A Few Thoughts About The AP Test

515ehdjjjqlNo surprise that the most popular search engine query this week has to do with the AP US History Test which is scheduled for Friday.  I’ve received a number of emails from students asking for tips on studying as well as from fellow teachers who are desperately trying to figure out what the DBQ will be.  I can’t tell you how depressing all of this is.  My students are visibly worried about the test and the more I focus on preparation the more anxious they become.  Part of me hopes they do well and the other part honestly has no care in the world.  It’s a strange position to be in, but one that reflects my deep antipathy for the AP curriculum.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been in a rat race to ensure that I finish the textbook before Friday.  I’ve had to run rough shod over aspects of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the end of the Cold War to do it and it has made me depressed as hell.  Oh and that last chapter on the post-9/11 period…well…make sure you peruse that chapter when you have some free time.  Even worse, is the acknowledgment that the last major assessment of their experience in my classroom will be a standardized test that I had no hand in crafting. There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture.  My two sections have been absent half the usual number since many of my students take more than one AP Test.  This means that I am unable to bring the course to a close since the class doesn’t meet again after Friday.  Yes, it will be nice to have two weeks with a reduced schedule, but this is no way to end what has been a very intense and challenging experience for many.

I’ve tried my best to introduce my students to the study of history as well as the complexity that is U.S. History.  At the same time I’ve tried to impress upon them the extent and myriad ways in which the past continues to shape our individual perceptions and belief structure as well as the obligations we have as citizens.  Unfortunately, they are not thinking about that; rather, they are sweating over a standardized test.

So, if you are student looking for tips for Friday, all I can say is do your best and remember that any assessment of the past year ought to be about more than Friday’s results.  And, if you are a teacher looking for clues about the DBQ try to remember why we teach this subject.

This is my least favorite week of the entire school year.

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9 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin May 8, 2009 @ 12:43


    You make a good point and I am not in a position to make a judgment about standardized tests across the board. My concern is with the AP curriculum and the extent to which it prevents me from teaching the kind of history class that will really make a difference.

  • Larry Cebula May 8, 2009 @ 10:23

    Now wait a minute. We all love to hate standardized tests but remember that one of the initial purposes of them was to have an educational system based on merit and ability rather than social class and connections. Standardized test results were on of the tools that the non-WASPs used to crash the gates of the Ivies.

    And imperfect as they may be, they are measuring something–and something more than the mere ability to take standardized tests (as is so often and so glibly stated). I remember when I was interviewing for graduate school I had a long conversation with a professor who went on and on about how awful the GRE tests were. Then as an aside she said, “Of course they are an excellent predictor of success in graduate school.”

    There is absolutely a place for the SAT, the GRE and perhaps even the AP U.S. History test. The problem is not that we use them, but that we over value them and use them as a lazy excuse not to look any deeper.

  • Mike May 8, 2009 @ 9:10

    Texas where I work at a HS is the bellcow of this testing system Starting in 3rd grade with Reading all the way through your Senior Year along with EC testing, SAT and ACT on top. I am so glad I got out of public school way back in 1984 before all the madness began. OH I forgot we also have AP testing it is nuts in the late Spring around here.

  • Scott Smart May 7, 2009 @ 12:33

    When I went to high school in the 60’s the AP tests were pretty obscure. I don’t recall anyone taking them even though the school (public) was mainly a college prep curriculum. How did these things get so important? Marketing? Educrats?

  • chris meekins May 7, 2009 @ 9:54

    In NC we have one additional piece of nonsense. The Legislative body moved the start and end dates of school a couple of years ago so that now these national tests come about three weeks before the school year actually ends. My daughter, who is a graduating senior, is thus in the middle of the AP exams and will return to school for three weeks but have nothing constructive to do in part because the course information must be completed before the AP exams. Teachers and students are stuck with dead time. Now that is crazy.

  • David B. Appleton May 7, 2009 @ 7:44

    I know that it isn’t any consolation, Kevin, but back in the 1960s when I was going to high school, I never had a history class (U.S. or world) that made it through WWII. So that part of your frustration has been going on for decades.

  • James Bartek May 7, 2009 @ 5:44

    Standardized testing in general is mostly garbage. Their purpose is to winnow the applicant field not with a testing of genuine knowledge, but by seeing who can withstand the most soul-crushing punishment. For prospective grad students, I think the GRE or LSAT is a great way to introduce them to the first of a million hoops they’ll have to jump through, but little else.

    I’ve always questioned the rationale of subjecting grade schoolers to such tests, however. State exams for 4th graders? Really? I think we’re more concerned with the appearance of student learning than with actual student learning. It’s something tangible to show Mom and Dad and the Taxpayer that, see, your students are learning!

    There are perennial reports that X% of students don’t know that the Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865. While I won’t dismiss this as inconsequential, I’m more concerned to know if they can place slavery as the central issue of the war. I know of plenty of ADULTS (the same ones who complain about those darned ignorant kids) who can name the years of the war, recount battles in detail, and describe the kind of underwear Stonewall Jackson wore on May 3, 1862. Yet they also insist that African-Americans loved being enslaved and that the South seceded over a tariff.

    Dates are relevant, of course, but ultimately meaningless if fundamental concepts are not clearly understood. I just don’t see how a standardized history test can accurately gauge one’s comprehension of, say, the myth of American Exceptionalism, or the psychological factors which inform racism. Or how historical memory is twisted to suit the needs of the present generation.

    Apparently, a lack of historical “knowledge” about a civil war is not just an American problem! http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/nine-in-10-ignorant-about-civil-war-634324.html

  • Kevin Levin May 7, 2009 @ 1:09


    I couldn’t have said it any better.

  • Crystal Marshall May 6, 2009 @ 19:47

    And while we’re on the topic…they should ban the SAT too! Or at least get rid of the essay portion…I know colleges would like to have some measure by which they can judge among their myriad of applicants, but really, what does an SAT score say about a student’s true ability to learn? Some of my friends are brilliant geniuses but test anxiety produces bad scores. Also, many of my friends are taking calculus at the time of the test, and end up “thinking too hard” on the math portion (which covers 9th grade math/Algebra I) and get less-than-stellar scores. And really, I can’t churn out a respectable essay in 25 minutes with no time to gather credible research and sources–and then this essay gets graded by two teachers whom I don’t even know, who are probably sick of reading and grading thousands of these essays and out of their grumpy moods give me a less-than-objective score.

    Sorry for the rant…my SAT scores were pretty good so I guess I can’t complain…but in the end, I want to be defined by more than just my score.

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