Sunday, May 18, 2014

Responding to a question (1 of 2)

One of the joys of combing the op-ed pages is to come across opinions with which I disagree. To wit, a few weeks ago The Washington Post's spring cleaning feature offered the idea that high schools rid themselves of AP courses. You might want to read the column here. It, and a chance conversation with an outstanding former student of mine who didn't believe in taking AP exams (but who regularly took and excelled in AP courses) put me in the position of justifying something I believe quite strongly about.

I'm rather attached to the Advanced Placement program. For one thing, the rigors of it when I was in high school pushed me to become the kind of student I was capable of being. Doing well on those exams translated into several credits at Gettysburg, enabling me to dabble with English and Political Science coursework long enough to know those fields weren't for me.* As a teacher, my greatest satisfaction comes from helping AP students master material and acquire skills that in the short run help on an exam in May but in the long run benefit them in college.

I do see, however, the problems with AP becoming a broader program. I do see the trend by which colleges are making more stingy their acceptance policies. Also, I see the way in which one could argue that the program is watering down its expectations. Finally, I see the potential hypocrisy in my embrace of the College Board's AP product but my disgust with standardized tests such as the PSSA and Keystone Exams.

So, how do I square this?

The AP course incentivizes me to elevate the rigor of what I teach, and it incentivizes the students to follow my lead. It promotes greater sophistication in most elements of my classroom: the content, the acquisition of skill, the tone of conversation. I guess what this program does, and that the Keystone does not, is that it at the end assigns a score to the students, not just to me. Students have skin in the game: a chance at earning credit in college, verification of where they are against peers nation wide, the desire to not squander $89 paid to the College Board. Therefore, there's more student ownership. I know I am assessed, in part, on the basis of my students' performance. So the students and I both have something on the line, which is very much not the culture fostered by states' standardized testing regimens, which seem to make it entirely the schools' and teachers' responsibility to elevate the students' grades.

I wish there was a way to engender the kind of rigor one sees in AP without the national exam or without the appearance of profiteering by a firm, The College Board. Unfortunately, an entitlement mindset has set into public education, and that brings with it a watering down of norms and expectations. The College Board has been a somewhat effective tool promoting rigorous instruction in a time in which prevailing winds motivate us to be less than we can be.

*Had I been exposed to a Religion course freshman year, I might have tried majoring in that alongside history. The excellent Old Testament course I took came too late, in my senior year. Also, had my microeconomics professor not been dreadful, I might have pursued coursework in Economics.

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