Letter to the Editor

In response to Ditch the APs by Kerry Garfinkel.

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This letter to the editor is written in response to “Ditch the APs” by Kerry Garfinkel, published in Volume 112 Issue 3.

David Hanna is a history teacher at Stuyvesant, the former Head of History at the American School of São Paulo, and an AP Reader.

I thought a lot about what Mr. Garfinkel wrote in his op-ed. I agree with much of what he said. The multiple-choice section on the AP history exams is an insult to the writing and teaching of history. I can’t imagine Gordon Wood up at Brown, or Eric Foner uptown at Columbia, claiming we should subscribe to their thesis on X because “they scored in the 99th percentile” on a multiple-choice exam. It’s absurd. I do like the short answer section that was introduced by the College Board in the latter half of the 2010s, however. The DBQ has become (has always been?) so formulaic that it favors “teaching to the test” rather than teaching the subject. This is my 26th year teaching, and in that time, I’ve encountered plenty of teachers who have fetishized standardized exams, and fetishized preparing students to score high on those exams, over history. Most have been so invested in this approach that they fail to recognize this distinction. I know because I was one of them for a time. When I first taught the International Baccalaureate at the American School of São Paulo in the early 2000s, I prioritized the exam and measured my teaching by my students’ results. And then one day I realized I was spending more time thinking about strategies to use on the exam, than I was, for instance, on the various terms of the Versailles Treaty and the implications these had for the rest of the 20th century. I’ve never gone back. Like Mr. Garfinkel, I do my due diligence in exposing my students to the various elements of the AP exam. We’re all professionals after all. But in the end, it’s about history. If there was no exam it wouldn’t matter one jot to me.

On the other hand, Stuyvesant is a school of reputation, and rigor is central to this. We should never forget it. Mr. Garfinkel’s idea of fashioning our own “advanced topics” type courses is intriguing. Back in 2010, I interviewed at the Dalton School and they had moved entirely in this direction. The following year, I was offered a position at Dwight-Englewood across the Hudson, and part of their pitch was also a move more in this direction, though they still offered some AP courses. These are both excellent schools. The type of schools whose graduating seniors are competing with our own graduating seniors for places in the same types of universities’ freshman classes. As Mr. Garfinkel urged, they have the “confidence” in themselves to move in this direction. Do we? Should we? I don’t know. For what it’s worth, ditching the AP for the IB would be a significant improvement at least as regards the history exams. There’s no multiple-choice, and the writing is a bit (though not entirely) less formulaic. I think it would also make our school stand out more than it already does. But we’d still have the standardized exams waiting for students at the finish, and there is cost involved for the school in adopting the IB model. A change such as that suggested by Mr. Garfinkel would initially require a lot of heavy lifting. We shouldn’t kid ourselves. And it’s not without risk. But the AP does not mean what it once did, if it ever did. I can vividly recall the heads of admissions from UChicago, and from Columbia, saying in person on separate occasions that what matters is rigor, and the grades students receive in the rigorous courses they’ve chosen to take, not their AP exam scores.