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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.

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