2003: A College Board Odyssey

It is whispered in the hallways and written in The Phillipian that Upper spring is such a grind that by the end of the year, the tired Uppers cannot still possess any ability to derive joy from learning. For me, at least, that’s not the case. Rather, I’ve had a great time in the past few weeks. I’ve learned about frisbees and water pistols and sitting on the Great Lawn in the sun. I’ve also been taking classes, largely because I plan to attend college. This week, in my AP Spanish Literature class, however, I found some intellectual enjoyment in our introduction to what are possibly the two funniest poems I’ve read. The first poem, “Oda a la Alcachofa,” or, in English, “Ode to the Artichoke,” written by Pablo Neruda, describes the artichoke as the most military of vegetables. Upon reading this poem, the first thought that came to my mind was a sarcastic one about the cliché that is applied these days to anything whatsoever: that this message about the artichoke is even more valuable in this time of international turmoil. The second poem, also by Pablo Neruda and entitled, “Walking Around,” is an excellent reason in and of itself to study Spanish. Despite my workload, I found this poem captivating and even fun in an intellectual sense. A stanza of this absurdist text reads, “Hay pájaros de color de azufre y horribles intestinos/ colgando de las puertas de las casas que odio,/hay dentaduras olvidadas en una cafetera,/hay espejos/que debieran haber llorado de vergüenza y espanto,/hay paraguas en todas partes, y venenos, y ombligos.” For those of you who unfortunately don’t speak Spanish, I offer my rough translation of this stanza:“There are sulfur-colored birds and horrible intestines/hanging from the doors of houses I hate,/there are dentures dropped into a coffeepot,/there are mirrors/that must have cried with shame and fright,/ there are umbrellas everywhere, and poisons, and belly buttons.” I find this surrealist verse more captivating than the Beck lyrics I listen to in my spare time. Both poems, of course, are found on the syllabus of the Spanish Literature AP examination. I plan to take this AP exam as well as three others in the next two weeks. Consequently, for the bulk of a week, while I sit in a crowded room for four hours filling in tiny circles and scribbling essays to be graded later by some shadowy cabal that I know not of, I’ll be missing out on most of my classes, on the moments that make the Andover education worthwhile. I’m not alone as a student here at Andover in taking a plethora of AP exams in the hopes of gaining an edge toward college admissions and in possibly placing out of some coursework. I’ve taken AP’s in math and chemistry and will take the physics one also. In these subjects, there exist objective measures of how well a student knows the subject, and consequently the exams serve as a good means toward their stated goal of allowing some students to place out of some introductory college courses. I have also taken or will take several exams, however, in fuzzier subjects such as history and literature. In these areas, evidence exists that the AP “game” is a scam. Many colleges will offer only an essentially worthless general credit for a high score on the completion of one of these $80 exams, or, if they give meaningful course credits for AP work in high school, they also offer their own more targeted placement tests. Furthermore, who’s to say which history or which literature is worth teaching? Our teachers are far better qualified than the College Board to decide what material we should focus on, and massively better prepared than the overworked shadowy cabal of graders to evaluate the students’ work. As a result, courses here claim not to concern themselves with AP preparation. Nonetheless, teachers and academic advisors suggest that many students take the AP’s for a better shot at admission to a “selective” college. We play the AP “game” not for the original goal of earning “advanced placement” in college, but rather for a perversion of this purpose, for adding more weight to our college applications. The AP’s cost time and money for a dubious end, yet a score of 5 on an AP, “fuzzy” or quantitative, is a necessary piece of the application that gets a student into Harvard rather than clown school. I just hope that in taking the AP’s I don’t miss out on too much of the fun-filled academic carnival ride that is Upper spring.