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Advanced Placement is Failing Students By Incentivizing Teaching-to-the-Test

In August, the College Board announced a new website designed to complement Advanced Placement courses. “AP Classroom” offers standardized year-long curricular sequences, divided into nine units. These sequences create cookie-cutter course structures to prepare students for the paid exams taken to earn college credit.

AP classes will also feature another change this year: students must buy exams in November instead of March, and there’s a new $40 cancellation fee. These combined changes will raise the stakes for students, increasing already intense pressure, and push teachers to turn their courses — purportedly college equivalents — into glorified test prep.

These changes represent a perversion of the program’s original mission of fostering creative and critical thinking. Although the program has laudably emphasized expanding access to AP courses, it must now devise a method for retaining these gains while returning to this original vision of AP classes. Doing so would empower teachers to make classes more meaningful, enlivening and enhancing the benefits of secondary education.

The AP program initially developed out of concern that an overly rigid high school system wasn’t serving students well, particularly the best and brightest (and most privileged) students.

In October 1951, the Phillips Bulletin reported to Andover alumni that the school’s faculty was engaged in a study designed to examine the relationship between high school and college curriculums. The bulletin cited “national emergencies” — most especially the Korean War with its attendant military conscription — as the genesis behind this idea, with a goal of helping “able and ambitious boys to make the best possible use of their brief years of liberal education before military service.”

After an assessment of Andover’s curriculum, Headmaster John Kemper, embodying what the Bulletin described as a belief “that creative, pioneering leadership is part of Andover’s obligation to national education,” appealed to the Ford Foundation for funding to study curricular continuity between three prep schools — Andover, Exeter and Lawrenceville — and three Ivy League Universities — Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

In 1952, regular meetings of six educators, one from each of these schools, resulted in a report titled “General Education in School and College.” This intellectual foundation of the AP program was infused with the spirits of both patriotism and noblesse oblige. A Boston newspaper celebrated the report’s commitment to “breaking American education out of lockstep.”

When Alan Blackmer, the committee chair, retired from Andover in 1968, the school newspaper provided a glimpse inside the committee's meetings: “The six men met in exhaustive hearings, attempting to find a way to integrate high school and college education on a national basis, without having to standardize it.”

No one knows for sure why this was the goal. It might have had to do with deference to regional differences on issues like race in this moment before civil rights reforms. Or it might have had to do with rejecting the conformity insisted upon by communism and authoritarianism.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post