The good news:
more Latino high school students are enrolling and succeeding in elite Advanced Placement courses.

The bad news: many students—of all ethnicities and races—are walking into the rigorous, college-level classes unprepared for the workload and the demands of the program.In Advanced Placement classes, the pace is faster, material is more complex, and students are expected to do more work outside the classroom. The program allows high school students to earn college credit by passing A.P. exams with a score of 3 or higher (on a scale from 1-5). In addition, many colleges prefer to admit students who have taken A.P. courses.

But an increasing number of A.P. teachers across the country say they are seeing students who struggle with the tougher curriculum and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work required.

“I would love to have my students come into the classroom ready to listen and challenge themselves to think outside of the box,” says Becky Boegel, who teaches A.P. English and A.P. World History at Pocatello Senior High School in Pocatello, Idaho.

“Most of the time the students we get are good at the ‘game’ of school. They know if they mimic the teacher that they will do well,” Boegel notes. “I find that they are not ready to think on their own and stand behind their own thoughts.”

Other teachers say students often balk at the amount of homework and reading required, or don’t have a clear grasp of basic skills before entering the harder A.P. classes.

Read Related: Is Your Child Gifted? 

This could be a result of schools pushing more students into Advanced Placement courses, which are now offered in 37 subjects.

In 2010, an estimated 1.8 million students from more than 17,000 schools took 3.2 million A.P. exams—a number that has more than doubled since 2000, according to The College Board. Yet, 41 percent of seniors who took an A.P. course did not pass the exam in 2010.

The number of Latinos taking A.P. exams has nearly tripled over the last decade, swelling from 48,354 in 2001 to 136,717 in 2010. Among Hispanic test-takers, 54 percent scored a 3 or higher.

Students who succeed in A.P. exams often go on to attend more prestigious colleges and maintain higher GPA’s than students who do not, according to The College Board However, for the students who scramble to stay afloat in tougher courses, the experience could turn out to be more frustrating than beneficial.

Parents should do their homework before enrolling their child in an A.P. class, explains Maria de los Angeles Corral, assistant director of Latino communications for The College Board. “For Latino parents, one of the most important questions is whether their child has the time these classes require. Many parents don’t realize the amount of homework required.” Corral also notes that in some Latino families, where students may be asked to care for younger siblings or take on a part-time job, the added stress of juggling A.P. classes could be too much.

Corral stresses that parents need to be familiar with their school’s core curriculum, and make sure their child has done well in those basic classes before tackling an A.P. class. “They should be tuned into how their son or daughter is performing academically in grades and bigger exams. If they are struggling with understanding concepts, or their writing is not up to level, being in an A.P. class might not be right. The teacher has to move at a certain pace. They can’t spend a lot of time teaching fundamentals.”

Last year, Denise Abbe, a teacher at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, saw 21 students drop out of her freshman English honors class, her school’s precursor to Advanced Placement. A colleague, Rachel Prince, had more than 16 students leave the class.

The reasons students gave for dropping out include: their less challenging middle school classes had not prepared them for the demands of A.P.; they just weren’t equipped to handle the rigor; their parents wanted them to enroll in “honors” or “AP” at all costs.

This year, Abbe and Prince created a survey to measure the readiness of both parents and students for an honors class. The survey will help to separate the students (and parents) who are truly prepared for an honors level class from those who are not, said Abbe.

Successful A.P. students tend to be self-motivated, independent learners who value the challenge offered by the program, A.P. teachers agree.

Once a student takes on A.P. classes, there are many ways parents can help them succeed.

“I would remind them that this is college-level work on the high school level. It is imperative to be prepared, so the reading and writing (while it may seem excessive) is necessary,” says high school teacher Amy Lepore, who teaches at Marshall County High in Benton, Kentucky. “Too many times, students procrastinate and then complain that they don’t have enough time to fit in all their obligations to school, work, and family.”

Parents can also help by making sure their child has uninterrupted study time, says Lepore.

If a student runs into trouble keeping up with the class, parents and students to seek out tutoring or other support as soon as possible. “Even if they are struggling, parents might want to keep their child in A.P. class because the quality is higher than other classes,” Corral observes.

Ultimately, teachers agree that a grade or an exam score should not be the purpose of A.P. or other honors courses. Instead, the classes should be viewed as a chance to learn.

“Students and their parents need to understand that getting an A in these classes is not a given even if you do everything the teacher asks. (The exams) are designed to challenge and to probe for weakness, and therefore they are hard to get an A on,” says Boegel.
“This will not be your usual class in high school but classes that may challenge your accepted viewpoints and ideas.”

So what can you do to help ensure your child is prepared as possible for A.P. classes? Here are some suggestions from A.P. teachers:

  • Ask yourself and your child if her/his schedule has room for the time commitment required by A.P. classes.
  • Help your child learn to manage time well. Keep an agenda with assignments, class schedules, and test dates.
  • Encourage your child to get in the habit of reading. This includes: newspapers, classic literature, poetry, modern novels, and history.
  • When writing research papers, print out your drafts and proofread your writing out loud. Listen to your writing.
  • Make sure your child turns work in on time, and according to the teacher’s instructions.
  • Encourage your child to seek help from the teacher if they are struggling or having trouble understanding the material. Most teachers offer after-school tutoring hours.
  • Emphasize learning rather than grades. Getting a “B” in an A.P. or honors class is not failure.
  • Keep an open line of communications with your child. Talk to them about their classes. Ask them how they are doing.
  • Maintain a positive relationship with the teacher. Contact them with concerns and be open to the teacher’s observations about your child’s work and attitude.
  • If your child is taking the A.P. exam, make sure he/she gets several days rest before the testing date. Take advantage of extra tutoring A.P. teachers offer to prepare for the exam.