The debate over the implementation of an AP cap — a limit to the number of Advanced Placement classes a student can take — has long been discussed in the Mountain View–Los Altos School District. (Rose Liu)
The debate over the implementation of an AP cap — a limit to the number of Advanced Placement classes a student can take — has long been discussed in the Mountain View–Los Altos School District.

Rose Liu

An overview of the AP cap debate

November 5, 2021

A cap on the number of Advanced Placement classes a student can take has long been discussed in the Mountain View–Los Altos School District, and the discussion resurfaced at the September 13 Board meeting, when District Teachers Association President Dave Campbell advocated for an AP cap. 

“In a survey regarding homework-free weekends, many teachers pointed out that limiting homework isn’t enough if we’re truly seeking to improve the quality of life for our students in the district,” Campbell said. “If we truly want to make a change, we need to limit the number of AP classes our students take.

But it’s complicated, and not everyone agrees that an AP cap would be in students’ best interests. The debate around AP caps largely centers around student wellness, academic choice, and college applications.  Here’s a breakdown of the main considerations around this divisive topic.

Wellness

One of the main arguments in favor of an AP cap is that it will increase student wellness and decrease stress related to an overwhelming workload. According to MVLA Board President Fiona Walter, students might feel less pressure to take more AP classes in order to keep up with their friends or build a competitive college application if an AP cap was enacted.

“The argument would be that as a student, you could choose the three topics that were your favorite, or the two that you really wanted to do a deep dive on,” Walter said.

Math teacher Hector Arias cited its ability to ensure students aren’t taking significantly more AP classes than they can handle, and suggested limiting AP classes to two or three per year.

“Sometimes students don’t know their limitations and fall into biting more than they can chew,” Arias said.

But the community is split as to whether an AP cap would decrease student stress levels. Of 394 respondents to a survey on The Talon’s Instagram, 48 percent believed that an AP cap would decrease student stress levels. Some students believe that adding an AP cap doesn’t address other underlying issues that negatively affect student mental health, and not being able to get college credit for their courses could increase student stress in the long run.

“I’ve struggled significantly with my mental health, and the classes themselves aren’t the issue,” Sophomore Julia Pletcher said. “If you’re struggling a lot mentally, any class is going to be a lot. Adding a cap when it’s not inherently necessary just is not a productive way to help people.”

Instead, Julia suggests increased clarity around AP workloads, including universal and standardized question-and-answer sessions for prospective AP students. Julia also proposed mandatory counselor meetings for students interested in taking more than a set amount of AP classes, but Assistant Principal Galen Rosenberg said this likely would not be feasible. 

A key concern stemming from capping AP classes is the workaround potential by students. For example, LAHS students can take college classes through Foothill College’s dual enrollment program, which allows high school students to take classes at Foothill with parental and counselor approval, as well as receive AP weighting for them. 

While such alternatives could negate the efforts of an AP cap, Cathryn Krajewski, ’21, who participated in both AP classes and dual enrollment, found that dual enrollment was a better option than AP courses for her because of a more flexible work schedule.

“Some students are just going to do things that destroy their mental health and wellbeing,” Krajewski said. “And you can’t really stop them, unfortunately. College courses [taken through dual enrollment] are hard, they’re rigorous, but I found them to be a lot less stressful than AP courses. I’m not just handing in assignment after assignment after assignment all the time. My grade is really made up of my knowledge of the course and not constant assignments.”

Academic choice

Another factor when considering an AP cap is the wide variety of students at Los Altos and the academic paths they want to take, and the potential of an AP cap restricting that.

“There are students up and down the spectrum, where one AP is perfect in their world,” Walter said. “There are also students at the other end who aren’t happy if they’re not busy every 20 seconds of the day and suddenly would be limited.”

One concern about an AP cap is that students who wish to challenge themselves will not be able to, or that they will be forced to sacrifice AP classes they’re interested in. Though college and career counselor Laura Duran sees the potential wellness benefits of an AP cap, she also recognizes some potential downsides of such a policy.

“There are going to be outliers that are negatively impacted…” Duran said, “…if a student who maybe has a language or a math class, where it’s just like the next class in the sequence, you might have to make a hard decision elsewhere.” 

Sophomore Matthew Kim agreed, feeling that a cap would ultimately be too limiting, and would ineffectively address the reasons students become academically overloaded.

“It may be worth thinking about restrictions on large numbers of AP courses, 6 or 7 a year, but I think there are better solutions to the underlying problem,” Matthew said.

Instead, Matthew believes that policies ensuring that AP classes stay within the five hours-per-week guidelines would more effectively reduce student stress. Over 70 percent of students reported having more than four to five hours of homework per week from an AP class, according to a survey of 332 respondents conducted through The Talon’s Instagram. Matthew also suggested that allowing students in AP classes to turn in incomplete homework without penalty, given that they spent the expected amount of time on the assignment, could help maintain a lower homework load without requiring teachers to assign less homework overall.

College admissions

One of students’ main concerns about an AP cap is that it would harm their college applications, as they wouldn’t have the availability to demonstrate their course rigor. In terms of an AP cap’s effect on college applications, 68% responded that they felt it would have an impact according to a survey conducted through The Talon’s Instagram, with 379 respondents. 

However, any proposed AP cap would have limited effect on college admissions.

“There’s a box that you can mark on student transcripts that says the district limits APs,” Walter said. “You can say what that restriction is, or whatever is unique about your district.”

Instead of colleges evaluating solely on the actual number of APs a student took, Walter said the focus is on whether students chose as much rigor as possible given school constraints.

“Colleges will look at whether a student took advantage of the opportunities in front of them,” Walter said. “They could take three APs at any given time, and they did. Or they didn’t.”

College counselor Laura Duran also supported this point, explaining the viewpoints colleges take when evaluating applications.

“You’re not penalized for a school policy,” Duran said. “Colleges wouldn’t expect that students go out and take additional APs through online courses or outside of school.… It wouldn’t reflect poorly on the student. But when it’s uncapped, and colleges know all the APs that we offer, they know how many periods that we have classes…”

As a result, uncapped AP classes can lead to students feeling pressured to overload themselves with AP classes, according to Duran. She also pointed out that capping APs could help students have a more well-rounded college application by freeing up time for extracurricular activities.

“We have noticed, especially with colleges going more test optional, or with the inaccessibility of testing, that colleges are looking at this character component,” Duran said. “And if students have no time to do anything but academics, it doesn’t benefit their real world experience or opportunities to build your self-esteem or to connect with different people or to demonstrate that you’ve explored something outside of the classroom.”

The process

The idea of potentially installing an AP cap is still in the works, according to Walter, and enacting it would be a lengthy process.

“Both schools would need to want this, because we can’t have a unique policy at one school,” Walter said. “I would anticipate a recommendation coming from the schools and our assistants, to Dr. Meyer, to the board. … It could easily be part of a graduation requirement conversation, because we would be looking at a final result on a student transcript.”

Walter anticipates talk of AP caps soon, and that a heavy amount of community and student feedback in implementing a policy, and would expect info sessions and multiple board meetings for public comment, but a concrete time frame is still unclear.

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