Rethinking Advanced Placement

27 Feb

Rethinking Advanced Placement

The day before Amy Chua’s article hit the web, the New York Times reported that the College Board would be revamping several of its most overwhelming tests- specifically biology and history- as they feel the current structure causes too much cramming and too little learning. For example, in the scheme of things, a college course would not focus on, “the dates of the Pequot War — which, for those of you who forgot, occurred from 1634 to 1638 and eliminated the Pequot tribe in what is now Connecticut;” instead, students will do more reading and analyzing. No more questions like “here’s a plant, what is this tissue;” instead, test-takers will see more graphs and more critical thinking questions. The Board thinks these changes will be a stress reducer for both students and teachers alike, as the teachers won’t have to worry about getting through 1,000+ pages of material, and the students won’t have to struggle to memorize it all. New experiments, new textbooks, new exams. It’s the New AP.

Throughout my high school experience, I took 7 of 32 AP Courses in existence (not all of which were offered at my school, mind you.. I think my school offered about 16)-  English Language, English Literature, Modern European History, Chemistry, Calculus AB, Statistics, and US History (at my school, though, APUSH was split into 2 years, so for all intents and purposes let’s just say it was 8 courses, but 7 exams). I took 5 of the exams, passed all of them, but only received credit for 3 (calculus, chemistry, and language). While I never “threw my hands up” and settled for a 1, I definitely felt the brunt of the US History exam, in that there were just too many details to hone in on. Overall, I felt the exams presented a valid survey of the material I enrolled with the hopes of learning, and, history included, provided a relatively accurate assessment of a) how much effort I had put into the course and b) what I had been taught by my teachers.

Teachers have been roasted for “teaching to the test,” and yet I have to ask: if the goal of the course is to get a 4 or a 5 on the exam, why shouldn’t they teach to the test? For my 8 APs, I had 6 different teachers: 3 taught to the test and made sure we understood the material, 2 taught to the test but didn’t engage as much with the material, and 1 taught the material but not at all to the test. Clearly, the former most method is the ideal, but the exam students did the most poorly on, I found, were those in which they didn’t know how they were going to be assessed. You can know all the English language in the world, but if you get blind-sided by a synthesis essay, you’re going to be a little bit screwed; you can know calculus inside and out, but if you don’t know that you won’t have a calculator for all of it, tough luck; you can know the material all you want, but if you don’t know that it’s better to leave it blank than to guess for questions to which you don’t know the answer… you get the idea.

Of the kids in my graduating class, the most common assessment of teachers was whether or not they felt prepared for the test- be it a midterm, final, AP exam, a unit test. It wasn’t as much about understanding the material (although, conceivably, if you understand the material, you should be fine on any test, but that’s another discussion) as it was about not being disadvantaged to other kids taking the test. Good teachers prepared us, bad teachers didn’t. It was first about knowing there would be an electrochem question on the AP Chemistry exam, then it became about solving it. In one of my history classes, the teacher didn’t teach to the test, but I guarantee I knew more about the Pullman strike than most other history students across the country. He didn’t have us memorize dates and famous figures, because when it comes to understanding how the course of history flowed, that’s not important. And yet it didn’t matter- this teacher was supremely criticized for not preparing the students enrolled in his AP History class for the exam they would be taking that May. And as much as I preferred his teaching style, I can’t say the criticisms went undeserved- students were receiving an excellent education, hands down. But they weren’t getting what they signed up for: a class shaped around the AP curriculum.

When I look back at my high school career, the best teacher I had absolutely taught to the test- sort of. She always kept it in the back of her head when choosing the material on which to spend a lengthy amount of time, but compared to the teachers who taught to the test and nothing else, I didn’t feel like I was being bogged down with busy work with the hopes that repetition would breed comprehension. She separated the test taking tendencies from understanding the material. We learned first, and prepped later.

The biggest caveat of the AP program is its failure to measure comprehension in English. Practically everyone I’ve spoken to at my college received a 4 or a 5 on either or both AP English exams, and yet I am constantly baffled by how many of them are unable to write good, parallel, dangling/indirect modifier-free, complete sentences. It absolutely astounds me. While this issue proves particularly prevalent on AP exams, I suppose it’s really just a fact of life- for the most part, we all do what we need to do to get by. We learn the grammar, the equations, the rules for the test, get the grade, and move on. It only sucks, then, when you get to the next level only to find your peers are there because of their test-taking skills. They never really learned to write, and by now it’s most too late to teach them the nitty-gritty mechanics of grammar. It’s just not worth it anymore. If they needed to know it by now, they would.

While I appreciate the sentiment behind the AP program, I think we should stop trying to make high school college, for several reasons:

1. In college, you don’t need a B or an A to get credit for the course. You get credit for the course for taking it, so long as you don’t fail.

2. At least in my school, the times are structured differently. For one 3-credit college class, I spend 35 hours in class a semester. In high school, we had about 150 hours in class per year. One AP class is supposed to equate to one- MAYBE two, but generally one- college class. If we’re spending 4 times as many hours in a high school AP class, why on earth do we have to speed through everything?

3. High schools don’t have the funds colleges do. This is primarily a problem for the AP sciences, as the article says, in the form of lab costs. There is nary a high school in the country (save for the most endowed private schools) that is comparably equipped with lab equipment as is a college.

4. College courses aren’t set to a national standard. Professors teach what they want, and if the UC Berkeley US History curriculum doesn’t match up with the Rutgers curriculum, oh well. All students’ transcripts will say US History on it just the same, without having to worry what professors nationwide have deemed important.

5. Strictly from a mental-health standpoint, high school should be a time to start developing an inkling as to who you are- what classes do you actually enjoy? What types of people do you like to be around? What clubs make you happy? What sports do you find fun? Starting college coursework in high school is just another way for us to rush through all our schooling so we can join the ranks of Real Life and then, once there, spend the rest of our days wistfully thinking about how it all went too fast and how we took our childhoods for granted. We should be doing college work when we’re in college. But again, that’s another debate for another time.

6. It’s just not fair to everyone. AP courses are expensive, both to teach and to take the exam. While some schools subsidize the cost (these schools are generally the ones who make the test mandatory for anyone enrolled in the class), many others don’t- is an $86 exam cheaper than a few-hundred to a few-thousand dollar college course? Sure, but there’s no guarantee it’ll come to any use. Different colleges accept different scores for different classes, and there’s just no way to know. Some schools don’t even OFFER AP exams, which put their students at a disadvantage to their peers once at college in terms of credits.

7. High school just isn’t college. Period. Again, this may be my-school specific, but we had every class every day, whereas in college most classes (save some foreign language classes) meet 1-3 times a week. The class styles are different, the expectations for high school students vs college students (some may argue that for seniors these expectations should similar, but I think we all know they’re not), it’s all just different.

One of my AP teachers once told us that we shouldn’t fear the test, because a test is just a place for us to show them what we know; “luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” she said, “and you’ve all been given good luck.” And that’s true. The AP test is simply a place for others to evaluate what we’ve learned. However, it’s nearly impossible to evaluate the knowledge of millions of students nation-wide. I’ll be curious to see how well these critical-thinking questions go over when they do eventually launch the revamped tests, because the questions then become even more subjective. Critical thinking and standardized tests are oxymoronic, to a point- not everyone has been taught to see it in any particular way.

My solution? If the College Board is so upset about teachers teaching to the test, stop giving the test. Let the teachers teach their own material. Similarly, if teachers don’t want to teach to the test, don’t teach AP. Petition for an Honors class instead, or do what Scarsdale did and create an Advanced Topics curriculum- theoretically, the students should know the majority of the material on the test by the end of the course anyways, but it frees the teacher of the obligation to teach to the test. I mean, the likelihood of either of those things happening, now that the competitive AP market has been born, is super slim, but still. It’s nice to dream.

Advertisements

One Response to “Rethinking Advanced Placement”

  1. Katie February 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    “5. Strictly from a mental-health standpoint, high school should be a time to start developing an inkling as to who you are- what classes do you actually enjoy? What types of people do you like to be around? What clubs make you happy? What sports do you find fun? Starting college coursework in high school is just another way for us to rush through all our schooling so we can join the ranks of Real Life and then, once there, spend the rest of our days wistfully thinking about how it all went too fast and how we took our childhoods for granted. We should be doing college work when we’re in college. But again, that’s another debate for another time.”

    I ABSOLUTELY agree with this. My high school career was full of college courses and I can see myself NOW, a freshman in college, already regretting not taking high school a little bit LESS seriously. Those AP exams really got me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: