I’ve mentioned more than once that my own somewhat positive attitude toward “teaching to the test” is driven, in part, by my experience teaching Advanced Placement courses.
All successful AP teachers – and by that I mean not only teachers whose students earn decent scores, but also teachers who inspire real learning – teach to the test. We also all grouse about the tests, and the College Board test writers. They require us to cover too much material. They surprise us with what seem to be peripheral or ambiguous questions. They are too politically correct, or too oblivious to urgent social issues.
Still, as tests go the AP tests are pretty good. The questions don’t just ask students to regurgitate information, but to also to analyze data, language, historical events, etc. Essays count for half the grade, at least in the subjects I’ve taught, and the essay questions require students to apply and not just download what they’ve learned. In my experience, and I think most AP teachers would agree, there’s a pretty strong correlation between how much a student has learned (and how hard he or she has worked for that learning) and the final score on the test. As we grapple with the tough issue of how to assess the common core, we could do worse than to look at the AP model.
As Washington Post education blogger Jay Mathews points out,
Those difficult exams, full of essay questions, not only give high- schoolers a taste of college trauma but also motivate harder work in the course by them and their teachers. The exams are written and graded by outside experts and cannot be watered down to save the reputation of students who didn’t do their homework or instructors not up to the job.
Still, AP courses pose a dilemma for teachers, and for schools. There’s considerable evidence that taking AP classes benefits even students who don’t end up passing the course. But students who aren’t obviously “AP material” are a lot of work for teachers, and they can also drag down class scores. Just how narrow should the AP gate be? I come down quite strongly on the “you’re welcome as long as you recognize and accept what you’re getting into” side of the debate, but I also work for a principal who doesn’t assume that every student who takes the exam is going to earn a passing grade. Not every teacher is as fortunate.
But there’s another gate that winnows out potential AP students: the $87 test fee, which students and their parents usually pay. It’s a bargain price for college credits . . . but also a barrier for many families.
Late last year, as Jay Mathews recently reported,
Congress sharply reduced funds to pay Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test fees for low-income students. The legislators chopped the allotment from $43 million to $27 million, a gross lapse in legislative insight.
I completely agree. These kids deserve a chance to be taught to the test.