Archives For Advanced Placement

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 11.16.51 AMNot so long ago, 11th grade was a great year of high school. The pre-adolescent fog had lifted, and the label of “sophomore,” literally “wise-fool,” gave way to the less insulting “junior.” Academic challenges and social opportunities for 16 and 17 years olds increased as students sought driver’s permits/licenses, employment or internships in an area of interest. Students in this stage of late adolescence could express interest in their future plans, be it school or work.

Yet, the downside to junior year had always been college entrance exams, and so, junior year had typically been spent in preparation for the SAT or ACT. When to take these exams had always been up to the student who paid a base price $51/SAT or $36.50/ACT for the privilege of spending hours testing in a supervised room and weeks in anguish waiting for the results. Because a college accepts the best score, some students could choose to take the test many times as scores generally improve with repetition.

Beginning in 2015, however, junior students must prepare for another exam in order to measure their learning using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The two federally funded testing consortiums, Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have selected 11th grade to determine the how college and career ready a student is in English/Language Arts and Math.

The result of this choice is that 11th grade students will be taking the traditional college entrance exam (SAT or ACT) on their own as an indicator of their college preparedness. In addition, they will take another state-mandated exam, either the SBAC or the PARRC, that also measures their college and career readiness. While the SAT or ACT is voluntary, the SBAC or PARRC will be administered during the school day, using 8.5 hours of instructional time.

Adding to these series of tests lined up for junior year are the Advanced Placement exams. There are many 11th grade students who opt to take Advanced Placement courses in a variety of disciplines either to gain college credit for a course or to indicate to college application officers an academic interest in college level material. These exams are also administered during the school day during the first weeks of May, each taking 4 hours to complete.

One more possible test to add to this list might be the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB test) which, according to the website Today’s Military,  is given to more than half of all high schools nationwide to students in grade 10th, 11th or 12th, although 10th graders cannot use their scores for enlistment eligibility.

The end result is that junior year has gradually become the year of testing, especially from the months of March through June, and all this testing is cutting into valuable instructional time. When students enter 11th grade, they have completed many pre-requisites for more advanced academic classes, and they can tailor their academic program with electives, should electives be offered. For example, a student’s success with required courses in math and science can inform his or her choices in economics, accounting, pre-calculus, Algebra II, chemistry, physics, or Anatomy and Physiology. Junior year has traditionally been a student’s greatest opportunity to improve a GPA before making college applications, so time spent learning is valuable. In contrast, time spent in mandated testing robs each student of classroom instruction time in content areas.

In taking academic time to schedule exams, schools can select their exam (2 concurrent) weeks for performance and non-performance task testing.  The twelve week period (excluding blackout dates) from March through June is the nationwide current target for the SBAC exams, and schools that choose an “early window” (March-April) will lose instructional time before the Advanced Placement exams which are given in May. Mixed (grades 11th & 12th) Advanced Placement classes will be impacted during scheduled SBACs as well because teachers can only review past materials instead of progressing with new topics in a content area. Given these circumstances, what district would ever choose an early testing window?  Most schools should opt for the “later window” (May) in order to allow 11th grade AP students to take the college credit exam before having to take (another) exam that determines their college and career readiness. Ironically, the barrage of tests that juniors must now complete to determine their “college and career readiness” is leaving them with less and less academic time to become college and career ready.

Perhaps the only fun remaining for 11th graders is the tradition of the junior prom. Except proms are usually held between late April and early June, when -you guessed it- there could be testing.

The recent invitation to respond to the statement “Don’t Teach the Test” was under discussion in the New York Times: Invitation to a Dialogue series. The question was posed by Peter Schmidt,  the director of studies at Gill St. Bernard’s School, and he singled out two tests in particular: the SAT and the Advanced Placement Tests.

Schmidt suggested that the SAT should be eliminated as a requirement for college on the basis of economic inequality.  Students who have the finances to take prep courses or hire tutors have an advantage, and Schmidt suggests that, “our colleges are further promoting the inequities of our society.”

Schmidt also called for the end to  Advanced Placement  (A.P.) courses in high school, saying that they

“too often fail to prepare students adequately for college-level course work. They also put pressure on students to perform well on the A.P. exams in the spring, leaving them exhausted and lacking a spirit of intellectual curiosity.”

Full disclosure: I teach Advanced Placement English Literature, and I have served as an A.P. Reader.

AP TestsThat said, I believe Schmidt is right about the pressure the testing for these courses places on students. I agree that these students are exhausted the first two weeks of May since students who take A.P. courses often take more than one A.P. class. Many students are scheduled for two separate tests on the same day. But as to his assessment that the A.P. courses do not prepare students for college level work, I must respectfully disagree.

Students who take A.P. courses recognize that they may or may not receive college credit for the course. College credit is given based on a student’s test score (minimum a level “3” on the A.P. English Language or Literature) and the willingness of the college to accept that score in lieu of an undergraduate course.  As a result, there are no guarantees of college credit in an A.P. class; however, colleges do look to see if students are taking A.P. classes as an indication of their academic ambitions.

The A.P. exams in all subject areas are a mix of multiple choice questions and essay responses questions.  In the A.P. English Literature exam, there are 55 challenging questions on five or six literature selections. Students need a command of vocabulary and the ability to “close read”, a skill that was the hallmark of A.P. courses long before the Common Core State Standards. But the most demanding part of the AP English Literature exam is the essay section where students write three essays in response to three prompts in two hours. 

My students practice writing to these prompts throughout the school year.  They learn to read, annotate, and draft quickly, but Schmidt raises a good question.

Does the A.P. test prepare students for college?

In responding to Schmidt’s concern, I have thought about how my student’s responses to the essay test questions are not the only measure for determining student understanding. A good A.P. course incorporates the practice of revising drafts written for a practice test. There is always a gem of an idea in these hasty constructions. There is always some hypothesis that student will discover as he or she “writes into” the prompt, something I have previously referred to as a “manifesto in the muck.” A good A.P. course provides a student with the chance to take that essay draft, and expand and revise. A good A.P. course gives students the chance to start again with the end of the draft in order to begin a better essay.

Schmidt complains about “the  lack of  imagination and creativity” that “are the cornerstones of genuine learning,”but these generalizations are not true.  I know first-hand that there is nothing to stop a student’s imagination or creativity in responding to a work of literature in an A.P. course. Some of the most amazing statements or ideas I have read have come from students undergoing the intellectual crucible of writing an organized essay in under 40 minutes. In reading these practice drafts, some ripe with grammatical errors and misspellings,  I will pause with my red pen suspended, repeating to myself, “First do no harm”, as I leave a draft untouched. A.P. advises instructors to “reward the student for what they do well”, even on a practice test.

There are too many reasons to not like the standardized tests that are choking education today; the limited data that standardized testing yields is often not worth the time and expense. Frankly, I am no fan of the College Board. The limitations of the A.P. test, however, does not mean that an A.P. course is not valuable.

The A.P. test, like all standardized tests, is a single metric measure, but an A.P. course is a much broader experience.  So, yes, I teach to the test, but I also teach the A.P. course as a preparation for the rigors of college level work, and in particular, I teach the course so that my students will have the option to waive a 100 level composition class giving them the option to take a course in their major field of study.

Schmidt concluded his invitation with an impassioned plea,

As E. M. Forster wrote more than a century ago in Howards End, in addressing the shortcomings of British universities: “Oh yes, you have learned men who collect … facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?”

I would argue that my A.P. class is the only place in my curriculum where I can offer the writings of E.M Forster, if for no other reason than to see how students would respond to that literary prompt.  I know that in their responses, there could be one from a student who, writing under intense pressure, could draft a sentence or two that would reveal a “kindle of light within.”  Whether that student response would be in a test booklet written during the A.P. test or not does not matter.