Whose Choice Is It, Anyway?

I read the recent Washington Post piece by AP Latin teacher Jane Miriam Epperson Brinley about the anticipated effects of the College Board’s decisions to do away with the Latin Literature exam with a sense of deja vu. We’d been talking about this very thing in my school ever since the initial announcement. The immediate and powerful effects that the cancellation of a nationally standardized test can have are not suprising to anyone who works in an American high school. Secondary schools throughout the United States use the Advanced Placement curriculum for their most challenging courses; the courses are supposed to cover college-level material, and the exams are nationally standardized. As Epperson Brinley says, “Because AP exams set the standard of academic quality for college-bound students, high school curricula are often reverse-engineered to prepare students for AP tests.” And as a commenter on the NACAC listserv noted, “In large part, parents don’t sign their children up for courses which have no national testing to submit to colleges.”

I believe that most teachers who teach at the AP level find the curricula rigorous and engaging, if sometimes confining and less flexible than they would like. My argument today with Advanced Placement is not primarily about the curricula (I’ll leave that to folks who are actually teaching a full load of academically rigorous coursework), but about the conversation. By signing on to someone else’s definition of “what we should be learning” (which is what a curriculum is, after all), are we in schools bowing out of a conversation about what is worth teaching and learning?

When I was studying the history of US educational reform in graduate school, one of the things I came to believe was that any reform effort that engaged a significant slice of people in the school community – whether it was smaller class sizes, mixed-age class groupings, extended school days, or anything else – anything that got people thinking and talking about their shared enterprise was a good thing.

In a secondary school where the educational enterprise is tied to the students’ ability to successfully win places in the colleges and universities of their choice, AP curricula and exams offer an alluring “stamp of approval.” Only a handful of secondary schools have opted out of this by-now traditional path.

But if, as teachers, we are also modelers of learning, what does it say about us that we are unwilling or unable to engage in an ongoing conversation about what our students need to learn today, and how that might differ from what we thought they needed to learn last year, or the year before that. If high school continually marches towards the holy grail of “college prep,” which in turn is dictated by a set of assumptions and understandings about “what colleges want,” where does that leave us?

This is the time of year when high school juniors all over the US are thinking about their senior year course selections. We’ll be telling them that they need to challenge themselves, continue to make progress in the courses colleges consider to be “academic solids” (English, science, math, history, foreign language), and of course if they’ve taken AP-level courses in the past, they’ll want to continue to do so. Some of the students already have a sense of what kinds of learning they hope to pursue in college and beyond. Others have no idea. But the definitions of success and the prescription for achieving it aren’t nearly as individualized as they could be if we weren’t taking our orders from external agents.

If we want students to experience themselves as independent, co-creators of knowledge, I’m feeling like we need to get out in front and start treating both ourselves and them that way. I’m sure that in most cases the AP tests are just the “nets” that help great teachers shape their shots. But I’d love to see what a curriculum that is a collaborative on-the-ground effort – taking into account student, teacher, and community perspectives – looks like. Increasingly, students of all ages and interests have the ability to connect with teachers and curricula that do speak to their interests and passions. Our relevancy in schools depends on our ability to be a part of that connection.

(This post was substantially informed by my reading
of Jeff Thompson’s recent post, “It is the test! Or is it…“,
which in turn was a response to a post by Dr. Scott McLeod.)

Posted on May 17, 2009, in big picture. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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