Enough With AP’s

This past Friday, 28 members of Dr. Quattlebaum’s History 340 class took the Advanced Placement examination in European History. Sweating in Davis Hall, I was discomforted by the robotic nature of the entire process. In the preliminary registration section, shaded oval bubbles dehumanized me into Caucasian-male-10th grader, complete with serial number. In the test itself, the multiple choice section favored rote memorization, the Document Based Question required no external knowledge and the essays, of which only two out of six needed to be answered, were so specific that the test taker did not need to draw parallels between different events or even ponder broader questions. Standardized testing groups students into ethnic and gender scoring ranges and diminishes depth of thought by utilizing a binary right or wrong system of grading. Weaknesses in the nature of the AP test warrant an examination by the Andover community. College Board avers on its website, “AP can change your life,” enabling one to “gain an edge in college preparation,” “stand out in the college admissions process,” and “broaden your intellectual horizons.” Scrutinizing these claims draws into question the merit of the examinations. The notion that AP courses give a student an “edge in college preparation” is misleading. The AP is designed with the noble intention of being challenging for many, but it takes on a degree of bloated breadth and superficial depth as it assesses students taking different courses in different schools – public and private – around the country. The multiple-choice section of the European History AP benefits those who remember facts rather than understand their meanings. The Document Based Question tests the ability to organize thoughts in 45 minutes rather than the ability to make the strongest argument. The Free-Response Section allows a student to score well discussing a specialized event without an understanding of major themes in history. College and university-level coursework in history delves far beyond superficial and rote memorization into critical thinking and educated analysis. How then does the AP prepare a student for work in college? I admit to succumbing to the temptation of a receiving a nice AP score by purchasing the Princeton Review study booklet at the beginning of Spring Break. Everything on the AP was covered in this book; mere regurgitation of un-distilled information is enough for an AP grader. The correlation that students who do well on AP examinations also do well in college is well-established. But correlation is not causation. Students do well in college because of personal drive, not because they happened to take an AP test. College Board also claims that taking an AP exam will help students “stand out” as worthy of admission in the eyes of colleges. In the larger view of education as a whole, the score on an AP examination depicts a rather cursory view of a student’s merit. The ability to research, the aspect that extends history rather than reiterating it, is entirely ignored as a criterion for a good AP grade. Why are colleges diminishing the value of their own admission offices, whose purpose is to discover and admit promising students, by accepting the evaluations of College Board as critical to a decision? Why is Andover reducing its academics, known to be some of the best in the world, to a lower denominator by administering AP examinations? Why are we as students selling ourselves short by paying $83 for an examination that leaves much of the “whole student” unconsidered? The answer is that College Board, though a not-for-profit organization, is in the $480 million dollar business of making colleges, high schools and students believe that they depend on it in the facilitation of college admissions. None of these three parties, college, high school or student, is willing to back out of this vicious cycle without assurances that the other two will as well. Finally, College Board’s assertion that AP “broadens intellectual horizons” runs counter to the beliefs held by many teachers at Andover. Teachers who would like to emphasize material that is not on the AP face pressure from parents who place their child’s preparation for an AP higher than a meaningful understanding of a subject, albeit an understanding that cannot be measured by standardized testing. At a school like Andover, with established academic excellence and rigor, AP exams limit the “intellectual horizons” of students. Why should the College Board’s opinion about important material in a course surpass that of our own teachers? There are numerous stories, theories, and anecdotes brought up in Dr. Quattlebaum’s History 340 that went untested on Friday’s European History AP. And yet this is the knowledge that makes a course like History 340 so great. Anyone can go and buy the Princeton Review’s “Cracking the European History AP,” memorize it, and get a 5 on the AP. But should we really reduce our assessment of knowledge to a test that must be “cracked,” of all things? The tunnel vision approach of an AP restricts and suffocates any learning that deviates from its curriculum. So what should be done? Andover is currently in an awkward position between total rejection and complete adherence. On one hand, the school accepts the $83 fee, actively orders and administers the tests, excuses students from classes in order to take the tests and offers study books in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. On the other hand, many teachers do not “teach to the AP,” ignoring some topics covered on the AP while stressing others, and many also continue to assign normal amounts of homework during the same weeks that other schools designate as time for AP review. As a result, students at Andover are put at a disadvantage in that their own work in the course is often not represented accurately by the AP examination. Andover needs to make a decision between two options: support the AP test fully or reject it as an outdated relic. It should take the latter. A strong example set by Andover would demonstrate to the academic world that there are parts of education and a student’s merit that simply cannot be measured by a series of limited essays and shaded ovals. It is time for Andover students, faculty and deans, to reject the Advanced Placement examinations.