Tests Worth Teaching To

Our guest authors today are Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Andrew E. Scanlan. Finn is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Scanlan is a research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This year, some 165,000 American educators are teaching Advanced Placement (AP) classes—a veritable army, mobilized to serve some three million students as they embark on coursework leading to the AP program’s rigorous three-hour exams each May. As we explore in our new book, Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present and Future of Advanced Placement, preparing these young people to succeed on the tests (scored from 1 to 5, with 3 or better deemed “qualifying”) is a major instructional objective for teachers as well as for the students (and their families) who recognize the program’s potential to significantly enhance their post-secondary prospects.

For AP teachers, one might suppose that this objective would be vexing—yet another end-of-year exam that will constrain their curricular choices, stunt their classroom autonomy, and turn their pupils into cram-and-memorize machines rather than eager, deeper learners, creative thinkers, and inquisitive intellectuals.

One might also suppose that the AP program, as it has infiltrated 70 percent of U.S. public (and half of private) high schools, would be vulnerable to the anti-testing resentments and revolts of recent years. These have been largely driven by government-imposed school accountability regimes that are mostly based on the scores kids get on state-mandated assessments, especially in math and English. That’s led many schools to press teachers to devote more hours to “test prep,” minimize time spent on other subjects, and neglect topics that aren’t included in state standards (and therefore won’t be tested). It’s not unreasonable, then, to expect resistance to AP as well.

Yet that mostly turns out not to be so. The overwhelming majority of AP teachers appear to welcome the challenge of preparing their youthful charges to succeed on the exams and to reap the benefits that follow. Because AP courses are designed to cover college-level material across thirty-eight different subjects, a “qualifying” exam score is meant to signal eligibility for credit upon a student’s arrival in college, or at least the ability to waive an entry-level course in that subject and instead take one that’s more advanced or altogether different.

The College Board’s Trevor Packer, who heads AP, terms teachers the “beating heart” of the program and, based on our observations, he’s right: They’re generally very positive about their challenging classroom work, exam-linked though it is.

Yet AP does (to a degree) constrain the instructional and curricular impulses of its teachers. The College Board supplies a “framework” for each course; it provides access to sample exams and past years’ exams, even to exemplary student work on those exams; and, since 2007, educators who teach any class labelled “Advanced Placement” must obtain prior College Board approval of their syllabi. That’s one reason a handful of elite private schools and one or two public high schools now decline to teach AP classes (though they almost always grant their students access to the exams).

What, then, makes AP different from other tests that provoke front-line educators?

We’ve spotted five elements.

First, AP is almost always voluntary for schools, teachers, and students alike. It’s not a government mandate; it’s not required of students (save in a handful of high schools, mostly charter—and those are almost always “schools of choice”); and it’s not forced on teachers who would rather stick with other courses, other curricula, other pupil populations, or their own hand-crafted syllabi. Those who teach AP classes are—almost always—individuals who want to do so.

Second, because AP is voluntary for students, and because its workload, assignments, and content are famously challenging, most of the kids in one’s AP class are able, eager, reasonably well prepared, and generally well behaved. That’s changed a bit as AP entry has been democratized in recent years and more diverse students from more diverse backgrounds have been encouraged to enter those classrooms, often including kids who come from mediocre middle schools, may not have great support at home or have not developed great study habits, and may not even have thought of themselves as “college material.” Many veteran AP teachers have had to work to differentiate or “scaffold” their instruction more than in the past (while AP newcomers seem to take it for granted). Yet, for the most part, AP classrooms remain more fun—and intellectually stimulating—to teach than just about any others in the school.

Third, although the end-of-year exam looms large, AP teachers and students often talk about the sense of being on the same team when preparing for it. AP results are seldom used for school accountability or to evaluate teachers, who can freely encourage, stimulate, and coach their pupils to prepare for the exams without then also having to judge their performance. The kids don’t have to ingratiate themselves with (or try to fool) their instructors and—while they do indeed give course grades—the teachers know that the coin of the realm is exam scores (and that these are seldom used to evaluate the teachers themselves).

Fourth, many teachers find valuable colleagueship, professional development, and intellectual stimulation from a nationwide AP network that includes peers in thousands of schools as well as university professors. They get together in June—in vast convention centers—to score the kids’ exams; they take part in week-long summer workshops; and their participation in lively virtual networks (including the College Board’s much-used “AP Central”) offers myriad ways to compare notes, pick up tips, borrow lesson plans, and get suggestions for additional research by students who want to dig deeper. Additional support is sometimes provided by external groups like the National Math and Science InitiativeEqual Opportunity Schools, and MassInsight Education, which work ceaselessly to boost AP offerings in high schools, expand access to them, and equip their instructors. It’s not unusual to hear teachers remark that an AP institute or workshop rejuvenated and enhanced their work as educators and some go back again and again.

Finally, the six-decade old AP approach has itself evolved, with course frameworks and exams moving away from what was sometimes criticized as “a mile wide and an inch deep” to more reflection, deeper understanding, and greater focus on what’s most important to learn. The two new “Capstone” courses, in fact, don’t even prescribe content. Seeking to instill the skills that college students need most—and, perhaps, keep up with competitors like the International Baccalaureate—they entail research, independent study, analysis and coherent presentation of what one has learned on topics determined by students and teachers themselves.

Advanced Placement is no cure-all for the travails and challenges that face American K–12 education, but for millions of kids—and their legions of dedicated, knowledgeable, and inspiring instructors—it’s sometimes the best thing going in their high schools.

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