Last week, I dropped my youngest kid at his last Advanced Placement exam. For me as a homeschool parent, this is the eighth year of navigating AP as a homeschooler. My kids have studied a bunch of AP courses, some with amazing online providers, one in a coop class I taught and some at home with me. I even learned to navigate the Course Audit process.
We had a couple mid-year moves, which made exam registration fun, “Hi, I’d like to register my kids to take AP tests at your school. No, I don’t know what district we are going to live in.” One exam coincided with the outbreak of California wildfire season. I could smell one fire while waiting at a coffee shop during the first exam, and the second exam was rescheduled when the high school holding the exam became an emergency shelter.
We were also the beneficiaries of the kindness of strangers. Public and private school counselors and AP coordinators helped us find test spots (even when our closest local school barred the door). Other homeschoolers shared their insights about the Course Audit, creating a syllabus, and finding test spots (though I won’t miss the annual “AP Exam Commiseration” thread on my favorite homeschool boards). I wrote most of this post in the car after dropping the youngest off for his Calculus test. I hope it offers some help to those who are following behind us.
Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college level courses available to high school students. Students take an exam at the end of the course and can receive college credit based on their score. So Advanced Placement is a specific brand of college level courses, not just shorthand for high level or advanced work. College Board (the same organization that does the SAT and PSAT) controls the course content, exam content, and scoring. A course cannot be listed as AP on a transcript unless the teacher has submitted their syllabus for approval through the CB Course Audit (more on that later). However, students can register to sit for an AP exam without taking an approved AP course. They might have taken another high-level course that covers similar content, or they might have self-studied for the exam. Since college credit is based on the exam score, this is a way for students to get credit for work they did during high school.
There are currently 37 different AP courses in seven categories, including art, English, history and social science, math and computer science, world languages, and science. Homeschoolers can sit for these AP exams (with two exceptions) This means there are lots of options for homeschool students to use Advanced Placement to dig into a subject area they are interested in.
The exceptions are the two courses in the AP Capstone Diploma program, AP Research and AP Seminar. Schools must apply for and be approved for the AP Capstone Diploma program. Students can only enroll in AP Research and AP Seminar (and complete the end of course tasks and exam) if they attend an approved school. Homeschool students and online providers are specifically not eligible for these courses, by College Board policy for the program.
There is no centralized, online registration for the exams. Instead registration is done by the high school offering the exams. Not all schools offer all exams, and some schools do not welcome outside students to their test administrations. This might mean as a homeschooler you will need to contact many schools to find one that is willing to register your student. It helps to first find schools you know are offering the course. Sometimes this is listed on the high school or school district website. You can also check the AP Course Ledger to find schools in your area that are authorized by College Board to offer each AP course this year. The Course Ledger is a good search starting point, but in my experience wasn’t always current on course offerings and was no guarantee that a specific high school would welcome a homeschooler for the exam.
Once you’ve located area schools that are offering a specific AP course, you will need to contact each school to ask about exam registration for homeschoolers. It is best to contact the school’s AP Coordinator. If this position isn’t listed on the school website, call the Counseling Center or Main Office and ask for the AP Coordinator. Once you get ahold of them, ask if they will be allowing homeschooled students to test there that year and what the registration process is. My experience was that the first person to answer the phone might not be well informed about registration for outside students, so it was better to hold off on a detailed explanation until I was talking to the AP Coordinator.
Some states’ homeschool laws require public schools to accommodate homeschoolers for testing (ex. Virginia), but this is the exception rather than the rule. It’s very possible that your local public school will not allow homeschoolers to test on campus. If this is the case, you will need to continue contacting schools until you find one that is willing to register homeschoolers. In some cases, private schools were more willing to offer a seat than local public schools were.
College Board has a fee for AP exams ($95 in 2021) that homeschoolers should expect to pay at registration, even if the district does not charge its own students to take the test. College Board also allows schools to charge administrative fees when registering outside students. The schools we used did not have additional charges, but I’ve heard this is common in other areas. If you are looking for an exam that the school doesn’t normally offer, some schools will coordinate proctoring if you pay for the cost of the proctor in addition to the test fee. This can get expensive, but might be less than the cost of traveling to a more distant site that doesn’t charge. If you do end up in the position of paying for a proctor, it may be worth putting the word out on boards and email lists for homeschoolers; you may find other interested students who would be willing to split the cost.
A couple years ago, College Board changed the exam registration deadline for schools to the fall. There is some leeway to allow homeschoolers to register later, but high schools might be reluctant to open registration a second time in the spring. My suggestion is to be in touch with high schools early in the fall, so you have time to call around.
Keep in mind that College Board has specific requirements for how far apart students sit during the exam, how seating is arranged, and even the shape of the tables. The closest high school might not have space available for many outside students, especially in commonly taken exams. Know your state law (to know if you should have access). If they say they aren’t offering that exam or are out of space, ask if they can suggest another school that might be able to accommodate your student.
One year, we moved to a new state and I was scrambling to find seats for AP European History, which no public school in the area was offering. I ended up on the phone with the AP Coordinator for the state Department of Education, who was trying to help me find a test location. Finally, she gave me contact info for a local private school I would never have called on my own, with a personal referral to their Dean of Students. In this case, it paid off to stay calm and polite while asking for assistance.
When the pandemic forced schools to close in 2020, College Board created digital exams that were administered at home. In 2021, there was a mix of traditional paper-based exams and digital exams, depending on the choice of individual schools. It’s possible that future years will make it easier for homeschoolers to register for and take AP exams.
There are lots of ways for homeschoolers to prepare for an AP exam. The most direct is to take a course that has gone through a Course Audit and been authorized as an official AP course. Many online homeschool curriculum providers offer authorized courses. There are also providers who create curriculum for students who attend schools without official AP courses or who might not be able to fit an AP course into their schedule. Remember that the online course will not be in a position to coordinate exam registration. You will need to do that yourself.
It is also possible for a homeschool coop instructor or an individual homeschool parent to create a syllabus the follows official course guidelines and submit it for approval. This is a process I went through for AP English Literature and Composition, AP US Government and Politics, AP Comparative Politics, and AP European History. These were content areas I knew well and felt comfortable teaching. I created the AP US Government and Politics syllabus for a coop I was teaching; the others were just for my own kids.
Some students sit for an AP exam without taking an official course. This lets them demonstrate mastery that comes from other courses or self-study. This might be a good option for students who use classical education styles or a chronological study of history, or who have a subject area of deep personal interest. Remember that the exams are designed to test understanding at the end of a course with specific guidelines and learning objectives. It’s wise to spend some time with a course study guide and understand how free response sections are scored.
It is also common for native and heritage language speakers who are well prepared in a world language to take an AP exam for that language early in high school (or even in middle school). This gives them a way of demonstrating high level ability with the language, while opening up their high school schedule for other courses. (The official policy of College Board is that courses should only be labeled AP on a transcript if they are offered in grades 9-12. World languages are the exception to this policy.)
Advanced Placement courses can be an important signal of academic rigor when homeschoolers apply to college. Because Advanced Placement is a brand label and not just a description of rigorous classes, you should only call a course AP if it has been approved through the College Board Course Audit process. So what do you do if you didn’t know about Course Audit, or missed the submission deadlines, or had a vision for a course that didn’t line up with the AP course guidelines. A common work around is to label the course as Honors or Advanced and indicate that it included taking the AP exam.
Advanced German with AP Exam
Latin IV with AP Exam
Honors Calculus with AP Exam
You can also explain the course in detail in the course descriptions you prepare to submit with college applications. This is another place to explain that the class included preparation for an Advanced Placement exam.
Advanced Placement isn’t the only way for homeschoolers to demonstrate academic rigor, but it can be one tool in your toolbox. I have fond memories of doing AP Comparative Government when we spent a month on the road during a cross country move. I also really enjoyed the time discussing poetry and literature as part of AP English Lit (though my son ended up writing on The Odyssey, a book he’d read for fun as the topic of his long essay). If AP classes meet your goals, don’t be afraid of them, but do stay on top of the exam registration timeline.