May and AP testing: A Retrospective Indictment

(For the past 19 years, Mami has worked as a guidance counselor, department head, team leader, and Director of Guidance.  Now semi-retired, she looks back on one of the many responsibilities of her tenure, the role of Advanced Placement Coordinator for the College Board program at her former school. Mami’s statements in this essay are solely her opinion yet she knows, through conversations with colleagues, that her criticism of the AP program and the College Board, as its parent organization, is not unique.)

Every May, a fearsome sheriff called Advanced Placement testing rolls into town wielding the law of the College Board and all of the trepidation that comes with the name.   For some reason dictated by past practice that no one seems to question, public and private high schools in the United States and beyond provide a venue and a cash cow for this expensive and questionably worthwhile program. As a former AP Coordinator in a public high school  for twelve years, I marveled at the amount of time that is required to pull off a well-run AP program, that is, in line with to the rules and regulations of the College Board.  The process really begins in the early Fall when high schools are asked to report the anticipated participants and complete a lengthy questionnaire.  On the multi-page document, the same questions year after year are asked that yield answers of a historical nature and, I would assume, most likely accessible by the College Board in its own record keeping.  Yet they persist with the interrogation, giving AP Coordinators a new respect for the tedium of “bubbling”.  During the next six months, every detail is reinforced, prescribed, and monitored in repeated emails and letters to the Coordinator that dictate seating distance between testers, test storage procedures, packing directives, and payment expectations so as not to incur a penalty.  Dutifully, I followed the rules since I did not want a visit from the fabled “AP Police”.

For the first time in thirteen years, I have not laid hands on a single Advanced Placement test, dealt with students who have not prepared for the test and now want out, or argued with parents who refuse to pay on time despite months of warning.  I can’t lie – I haven’t missed it.  The six months of stress generated by the preparation for the two weeks of testing is rough on someone like me – a perfectionist.  The process is rife with details: room assignments, attending to student disabilities and separate test venues, counting (so much counting) of exam booklets and answer sheets, creating piles (so many piles) for each test administered, and other juggled requirements.  I lived in terror that I would miss something! In the build up to the testing, great effort is expended in keeping everyone from teachers, students, and parents in line. It’s exhausting and thankless work where I became a shill for this organized and legalized syndicate.

What is the value of AP testing, you ask? The benefits are pedaled to parents as a way to defray the cost of college. In most cases, a student may be exempted from taking a lower level “101” college level class but often another course must replace it in order to attain college graduation credits. Parents often misunderstand this fine point. In addition, a student must get a score of at least a “3” out of “5” in order to apply the class, if their prospective college even will allow the substitution.  There are no guarantees of an acceptable score or any college level benefit.  

And then there’s the soccer field chatter – parents have been known to brag about their kids and these conversations rev up other parents whose student may not have been ready for or chosen AP. These concerns eventually land on the desk of the school counselor to field.  Parents also tout a perceived badge of honor connected with their student taking multiple tests. However, once the bill for hundreds of dollars arrives for one to five or six tests, parents balk and occasionally refuse to pay, despite signing a contract a year earlier at the time of course registration.   Although the circumstance was rare, when it did occur, tension abounded and I became a one woman collections agency. This situation was somewhat peculiar to my school since, where I worked, there was a requirement to take the AP test in order to get the weighting and designation of AP on a transcript, but we did not fund the test, as do other districts.

As for the students, AP sounds like a great idea until they receive the syllabus on day one of the class and realize just how much work is required.  For the most part (and I know that this is a generalization), today’s students are not eager to expend extreme effort to complete a task. AP is one of those places where slacking is not an option. And when slacking does happen, teachers quickly sound the alarm, alerting the school counselor of the situation. Often, parents are at the ready to defend the student and request to remove them from the class.  Unless the student’s struggles are a byproduct of a lack of understanding and ability even with extensive effort (after school sessions, independent work with the teacher, etc.), high schools are hesitant to allow a transfer out of the class, knowing that this sort of response becomes a precedent and an invitation for a one way revolving door out of the AP class.

On the school side, the AP teacher is breed set apart. As a rule, they are a tad more high-strung than the teacher relegated to College Prep levels alone. Since they answer to a higher power, the College Board, and are under the gun to ensure that their students perform well as measured by a single three hour test, things from April 1 on get tense!  Review sessions interfere with field trips, assemblies, and the day-to-day operation of the school and pit teachers against their peers. It is as if a higher score average will merit a raise but we educators know that is a pipe dream.  And then there is always that AP teacher who wields his or her lofty calling to AP instruction as a designation of quasi-royalty, believing that they are more erudite than those who have not been called to this “noblesse oblige”.  Even with all of these observations, as a former coordinator, I truly enjoyed my work with the AP teachers overall. They offered brightest spot in the ordeal and were great support to the process.

In the final analysis, as a preparation for higher level course work, Advanced Placement offers a leg-up if a student takes the coursework seriously and understands the value.  However, AP is not for everyone and all students are not quite ready for college level work while in high school. There is a reason that high school is four years long. It is a place to grow academically, emotionally, socially, and personally, allowing for experiences and relationships that nurture and inspire. And since life is full of stress, I suggest that AP may be one additional area that hastens along the trend toward anxiety in our kids.  

Perhaps our educational leaders should begin to question the purpose and value of AP as well as the wisdom of allowing an organization like the College Board to have unlimited access to our students, school staff, and our already stretched school resources. While the College Board offers a kickback of approximately 10% on each AP test, it is minimal consideration for the complication that is the school based AP program. In a recent development, the College Board is offering school-day testing of the SAT, once again tapping into the resources of our schools and interfering with our students’ learning. We, as educators, need to question the true value of a program like Advanced Placement, or the stronghold that the College Board has in our students’ education, in light of the tremendous cost to our kids, their families, and our schools.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.