When testing trumps learning: AP courses have come to be misused

Deborah Stipek
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"Mom, if I don't get a 4 on my AP history test I will have wasted a whole year," my daughter exclaimed. "Didn't you learn any history?" I asked. "That's not what this class is about," she explained in that how-can-you-be-so-stupid tone familiar to parents of 16-year-olds. After she took the French Advanced Placement test, her only comment was that she'll "never again have to speak a word of French."

The sad truth that my daughter's comments illustrate is that AP courses are not about learning. They are test preparation courses. We need another strategy for providing challenging instruction.

AP courses were developed in the mid-1950s to challenge students who had mastered their high school curriculum. It was a simple idea: By studying college material in high school, students could avoid introductory courses in college and as college freshmen could delve deeply into a subject immediately. This idea is consistent with the research on motivating students and maximizing learning.

But as the AP program has grown exponentially--from 1,200 students taking the first exam in 1956 to more than 800,000 last year--the program's purpose has changed. AP tests are no longer about feeding students' intellectual appetites or exposing them to new ideas, concepts or cultures.

Instead, AP courses have become a way for students to rise above the crowded pool of applicants; the tests have become the currency of college entrance. Not long ago, at least one AP class was considered essential for admission to a competitive college. Today, the expectation is four--six for students who are aiming really high.

Universities also are upping the ante. Harvard, for example, has announced that it will give credit only to students who achieve the top score of 5 (as opposed to the usual practice of requiring a 3 or 4 for credit). Furthermore, high school reputations rely increasingly on the percentage of students who pass AP tests, and teachers feel the heat. Many use practice tests, vocabulary lists, memorization of math equations and historical facts--whatever it takes to ensure their students' success.

Unfortunately, many strategies that prepare students for AP tests contradict everything we know about engaging instruction, the kind of teaching that makes material relevant to life and generates the desire to delve deeper.

Students have no time to immerse themselves in a particular concept or topic. Further, the demands of the courses create anxiety and take away from time spent on other important activities.

Concerns about inequities in students' access to AP courses also are mounting, since the number of AP courses varies dramatically across schools. Many schools serving predominantly low-income students offer none at all.

To end these inequities, school districts are trying to increase the number of AP classes in schools serving low-income students. This might address some gross inequities in college access, but I suggest a more radical response.

Echoing concerns raised in a National Research Council report about the focus on memorization and superficial coverage, some schools, such as the private Fieldston School in New York, have substituted honors courses for AP courses. Thus, students can be challenged without taking a course that can easily be reduced to test preparation. And the teachers have the freedom to decide how they balance depth and breadth.

Let's teach our youth that school is not just about passing tests. We have gone too far down that road when the notion that learning is the purpose of school sounds to an adolescent like further evidence that parents just don't get it.

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APA Citation

Stipek, D. (2002). When testing trumps learning: AP courses have come to be misused. .