Review: AP Program Undermines Humanities, Devalues College, and Cheats Students of LearningHistorians in the News
tags: pedagogy, humanities, Advanced Placement, teaching history
David Perry is a journalist and assistant director of undergraduate studies in the history department at the University of Minnesota. He is the co-author of "The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe."
How Advanced Placement Cheats Students
By Annie Abrams
Johns Hopkins University Press. 230 pp. $24.95
In the 1950s, mired in the thick of the Cold War, a small group of educators — all White men at elite institutions — came up with an idea. What if promising high school students could take advanced classes, engage with the liberal arts and be lifted into top colleges even if they came from nonelite backgrounds? Those demonstrating potential could, they imagined, move more quickly past the rote drudgery of high school and into the pursuit of knowledge that was, in their estimation, America’s core advantage over the Soviet Union.
With a view toward the public good and enough private funding to give them independence from public oversight, these men ended up building a new entity that today we know as Advanced Placement. Theirs was a vision of meritocratic sorting, not a plan for egalitarian access to the best possible education. Still, according to “Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students,” a new study of the origins and current role of Advanced Placement exams by historian Annie Abrams, the founders of AP had both a profound respect for the vitality of liberal learning and a disdain for simplified assessments via standardized tests.
Flash forward to today and, according to Abrams, who teaches high school English and has a PhD in American literature, almost nothing of that original vision remains. Instead, she argues, we get tests that neither measure the quality of the student’s high school education nor stand in for introductory level college courses. They have become, she writes, just a “regime of profitable standardized tests disproportionately affecting public school students attending public universities.” Students don’t learn to love reading. They don’t learn to love history. And, she argues, they don’t become the kinds of citizens that we need in this turbulent time. In that regard, especially, the current system stands in ironic opposition to the one imagined by the elitist founders of the College Board in the mid-20th century.
“Shortchanged” is organized into two distinct sections. Over the first three chapters, Abrams investigates the origins of Advanced Placement. Abrams explores the intellectual history of debates about education by mid-century contemporaries like Harvard president James Conant, Phillips Andover teacher Alan Blackmer and Kenyon College president Gordon Chalmers. They had disagreements but shared a belief in “education as a humanistic, rather than mechanistic, enterprise aligned with notions of the American political tradition in which citizens rely on each other’s humanity in a system of self-governance.”
But abstract debates aren’t the whole story, because ultimately men like these found funding, formed committees and wrote reports. The roots of the problems facing Advanced Placement today, and the problems that AP is causing for the entire edifice of advanced humanities education, emerged out of the shift from abstract principles to practical outcomes. Abrams locates a key point of transition, for example, when Blackmer and a committee of his peers finished drafting a report animated by “high-flying ideals” of intellectual freedom for students and autonomy for teachers, then went back to teach at Andover. Harvard’s director of testing, a man named Henry Dyer, was left to write an appendix on implementation. Dyer believed in tests, quantification and psychometrics. He worked with subject experts to put together “achievement tests in specific fields … to demonstrate candidates’ academic promise.”It’s not necessarily inevitable that AP would devolve into the organization that Abrams so criticizes, but certainly here in this appendix is one starting point of that devolution.
“Shortchanged” is a brilliant book not just because of its content, but because of the way that Abrams grapples with the potential of a humanities. She encounters a problem (students in AP English classes who are prepped for tests instead of being exposed to literature) and wants to know why this is happening. So she studies the history, digs into archives, places the issues in their political and economic context, and then, when ready, makes an argument to a broader public. This book is everything we say that the humanities can do. And it’s everything that, according to Abrams, the Advanced Placement regime is likely to destroy.
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