The increasingly competitive environment in higher education has increased the level of anxiety that many high school students and their families experience (Lombardi, 2007; Kaufman, 2008). Beyond this, it is natural to wonder whether the increasingly competitive environment has made the typical high school student experience more productive. On one hand, an increasingly competitive environment could induce students to work harder at school and, as a result, to learn more during their high school years; on the other hand, certain mechanisms might lead to the opposite outcome. For example, capable students may spend time on activities that will enhance the chance they obtain admission to selective colleges at the expense of spending time on other activities that might be more productive; Holmstrom and Milgrom (1991) represent the classic formal model of this general phenomenon.
One thing student pretty much must do now to get into selective colleges is take AP courses. I am not sure this is such a bad thing--I look at the AP curriculum, and it is superior to what I got when I was in high school (and I had some outstanding teachers in high school--thanks Mrs Braithwaite, Mr Sipe and Mr Heath). Worrying too much about the AP tests may not be a productive use of time, but I think the courses are worthwhile. I can also really tell when students have been forced to write in high school, and the International Baccalaureate program puts lots of emphasis on writing. But if we could get rid of SAT prep classes, I think it would be a good thing.