01/28/2013 11:17 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

2+2=5... Close Enough

Exams. The word everyone dreads. The word that makes me think of long days at the library. The word that means I won't be hanging out with my friends for the next week and a half.

With all of my classes being AP, I knew I was in for the worst. It's amazing, though, how the titles "AP" and "Honors" and "IB" can be deceiving. They look good on a college application, but in reality, much of what we do in a lot of these classes -- at least where I live -- is different from the course descriptions.

For example, I have taken "honors" math all my years of high school. Each year I struggle a bit, but end up doing just fine. However, many take "honors" courses and, though they clearly don't know the material, are pushed along. How? Extra credit, "excused" tests, curving exam scores. Each year, it feels more and more like we just get shoved along into the next course without truly learning the material. Instead of actually learning the quadratic formula, it is now given to you on the test. When you get the answer wrong, you still get points for "effort." So when I finally reached AP Calculus this year, I fell apart. All those formulas that we should have been memorizing and all the properties and skills we should have learned before are now reappearing, and the students panic. Our class had about 18 people in it at the beginning of the year. We dropped down to about 11 in the first two weeks. Thankfully with my hard work I earned an A, but there is no reason I should have had to struggle as much as I did to get there. So much for "honors."

In IB Math Studies, a class assessed on a 5.0 scale, the class revisited pre-algebra material for the entire year as juniors and seniors. Yet Human Anatomy & Physiology, a much more difficult class consisting of entirely new material, is assessed on a 4.0 scale. In AP Government, people turn in papers two weeks late and they still get almost full credit for them. Why? To push them along, to make graduation rates go up, and to tout how "proud we are to have such high achieving students that challenge themselves in the classroom." We're such "high achieving" students, yet when college hits we're all too often unprepared. AP classes have too frequently become the common choice, a place where John Smith off the street can walk in and ace the class without having to do much work.

Yes, there are many AP classes that do pose a challenge. AP Chemistry at my school is graded on an industry level. If you get more than a five percent margin of error, our teacher takes off point after point. And as I mentioned before, AP Calculus at my school is harder than the real college course. However, there are too many so-called "advanced" classes in which students learn a lesson for a week, take a test that will most certainly bump up their grades, and move along.

I want to know that when I go to college in the fall that I am as prepared as possible, and I believe many other seniors feel the same way. But we now live in a world of "close enough." Everyone gets to have a gold star, because if Jimmy doesn't get one, his feelings get hurt and mommy calls the school. Everyone moves on to the next grade because too many schools don't care about students' education, but their own ratings. My hope is that when my little brother, Simon, gets to high school, he won't have to worry about being ready for college. His school, the teachers and he himself will have both the integrity and the willingness to take on challenges that will, in turn, drive him to learn all that he can.

If I'm in a lab someday, I want to make sure I'm using the right chemicals and doing the right procedure. My chemistry teacher told us there is only one chlorine atom difference between mace and nutmeg. But what difference does one atom make, anyway? Close enough, right?