Phi Beta Cons

Arrivederci, Advanced Placement

The College Board has officially announced that after this year, it will no longer offer an Advanced Placement exam in Italian. (John Miller foresaw the possibility of such a move last July.) Why is this important?  Because it’s yet another example of how testing has taken over education.

You’ve heard of “teaching to the test,” but AP courses, particularly in marginal subjects, are an example of teaching because of the test. As the Washington Post explains,

Prominent Italian Americans mobilized to save the AP Italian course, and the Italian ambassador to the United States, Giovanni Castellaneta, weighed in with the College Board. High school teachers, college professors and cultural advocates fear that the death of the course could hobble study of the language, because students often select a foreign tongue with an eye toward future AP prospects. A good score on an AP test can yield college credit.

The AP Italian course was inaugurated in 2003 when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi delivered (in person) a $300,000 check from the Italian government to help fund it. Recent economic events have caused Italy to withdraw its support, and this has led to the program’s demise. (Italian, by the way, is not the only subject for which an AP test has been suggested as a promotional tool. Phi Beta Cons wrote here about efforts to promote the study of African-American history by offering an AP exam in it.)

So the Advanced Placement program, introduced in the 1950s to encourage rigorous instruction for the very brightest students among that era’s much smaller college-bound cohort, has become a bribe to entice near-average schoolchildren to take subjects they wouldn’t otherwise consider, as well as a mechanism to substitute high-school instruction for college. But it’s even more insidious, because over the decades, “AP level” has come to be seen as a certificate of academic quality, which means that ambitious parents will accept no less for their children. (Every story about Arne Duncan, Obama’s designee for Secretary of Education, mentions that among his triumphs since he took over Chicago’s schools, “the number [of students] taking Advanced Placement classes has tripled.” )

To make things worse, the ludicrous Newsweek high-school rankings consider AP and similar tests as the only thing that matters in evaluating a school:

The NEWSWEEK list of top U.S. high schools was compiled this year, as in years past, according to a single metric, the proportion of students taking college-level exams: Cambridge, International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement. We count the total number of these tests taken at a school by all students each May, and divide by the number of graduating seniors. Any school with a ratio of 1.000 or higher is placed on the NEWSWEEK list. Over the years this system has come in for its share of criticism for its simplicity. But that is also its strength: it’s easy for readers to understand, and to do the arithmetic for their own schools if they’d like.

So it’s no wonder that standards are slipping, unprepared students are being pressured to take the exams, schools are chafing at the restrictions AP imposes, and colleges are growing reluctant to grant AP credit. Things change slowly in education, but providers and consumers of education will surely figure out at some point that a sprinkling of fairy dust from College Board educrats is neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee academic rigor. Ideally, the College Board will also realize that promoting good instruction and testing knowledge are two separate jobs; Newsweek will notice that a “single metric” that can be gamed so easily is worthless; and if the Italian government wants American kids to study their language, it will make up its own test and offer cash awards to high scorers.

(Note: Honesty compels me to admit that I benefited from the Advanced Placement program myself. I didn’t take any AP classes in high school, but when I got to college, I found my required composition class being taught by a graduate student who tried to make us all write like academics. So I dropped the class and then placed out of it by taking and passing the AP Composition exam after my freshman year. I am eternally grateful to the College Board for this, but somehow I doubt that helping college students avoid incompetent teachers is what the AP program was designed for.)


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