Looking at Wrong Outcomes, Missing the Lesson

The College Board has a recent history of recreating itself, notably the cyclical revision of the SAT and now a move to resurrect the Advanced Placement (AP) program.

While I am no fan of the College Board, specifically the problems related to the SAT, I taught most of my nearly two decades as a high school English teacher in a rural South Carolina public school either preparing my students for AP English courses (“advanced” feeder courses leading to Literature and Composition or Language and Composition) or teaching AP Literature and Composition.

Setting aside for a moment the conflicts of interest and disturbing self-promotion behind the College Board revamping AP courses on the heels of David Coleman turning his Common Core State Standards (CCSS) gig into being named president of College Board, consider Jack Schneider’s challenge to the new AP plan, which builds to this central criticism:

Evidence to the contrary, however, is all around us.  Look, for instance, at Mississippi, which has the lowest average household income in the U.S. and the highest percentage of African-American residents.  Given the way that educational resources are distributed, it should come as no surprise that nearly half of students taking AP exams in the state scored a 1 out of 5.  Only four percent of students scored a 5.  These are not the kinds of problems that the AP Program can solve.

In order to consider both the credibility of the College Board’s plan to reform their AP programs and Scheider’s critique, I want to focus first on a teacher story of mine, building on a key point made by Brian Jones about the inherent failure of CCSS and those who advocate for yet another standards and testing cycle:

I heard a woman who’s been involved with high-level education policy discussions defend the Common Core’s de-emphasis of personal narratives because, she argued, that’s not the kind of writing people need to do in college. At the end of her presentation, a teacher who opposed the Common Core standards asked her if she, as a teacher, could really do anything to influence policy. This same woman told her that the most powerful thing a teacher could do to influence policy would be to speak to lawmakers directly and tell a story — tell a specific story about how these policies affect her classroom. Without realizing it, she argued that personal narratives were not important for “college and career readiness”, but if you are setting out to change the world, personal narratives are the most powerful thing you’ve got [emphasis added].

If we let the corporations organize education, it will be an education that’s about fitting our children into their workplaces — into the narrow vision of working life that they have in store for the next generation.

As I noted above, I taught throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the same rural Upstate SC high school that I had attended in the 1970s. During my years as a student in that school, no AP courses were offered, but during my college years, my former high school English teacher and mentor, Lynn Harrill, brought AP to the school.

In 1984, I assumed not only Lynn’s position in the English department but also his room. While it would take several years for me to earn the role of teaching in the AP program Lynn built, I eventually taught the feeder sophomore course into the program before later teaching AP Literature and Composition; I also as department chair added AP Language and Composition (taught by a colleague).

This high school included only about 750-900 students while I taught there and served a relatively high-poverty population of students. If anyone had chosen to judge the success of our AP program as Schneider has—focusing on AP test scores, outcomes—that most students over the years scored 2s and 1s would likely paint a picture of failure.

Charts of the data over the years ignore some genuinely important facts about whether of not AP was successful at my high school, including whether or not that failure or success was directly caused by the AP program itself.

First, what the data do not tell you is that we did not gate-keep students as the College Board recommended; we didn’t use PSAT scores in order to weed out only the best and the brightest. In fact, a neighboring high school with  triple our student body size routinely had about the same total number of AP students as I taught.

The policy of our AP program was providing access to high-quality courses for as many students as possible, not test-score outcomes.

Next, since the administration was committed to increasing student access to AP, they were also committed to supporting me as a teacher, manifesting itself in low class sizes (I usually taught two sections of 15 students, or less, per class) and nearly complete teacher autonomy.

Again, if student test scores are all that matter, that my students overwhelmingly scored 2s and 1s (throughout my years teaching AP, a score of 3 was considered “passing” because most colleges awarded college credit for 3s and above) suggested that my students, our program, and I were all failures.

The story, however, is something quite different. Over the years, we received countless messages from our students once they were in college: Our graduates eagerly and without prompting praised the opportunities they were given in high school, recognizing the tremendous base they carried into college because of their experiences in their AP courses.

Again, most of these students scored 2s on the AP exam. Not unusual was a former student contacting me to intervene with their freshman English college professor, who believed the student’s freshman essays were too good to be original.

To this day, my Facebook account is punctuated with the voices of former students echoing that somehow we had been successful in our classes. Let me emphasize that many of these students would have been excluded from AP if our school had used the gate-keeping mechanisms the College Board recommended.

Why were we successful, despite the evidence of the test scores?

• Access to a rich curriculum, student-centered classrooms, workshop environments, low student/teacher ratios.

• Teacher autonomy along with administrative, parent, and student support.

What are the real lessons?

• AP didn’t cause any of our success. [In fact, we took the framework of the AP template, but made it far more effective by meeting the needs of our students without regard for the simplistic outcomes associated with the test scores.]

• Test scores hide genuine academic success.

Ultimately, the College Board and Schneider are making the wrong arguments, in fact, a problem we are also facing with adoption of the CCSS (wrestling over if the standards are “rigorous” or how to implement them or what the tests should look like versus confronting the folly of standards- and test-based schooling).

Instead of reforming any specific program or policy, and instead of focusing on outcomes to judge if a program works or if a reform works, we must begin to seek and value an equitable access to rich educational experiences for all children, as Jones notes:

Interestingly, the very things that we’ve been arguing for decades that our schools desperately need, are the very things that the rich insist on in their schools: more resources, rich curriculum (not just reading and math), experienced teachers (not just grinding through newbies), and small class sizes!…

When it comes to meeting our students’ basic needs, they claim there’s no money. But when it comes to data gathering there’s a blank check. New York City is going to spend $32 million to pay Pearson to develop more tests over the next five years.

Teachers and schools, regardless of the quality of those teachers or the courses students are offered, will never alone overcome the inequity of children’s lives, particularly if we look at the numbers instead of the people involved and especially if we are not patient, expecting some instant evidence of success.

Most of the success I do recognize (along with the many mistakes weaved in among that eventual success) has come into view only many years later. And for  my students who trace something positive to  my classroom, I would caution that they should also look in the mirror and recognize the dozens of other related experiences that create the momentum that leads to success.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.”

This is one of many Thoreau quotes that grew yellow on my classroom walls. While I believed it was a powerful message for my students, often frozen as they were by their own society-imposed rush to be perfect immediately (or prove themselves the failures they feared they were), I am more convinced than ever that Thoreau is speaking to the world of education reform.

It is not ours to do everything, but the something is pretty clear, and that something must include a commitment to creating equitable opportunities for all children, and that equity must be wrapped in kindness and patience.

In time, these students will become adults who remember those opportunities as well as that kindness and patience but not their AP scores or their college GPA.

3 thoughts on “Looking at Wrong Outcomes, Missing the Lesson”

  1. Thank you, sir. I have argued many similar things about the AP classes I taught for many years– that the test scores students received on end-of-year-exams were not actually indicative of the learning that took place. My Facebook wall is likewise adorned with similar sentiments from former students. I appreciate your voice and support in the fight against reducing people to test scores.

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