From my Valley Advocate Blog:
THE BIG SCAM
Scam isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for, really. Con? Not that either. . .
Racket! That’s the Word I’m looking for. The Advanced Placement system, at least when it comes to English language and literature, is a big racket.
Okay, that’s not really fair. But neither is success in life based on, as Nicholas Lemann put it so well in The Big Test, (which I’ve just begun reading), “A test of one narrow quality . . . “ and he continues, “the ability to perform in school, stands firmly athwart the path to success. Those who don’t have that ability will have much less chance than those who do to display their other talents later.” And now more and more, it’s not even academic achievement that’s defining narrow scholastic achievement, it’s the ability to take (and to suffer the tedium of training for) tests. But, as I was saying, the people behind the A.P. racket are educators and administrators and politicians, many of whom have good intentions when it comes to education, who think they’re doing the right thing, and “racket,” well, it suggests evil, and individuals reaping huge dollars and escaping on speedboats racing out to yachts. But perhaps I’m beginning to digress.
Last week, a thousand or so other folks and I went to Louisville to work 8-5 for seven days straight reading around a thousand student essays each responding to a question (“prompt” is the official term) regarding Benjamin Banneker’s letter to Thomas Jefferson urging Jefferson to work to put an end to slavery. The exam condensed the letter down to a 500-or-so word passage, and asked students to explain how Banneker argues his case. We graded the essays on a 0-9 scale (which eventually is translated to a 1-5 score the students receive). Students scoring a 3 (out of 5) on the exam, based on criteria we were trained (“normed”) on, might get college credit for the course. (For a great many colleges, a higher score than that is necessary to get credit, arguably in no small part because the test has gotten arguably easier or is scored arguably more leniently than it once was as more and more students take the test and, well, students are the end customers. Whether that cynical view is true is oft debated. I’d say about fifteen percent of the tests I read got a “passing” score of 5 or above (out of 9), if that many.
Why? Quite simply, because there were a great, great number of students, a huge majority, who had no place in an “Advanced Placement” English class taking the course, and thus the test.
So why were so many students who stood no chance of success taking the $86 test? Because tests, as many of you know, are what schools are all about in the No-Child-Left-Behind era, so schools get grants and other state and federal money based on how many students take the test. And then many of the schools use some of said revenue to pay the students’ fee to take the exam. And then students of all levels spend good chunks of their year in English class being coached in test-taking techniques and arcane and largely outdated and useless literary and rhetorical terms (which, ironically, we readers are not encouraged to give more credit for students’ use of. In fact, seeing them arguably alerts a reader to a perhaps adequate but likely not extraordinary student who’s not actually thinking and analyzing and even writing, just plugging in rote memorization) instead of being taught how to read and write, how to appreciate, comprehend, even enjoy the English language. So lower-level learners who could use a more traditional reading and writing English class don’t learn what they need to be literate citizens, and the more advanced students don’t learn what they should either, they learn how to take a test. And then students of all levels become haters of English class because it bears no relevance to their lives, teaches them nothing, and is no fun. And, of course, thinking of Thrive, not too far down that line, more and more students drop out altogether.
Toward the end of our week, a fellow A.P. reader told me that one day she read four essays in a row from the same school (we can see the school codes on the back of the students’ booklets); all four students boycotted the question. That is, instead of answering any of the essay questions, all of them wrote about how their school forced them to take the test, telling them they could pay $25 to take the test or $85 not to take it. I have no proof of the veracity of the students’ claim, but I’m confident that the four students wrote what my colleague claimed that they did.
But the numbers of test-takers is up, so schools get to say that x many more kids took the A.P. course and exam this year regardless of scores. No child is left behind – in fact, they’re all advanced! And then, of course, ETS gets paid their fee, much of it likely from the grant money the schools are getting because of all their A.P. students, and the wheel goes round and round, and next year the schools will get more money for A.P. programs and teach students useless jargon to help them take a test they can’t possibly pass because they’re in no way actually prepared for said test, and the students lose and the teachers lose and, well, the College Board keeps getting paid, and I get paid to help legitimize it all. Or at least I did. I don’t plan to do it again, and hope I’m not broke and cave in to the “honorarium” next year. (That's, of course, IF I'm invited back.)
That all said, in starting the Thrive Project, a nonprofit corporation, I’m headed into the world of writing grants and then having to meet requirements of said grants, of gathering statistics and data to keep getting said grants, and surely compromises will have to be made. But what I’ve witnessed is not so much compromises made but an entire system compromised by an incredibly ill-conceived, test-crazed education policy, the only end beneficiary of which is the College Board, which is, last I checked, at least in name, a nonprofit corporation.
Here's an interesting W. Post article on the topic:
After grading the A.P. English exam for the second year, I'm more disgusted than ever on our test-obsessed school system. I've begun reading Nicholas Lemann's "The Big Test" about the history of the SAT and meritocracy in America. It's a fascinating subject and he's such an engrossing writer. Here's one early quote that applies particularly to Thrive: "A test of one narrow quality, the ability to perform well in school, stands firmly athwart the path to success. Those who don't have that ability will have much less chance than those who do to display their other talents later."
Help us help some of those otherly-talented peeps display said talents!