The AP and Honors Craze–Part I

Cory NevilleUncategorized

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” –Albert Einstein


Now, more than ever before, high school students feel the pressure of getting the “right” classes on their high school transcript so that they can get accepted to the college of their choice.  In the past 10 years in American education, a large pendulum swing has taken place.  Student and teacher accountability through high-stakes standardized testing looms large over everything that happens in public schools.  Simply put, viewed through the lens of the Einstein quote above, right now we are in an era where “everything that can be counted counts–and if it can’t be counted, we’re not interested!”  In Pennsylvania specifically, the Keystone Exams are slated to gradually become a “graduation test” for high school students.  If the current plan stays in place, by 2017 students in PA public schools will be tested in every content area except for fine arts, foreign languages and health.  Proponents of arts education are in for a bumpy ride–it stands to reason that if students will be tested in everything except for the aforementioned content areas, support for arts education is bound to decline as a result of the time, money and resources that will be diverted toward the content areas that are tested.

Thankfully, at QV we are in a school and community that understands the value of arts education better than most, and we will weather the storm better than most.  However, that doesn’t change the fact that some of the most valuable aspects of arts education (and music education specifically) cannot be “counted,”  whether we’re in an arts-savvy school and community or not.  How do you “count” work ethic, productivity, accountability, initiative, flexibility and adaptability, responsibility, leadership, teamwork, compassion and understanding, character, communication, innovation and creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills?  Parents, students and teachers see these attributes strengthen throughout high school music participation, but unfortunately, there’s no part of a high school transcript that gives colleges this kind of personal information about prospective students.  Letters of recommendation are the closest thing we have to being able to communicate these student attributes to a prospective college, but how can a teacher sum up the work ethic your child has developed through four years of high school music study in a one page letter of recommendation?  A letter of recommendation that will likely be skimmed and not read?

Well-aware of the educational climate we are in, parents and students feel the pressure of loading up their schedules with classes that they believe count in our current environment–AP and Honors courses.

I am not anti-AP or Honors.  Quite the contrary–the more options we can offer students the better, as long as students and parents are able to prioritize wisely.  I’m just anti-“let’s load up our schedule for the sake of loading up our schedule.”  Consider three students:

Student A: Wants to major in engineering.  Has to drop band or orchestra their junior year to take AP Calculus because they know colleges will be looking for AP Calc on their transcript.

Student B: Doesn’t know what they want to major in.  Takes Honors English, AP World History, Spanish IV, AP Bio and underwater basket-weaving in the hopes that one of those things will look great to a college someday.  Says they “don’t have time” for band or orchestra, are chronically stressed and possibly unhappy, and has slipping grades.  Parents are inexplicably baffled as to why their star student is suddenly not doing well in school or enjoying time with friends.

Student C: Wants to major in music.  Drops their large music ensemble class to take an extra math class because they think it will look better on their HS transcript.


Student A is a-okay.  Student B is a sad case–they (and their parents) are potentially missing the forest for the trees.  Student C causes my blood pressure to spike to dangerous levels…. I wish I could say that Students B and C don’t exist, but they do, and in large numbers.  They are part of the AP and Honors craze.

The obvious part of this epidemic is students taking classes they don’t want or need for the sole purpose of trying to curry favor with colleges.  Not as obvious, but perhaps more damaging is the sizable group of students who feel pressured to take AP or Honors courses they do not want or need because they feel like they are less of a student if they don’t.

At the end of last school year, my question became “So what are colleges really looking for?”  When I was in high school, four years of music participation at the high school level was very formidable on a high school transcript.  Has this changed?  I contacted some admissions offices to find out.

In Part II of this blog post, I will tell you about the conversations I’ve had with admissions offices from the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, Baldwin-Wallace, West Virginia University, Washington and Jefferson, Slippery Rock University and Franklin and Marshall.  The findings may surprise you…


Until next time,