New Book Challenges not Just AP Course Content, but Role of Courses in the Education SystemHistorians in the News
tags: pedagogy, standardized testing, Advanced Placement, teaching history
In the beginning of Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheat Students, Annie Abrams recounts her experience teaching AP courses in a public high school in New York City.
It was 2016. She had just finished earning a Ph.D. in American literature at New York University, and so she expected to have few problems with the material.
“I was wrong to assume continuity between the experiences of teaching liberal arts courses and navigating the Advanced Placement program,” she writes. Teaching in college, she had learned “the point of marking essays,” which was “to help students refine their thinking while instilling in them the confidence that they were capable of intellectual growth.”
Abrams continues, “As a teacher of Advanced Placement, I tried to offer meaningful feedback” to her students. “But my literature course now had two goals: helping students take their own minds seriously and giving them specific—and often competing—tools to perform well on a high stakes test at the end of the year."
And she writes that, “overwhelmed by the volume of papers I was expected to grade and the limited time in which I was expected to do it,” she saw “the definite appeal” of using the College Board’s scale (then 1 to 9) “and using its canned commentary for each point.”
But “rubrics changed students’ relationships to their writing, and to me, as their reader.” Abrams writes that the “exercise became mechanical.”
Her criticism is applied equally across the disciplines, and she doesn’t focus on the recent controversy over the new AP course in African American Studies.
The creation “of the AP program itself” isn’t the problem for Abrams. In several chapters, she reviews the program’s history and finds “the founders’ intentions of aligning liberal arts education across high schools and colleges in ways they believed would protect democracy.”
The problem, she writes, is the “collateral damage caused by moving away from this vision” and to an emphasis on testing.
“The manual for U.S. history teachers is simultaneously dizzying and reductive,” she writes. “Everything is quantifiable: there are nine units and roughly 15 instructional periods per unit. Each day has an associated ‘skill’ from a list of six, a ‘reasoning process’ from a list of three and a ‘theme’ from a list of eight.” Of all these features, Abrams writes, there is not an emphasis on teaching. “Who knows? And, one suspects, who cares? What’s clear is that the insistence of systematizing desiccates the course’s meaning.”
She continues, “I am not a historian by training. But it came as a surprise to me that ‘American national identity’ was not a main concern from 1890 to 1945, nor has it been one from 1980 to the present. It has clearly felt like one of the country’s defining contests in my lifetime.”
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