The new and improved AP test

A New York Times article today reminded me of a time when the AP was more than a national news wire service to me.

The advanced placement test was one of the greatest banes of my high school existence, second only to the college application process. From what I remember, the entire experience, which I withstood three (almost four!) times, consisted of three steps: receive a giant 1,000-page tome, memorize everything in it, and sit an exam whose questions in no way relate to the hundreds of pages of facts you memorized.

The first test I sat was for U.S. history. Just before the test, I remember going over the succession of presidents with a friend’s flashcards, trying desperately to remember which state ratified the Constitution first and telling my friend to stop playing his ukulele so I could concentrate. The test was far more difficult than any of us imagined and covered material we hadn’t had time to touch on in class. We didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

The second test I sat was for English literature. Since most questions had more to do with reading comprehension than with memorization, I felt prepared after years of reading classic books and writing critical essays. I walked in confident and walked out tired but still sure I’d done well. I’d used knowledge from a wide range of books I had read, in school and at home, to answer the essay questions, and I had even drawn on past choir repertoire to answer questions about Latin roots of English words–further proving my belief that academic well-roundedness is still valuable.

The third and final test I sat was for calculus. Advanced calculus, no less. I don’t talk about that test, except to say that poetry was involved when it shouldn’t have been.

While I studied and prepared for these tests, I couldn’t help but think–why can’t they all be more like the literature test? That exam, rather than asking me to rattle off authors and book titles robotically, tested my ability to think critically and organize my thoughts coherently.

Why do tests in history, math and science focus so intently on students’ memory of names and places? Shouldn’t we demonstrate our comprehension of a subject by discussing broader concepts? What’s more important: that we know which days the Civil War began and ended or that we know what caused the war and how the war affected Americans?

Finally, the College Board agrees. The Times says:

A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.

Not only is it impossible for students to memorize every fact, figure and formula without a photographic memory, it’s also beside the point–and I’m glad the test writers finally get that.

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