By Abhinav Venkat
HAYMARKET, Va. — It is 6:30 a.m., 50 minutes before school starts, and Carrie Bass walks through an empty hallway in Battlefield High School in this Washington, D.C., suburb.
She is making her way towards her first period Computer Programming class to get caught up with the work she hasn’t gotten to during regular school hours.
Just four hours ago she was working on homework for her Advanced Placement (AP) Human Geography class, her Biology class and her Algebra class.
Taking 10 classes her sophomore year (a regular schedule contains seven), Bass looks fatigued and speaks in mid-yawn: “Maybe I’ll sleep in Spanish,” she says.
Her goal in taking such a large number of classes: “I want to get into a good college and make up for the grades I got in the past. I felt like I wasn’t challenging myself enough.”
Battlefield High School offers 16 AP classes, but only one for sophomores.
The Virginia Department of Education offers online AP courses for those schools too underfinanced to support them.
Taking advantage of this loophole in the school’s system, Bass is taking two AP courses.
More and more students are discovering ways to take these AP courses.
These include virtual options, and taking summer prerequisite classes to qualify for the AP option the following year.
Managed by the College Board since 1955, the AP program has evolved to include more than 25 classes ranging from Japanese Language and Culture to Government and Politics. The program offers college curricula in a high school setting.
“You guys should spend at least one hour a day studying for my class,” Rose Gallitz, an AP European History teacher, told her fourth-period class at Battlefield.
Demanding and rigorous coursework are the hallmarks of AP, according to the course outlines provided within the College Board Web site, and the opinions of school counselors and teachers.
“The topics covered in these classes are almost identical to those covered in their college counterparts, and their final exams are just as comprehensive,” said Susan Sigmon, a counselor at Battlefield High.
Her office was laid out pretty simply, with a few posters taped against the walls, a desk and a computer. She spoke in a rather serious tone.
“So many good students come up to me and request these crazy course loads that I wish I could convince most of them out of it,” Sigmon said. “I would say that I change their minds half of the time, but often they come to me with their decisions made.”
She proceeded with the “speech” that she gives her students.
“I tell them that they’re good students and they will advance academically at their own pace, and enjoy life if they take a lighter course load,” she said.
“For them, it’s all a G.P.A. (Grade Point Average) game, who’s a hundredth of a point above who, and most of the time they tell me they don’t want to become valedictorians of their classes,” she added.
The question raised through all of this AP mania: Do colleges judge a student based on quantity of and performance on AP classes?
The answer, most of the time, is unclear and specific to every college.
According to Matt McGann, an associate director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T), the admission process doesn’t depend solely on APs.
“Let me state clearly: We do not admit students solely because of their AP courses scores. There is no minimum or recommended number of AP courses,” he wrote on the M.I.T admissions website. “AP scores are not part of an admission formula. We’re not simply going to look at a weighted GPA and throw everything else out.
“Challenge yourself in a way that is reasonable for you,” he said, “while making sure that your course load provides you with material that keeps you excited and engaged, and that you have balance in your life.”
McGann added: “Despite what you may have heard, college admission isn’t a game of whoever has the most APs, wins.”
While AP courses alone don’t encompass the entirety of the admissions process, there is still confusion about which way students should go.
“They accept students with more than 20 APs and say that kids should pursue their desired subject,” said Lisa Quintanilla, a mother of a freshman at Battlefield. “They’re too unclear.”
Some students try to mesh their AP classes with their areas of interest.
John Buscher, a sophomore at Battlefield, is taking one AP Computer Science course and has purposely lightened his schedule to allow him to pursue computers to a fuller extent.
Gangly and tall, he pulled the hair out of his eyes before he spoke, “I opted to take an easier math class than some of my other friends, too.”
Another such student is Daniel Rhoades. He has recently transferred to public school from homeschooling and currently takes no AP classes.
In a regular Tuesday Algebra class, everyone’s eyes were trained on the lesson before them when he interjected: “Isn’t the formula for an inverse matrix, A to the negative first times B?” The teacher paused, and then corrected her mistake.
“I’ll be taking some AP classes next year, physics and math mostly,” said Rhoades, a member of the school’s robotics team. “But, I’m just focusing on what I Iike to do.”
And then there are those students whose interests and gifted abilities usher them into AP courses.
Rainier Rabena, a sophomore at Battlefield High School, has the highest grade point average in his class of more than 700 students. He has been a year ahead in math and computer science than most of his class, and two years ahead of some students.
He takes three AP classes, most of them at the junior level. All of them are offered at Battlefield and he has progressed into them without summer or virtual classes.
Known throughout the school for his prowess at math and programming, his interests and strengths directly match the AP courses available in the school – leaving his G.P.A in excellent condition.
Regarding his workload and his stress level he said, “They’re pretty easy I guess. I spend one or two hours a day on homework.”