tessler said.

“The problem is that these kids will be up to midnight, or 3 a.m., trying to keep up with the work. Then they get stressed out, and get depressed. Because that’s not who they are.

“We, as counselors, keep trying to say, ‘Who are you? What are your interests? What can you handle? What are you interested in?’ ”

There have been situations where students have taken more AP courses than they could handle, found themselves unable to finish all the assignments, seen their grades dip, and become disqualified for freshman admission to a four-year college because of a low grade in a core subject.

Tessler said students “need to stop comparing themselves to other kids, and parents really need to work with their own child, not comparing them to others, and help their child develop within their abilities, and at a pace they can handle.”

“Some students can handle one AP class, and that’s it. You want your student to be well-balanced,” she said.

“One other thing,” the counselor added. “You want them to enjoy their three years at Davis High. They only get to be here once in their life. You only get to be this age once. They need to be able to socialize with friends, explore things, try different things. They need some time to just enjoy life.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055.

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 22 comments

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  • AP testsJune 04, 2011 - 9:58 am

    It's great that Davis High has so many AP classes. I would really encourage students to take these classes- it gives you a taste of what college will be like, and could lead to receiving actual college credit. Everyone is stressed out right now. Unemployment is hovering close to 10%. Many new college grads can't find a job. Those of us with jobs feel insecure. High school students should avail themselves of this free opportunity to get a great education. Unfortunately, high school isn't just about socializing with friends. It's a very competitive global economy; the USA is behind most countries in science, math, reading, etc. High school students should work hard like the rest of us and take these difficult classes.

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  • Greg KuperbergJune 04, 2011 - 10:27 am

    Our family has always been very interested in the AP courses in Davis. On the whole, I think that the AP offerings at DHS are really great, and I would not want the high school to scale them back. Moreover, many of our favorite teachers at DHS are AP teachers. In my opinion, if there is one thing to change, it is the amount of work that some --- but not all --- of the AP courses require. There is something of an all-or-nothing pattern to the courses at the high school. Many of the non-AP courses have relatively little homework, while many of the AP classes really have a lot of work, in some cases more work than similar courses at UC Davis. I understand that the AP curriculum is not easy material, which is part of what makes it valuable. However, in education, it is easy to confuse LONG with DIFFICULT. Just because the AP material can be difficult, that does not mean that the class should grind it into the students with extremely long assignments. Part of what is going, I think, is that it natural for an AP teacher to feel responsible for the AP scores at the end of the year. But it's wrong to turn this into a big contest, as if the teacher with the most AP 5's in his class, wins. Of course, students deserve adequate preparation for the AP exam. But adequate preparation is not the same as guaranteed preparation, which in any case is hardly possible for the whole class.

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  • Carin LoyJune 04, 2011 - 10:46 am

    I'm looking forward to the follow up article(s). DJUSD has invested a lot in creating this stressful environment that serves a minority of its students. Has is DHS "worked" for this targeted student population? For example, what percentage get into the selective colleges? Also, how does this environment affect the other--the marjority--of students? Is that good for them? The councelor sounds like shes saying its the students and parents fault if they buy into the school's culture. Sad. I expect the students described would be academicly succesful in any school environment and the unemployment risk describde above may not apply. Does DHS turn "average" students into "above average" students? If so, THAT would be a good school. Now that would be a worthwhile article to read and a school to sign-up for.

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  • What a MessJune 04, 2011 - 10:53 am

    I know that my daughter, who graduated with a 3.97 felt like a total loser for most of her time at DHS. She did well all through school, but only took a few AP classes. That 3.97 put her in about the 75th percentile, which is ridiculous. Many people don't realize that it's not ALL about the grades. Unfortunately, a high GPA does not make a kind, compassionate, responsible, empathetic, respectful person. Of course, with such an unimpressive GPA as that, no, she was not accepted into any top schools. Never mind her other talents. Doesn't matter, though, because she has found her niche in college and is happy and doing well. She's certainly glad to be done with DHS and the competition/misery that is nurtured there.

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  • wdf1June 04, 2011 - 11:04 am

    "Unfortunately, a high GPA does not make a kind, compassionate, responsible, empathetic, respectful person. Of course, with such an unimpressive GPA as that, no, she was not accepted into any top schools. Never mind her other talents." I agree with this point. I think taking some AP classes is good for getting a taste of what college level work can be. But there is a real tendancy to go overboard. What is sad is that many students who do not have a 4.0+ GPA at DHS lose confidence that they have competitive worth in applying for colleges. Equally breathtaking are the statistics that show the number of stratospheric GPA's that get rejected from top colleges, but this article doesn't dwell on that. A senior with only one or two AP classes, but developed talents in sport, music, or other activities, and a solid record of community volunteer work will not have the most impressive GPA at DHS, but can still make a solid case for getting accepted at any of the best colleges in the U.S.

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  • I DisagreeJune 11, 2011 - 6:09 pm

    Sorry, but I think that, as the article says, top colleges don't really look at GPA; they look at other skills, other aspects of a student's persona. A well-rounded solid portfolio is much stronger than a high GPA with little else; a 3.97 is anything but unimpressive, especially paired with other key skills ruch as being responsible and empathetic.

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  • Rich RifkinJune 11, 2011 - 6:48 pm

    "a 3.97 is anything but unimpressive, especially paired with other key skills ruch as being responsible and empathetic." You mean sympathetic. People very often misuse the word empathy. They think it means 'caring for others; or having compassion for others.' It doesn't. Empathy is abstract, not concrete. It means, "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another." Sympathy, on the other hand, is what people think empathy means. It is: "the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration."

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  • Andrew Wells DouglassAugust 29, 2013 - 6:58 am

    The commenter "what a mess" used the word empathetic ("the ability to understand and share the feelings of another") perfectly. If someone wants to be picky—education misapplied—note that the correct word is empathic. Empathetic emerged either by analogy to sympathetic and to avoid the Star Trek sound. But what a great example of a distinction without a difference. Empathy is in gold standard for good qualities.

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  • What a MessJune 04, 2011 - 11:14 am

    "A senior with only one or two AP classes, but developed talents in sport, music, or other activities, and a solid record of community volunteer work will not have the most impressive GPA at DHS, but can still make a solid case for getting accepted at any of the best colleges in the U.S." Too bad the DHS community doesn't do more to support those kids. Mine had paralyzing anxiety when applying to colleges because her GPA was "so low" despite excelling in both music and sports. WAY too much emphasis on those kids with the 4.3+ GPAs. No support from the counseling office, either.

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  • Greg KuperbergJune 04, 2011 - 11:25 am

    But DHS has a lot of music and a lot of sports. It even has an AP Music Theory class --- AP and music are not mutually exclusive. I really don't know what kind of support you think is lacking.

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  • wdf1June 04, 2011 - 1:02 pm

    AP Music Theory is not a performance music class. But I acknowledge the value of the class for those choosing to improve their ability in music. At least a couple of Davis music teachers can point to several instance in which a very talented kid (one capable of leading his/her section) chooses not to participate in a performance music class (band, orchestra, choir) because they want to take another AP class (their 5th or 6th). Additionally, participating in perfomance music would actually lower their GPA relative to taking an AP class. If that is the stated reason for not choosing to participate in a performance music class, then it's really too bad. Such a student looses a chance at demonstrating leadership and association with a strong music program. Not exactly a huge loss to the music groups, because they still seem to shine. Just a potential misguided strategy.

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  • AlJune 04, 2011 - 11:00 pm

    I am concerned that students graduating from DHS with GPAs above 4.0 are unable to write a simple college application essay at the same time the school offers, and encourages students to take, these AP courses in subjects like art history, music theory, and statistics. Perhaps the public high schools should stick to offering college prep courses that will help college bound students learn the basic reading, writing, and math skills they will need to be able to succeed in college, and leave the art history, music theory, and statistics courses to the colleges.

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  • wdf1June 05, 2011 - 12:40 am

    I don't know what GPA's the authors had, but I read some DHS student essays recently, and I was impressed.

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  • Greg KuperbergJune 05, 2011 - 3:44 am

    Al - I don't know that there are any such students. AP Art History, AP English, and AP US History all involve a lot of writing. These courses provide exactly the sort of preparation, with high standards, that you might need to write a college essay. It is just not possible to survive in these courses without good reading and writing skills. And the same goes for AP Statistics and AP Calculus, and basic math skills. In fact, one reason that these AP courses are so popular is that many of the non-AP courses don't teach the basics as well as they should. Calculus is partly used as a standard to guarantee that students have truly mastered high-school algebra. If you know how to listen to a calculus teacher, then maybe the calculus itself won't stick, but you have probably learned algebra really well. No, the problem faced by 4+ GPA students is not how to write a "simple" college essay, it's how to write a really good college essay. To get into competitive universities, it's better to have an application that's good on all sides, or an application that's good in some way beyond any standard formula. That is when the uncreative approach of "whoever has the highest GPA, wins" no longer works very well, even for the narrow goal of getting into the best college.

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  • AJune 05, 2011 - 10:33 am

    As a high school student at DHS, I agree that students are too stressed. A lot of my friends have stopped doing sports because they were too bogged down with studying. If you don't have 5 hours a week to exercise, I believe that it's too much. I think DHS is competitive to a point where it is no longer helpful.

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  • AJune 05, 2011 - 10:34 am

    **no longer healthy.

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  • advanced placement classesJanuary 08, 2012 - 9:49 pm

    Hey there ..!! Thanks for sharing this great stuff with us. It was truly very interesting and informative.

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  • ap classesJanuary 08, 2012 - 11:55 pm

    I probably would mention on your college application that, while you would be eligible for NHS, your commitments to various activities outside of school prevented you from being involved with NHS. Of course, I'd be sure to also tell the colleges about the extent of your involvement in sports outside of school and the scouts and some of the positive benefits you've received from your

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  • E.A.January 09, 2012 - 1:31 pm

    Unfortunately, admission is formulaic, using a combination of SAT and GPA. The activities come into play when you are being considered for the discounts, also known as the scholarships. One really good option right now for future employment is to get a well rounded education at DHS, enjoy some courses that help you think of some career options, go to the non-UC / non-CSU university options that are available locally or non-locally, build your resume with internships while you go to these less expensive places, and finish up with work experience, contacts, multi-discipline knowledge, and a resume more appealing than your UC counterparts.

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  • MegSeptember 14, 2012 - 10:08 am

    I am very confused about GPA/ class Rank (weighted)and AP classes etc., My son took all those challenging classes (all A) that his high school has to offer and we are now shocked to see that his rank (weighted) is #4. The reason which was informed to us so far is that the first three kids took less regular classes (because all three took the same number of AP classes and) meaning that more classes your kid takes lower his/her weigthed class rank would be. What a unfair system it is. I would appreciate it if you provide any helpful answer for this. thanks

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  • September 26, 2013 - 8:12 pm

    iji

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  • September 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

    I am a junior in high school, and would just like to add that taking AP courses is not only to get into a good school... it's also to save money and time in college (that is if you pass the AP test.) Personally, I am taking three and i feel like i no longer have a social life haha.

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