Ditch the A.P.’s

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I know it’s not that time of year yet, but when it is, you will all know what I mean: I’m referring to that dreaded month when the entire school seems to shut down in service of passing a certain set of outsourced, standardized tests. I’m talking about A.P. season.

Freshman and sophomores lose their minds, their sleep, and their attention to other classes. (And while I’m here, A.P. is supposed to be “college level.” So: Freshmen? Really? For that matter: Sophomores? Really? College level?) Juniors seem to hide their stress a little better, though it may be that because they’ve signed up for so many A.P.’s, they are numb for the entire month. Seniors probably don’t care so much; they’ve already been accepted to college and have lost the will to fight.

So here’s a proposal, modest though it may be in our school full of high-achievers and Ivy-aspirants:

Stuyvesant should drop out of the A.P. program. Just dump it altogether. Instead, we should give our own Honors classes, design our own evaluations, and end the insanity that is administered from afar by some soulless office of the College Board.

I know, I know: sacrilege. How will we compete? How will we show our superiority? WHAT WILL THE COLLEGES THINK?

Well, how about this: They’ll think that we are so confident in our teaching, our grading, and our students that when we say Honors, we mean it. We don’t need some standardized test, given once and taken in a few frenzied hours, to prove the worth of our academic program.

(I’ll wait for the shock of all this to settle in.)

To make my case, I will speak mostly to the English Language and Composition Exam, the one I prepare my junior students for every year. Hear me now and hear me well:

The A.P. test is antithetical to the study of English. It actually tests for all the wrong aspects of our subject.

Let’s start with reading comprehension passages and their multiple-choice questions. This exercise insists that there is only one right way to interpret something you read. Choice A, B, C, D, or E. That’s it.

In English class, we might entertain any number of student ideas about a passage; we would compare these responses to try to get closer to a consensus on what the reading might mean to us.

But on the A.P. test, students are expected to tease out the subtle clues that the test-makers have embeddedaaaaa—the difference in connotation between two words that are essentially synonymous. Sure, I can usually explain what the test-makers had in mind. And sometimes it’s an obvious distinction that any good reader should pick up on. But too often, it comes down to splitting hairs between two otherwise reasonable responses.

This is English! We don’t do multiple-choice questions on a Scantron! We’re about interpreting what we read and convincing an audience that our interpretation is valid. There is more than one way to read anything! And your way shouldn’t have to match some test-maker’s gotcha moment.

Then, there are the writing portions of the test: three essays, back to back to back, hastily scribbled (or typed) in 45 minutes each, on material the students are seeing for the very first time.

Everything we do in English is about deliberative, reasoned, supported, and deeply understood argumentation and analysis! We want you to actually digest what you are writing about and devise and refine your own written response! No one ever wrote anything of real value in 45 minutes, in a first draft, three times in a row. (Well, maybe journalists, on deadline. Or law students, on their LSATs. But there will be time to learn those skills.)

The three essays themselves are not inherently faulty, but the way to approach the test is. The task encourages students to rely on the tried-and-true, formulaic, five-paragraph essay that we introduced to you in elementary school. The five-paragraph essay I spend the entire junior year, in an advanced class, teaching my students to move beyond, in order to produce genuinely thoughtful, in-depth analyses. Preparing for the A.P. test undermines, and threatens to reverse, the work of an entire year of “college-level” writing.

So, I’m against the A.P. English test.

Perhaps teachers of other subjects feel differently about this. But I’m willing to bet that if given the choice to design their own instrument to test their students’ knowledge and accomplishments, most teachers would say that they could do a better job than the College Board, that their tests would be more relevant, and that they wouldn’t have to spend so much of the year teaching to the A.P. test and curriculum.

So what do you say, Stuyvesant? Can we be as confident in ourselves as we seem to be in the College Board?

Can we truly stand behind our own teaching, our own standards, our own achievements?

I say we can. I say it’s obvious.

Ditch the A.P.’s.