A while back, I happened to find myself discussing the AP® craze with a colleague who teaches AP classes, and at one point, she mentioned offhandedly that with the push toward data collection and continual assessment, schools are increasingly eliminating the type of cumulative final exams that used to be standard in favor of frequent small-scale quizzes and tests that can be easily plotted for administrators’ consumption.

I poked around and discovered that some schools have also eliminated cumulative mid-term or final exams because such assessments are insufficiently “authentic” (read: not fun) or because of concerns about stress, or because so much time is already devoted to state tests.

I wasn’t really aware of that shift when I was tutoring various SAT II and AP exams, but it explained some of what I encountered: students had been exposed to key concepts, but they hadn’t been given sufficient practice for those concepts to really sink in. They were learning only what they needed to know for a particular quiz or test and then promptly forgetting the material.

Then, because they were never required to retrieve concepts weeks, or even months, after their initial exposure – a key element of learning – in order to understand how they fit into the subject as a whole, they were never able to develop a coherent mental framework. Rather, they ended up with randomly assorted pieces of information and only a fragmentary understanding of how they fit together.

And because they lacked practice sifting through large amounts of information and figuring out what was really important, their studying was very inefficient: they spent huge amounts of time obsessing over the details while losing sight of the big picture.

If AP exams are viewed in this light, then one aspect of their appeal becomes clear: teachers can at least justify having students take a cumulative exam that includes material covered throughout the year.

Superficially, then, AP tests might seem like reasonable substitutes for final exams. Why of course bother to make students sit for what are effectively two finals?

That’s an entirely reasonable question, but there is actually a good answer: at least in the humanities (I can’t speak to math or the natural sciences), the problem is that AP exams are increasingly de-emphasizing actual knowledge and focusing more on “holistic” skills.

That might sound lovely in theory (what sort of Luddite would want students to memorize by rote all those dry, useless bits of knowledge that obviously have zero relevance to twenty-first century learning?), but the reality is that students can do quite well while obtaining only a fairly superficial understanding of a subject.

This is not an uncommon criticism of the AP program, but in my experience, it plays out in a slightly different way from how it is usually understood.

One former AP teacher quoted in The Atlantic summed up the standard critique nicely:

To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification – a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

While one could certainly make a substantive argument that a course like APUSH or (especially) AP World History covers too much material too quickly, and in insufficient depth, the situation in other AP classes is exactly the opposite.

Both AP English exams (Lit and Language), for example, have a list of “suggested” readings, but there is no core body of works that is mandated for all students. Zero, zip, zilch, nada.

From the AP Lang/Comp Course Description: “The College Board does not prescribe specific texts for an AP English Language and Composition course.”

And my personal favorite: “At the heart of an AP English Language and Composition course is the reading of various texts.” Because obviously, reading various texts is the hallmark of a college-level English course. Right.

It goes on like that for about 40 pages. As an exercise in vagueness and cant, it’s really quite a masterpiece.

There is also no set list of literary/rhetorical terms that students are required to learn, nor is there any prescribed set of authors, time periods, or movements to know. As far as I can tell, the AP Lit test does still include some questions about meter and rhetorical devices, but otherwise, actual subject-specific knowledge is largely beside the point. (Facts bad, skills good.)

In fact, the multiple-choice portion of the AP Lang/Comp exam is essentially no more than a reading comprehension test – more specifically, the Critical Reading portion of the old SAT. (Interestingly, it is not uncommon for people who were all too happy to bash the old SAT go positively starry-eyed where AP is involved.) A strong reader can easily ace it without having spent a second in a so-called “AP English” class. In reality, then, the AP designation is all but meaningless — a student’s experience in the class is almost entirely dependent on his or her teacher and peers.

There’s a good reason that some top suburban districts and private schools don’t offer formal AP English classes but still post stellar scores on the exams year after year, whereas some lower-ranked district boast about the number of students enrolled in AP classes but end up with significant percentages of students in the failing range.

For a long time, I didn’t understand why my high school didn’t offer a formal AP English class, when most students took at least one of the English exams. Now, however, I realize that because there was no test-specific content or curriculum to speak of, and because the vast majority of students got 5s anyway, offering a formal AP class would have served no other purpose than to curtail teachers’ autonomy.

Next point: until a few years ago, most foreign-language AP exams required students to complete a series of grammar fill-ins testing verb tenses, prepositions, and idiomatic usage. They weren’t what anyone would have called exciting, but they really did test for mastery. Looking at them now, I’m actually a little shocked at just how hard they are. Any student who could do well on them had a strong foundation in that language and was genuinely prepared to work at around a fifth-semester level, if not higher, in college.

But fill-ins have now been eliminated entirely, replaced by more “holistic,” “higher-order” assignments. If you look at the AP French course description, for example, you’ll see that the exam covers seven areas, including “Beauty and Aesthetics,” “Global Challenges,” “Personal and Public Identities.”

To be sure, it all looks very sophisticated. But in reality, “Beauty and Aesthetics” could be covered by asking students to, for example, write an email to members of their book club proposing a selection for their next meeting. This is not exactly Proust we’re talking about here!

Essentially, the entire exam is based on the premise that giving students “authentic” work will somehow result in their magically mastering things like sequence of tenses and the subjunctive. Because what sort of misguided person would want to teach (or learn) those, when everyone knows that it’s the skills that really count?

By the way, I mention those two aspects of French because every student I ever tutored had gaping holes in them. There is literally no way to learn them other than to memorize them — they’re like formulas, basically — and then to practice them over and over again until they become automatic. But with maybe one exception, I never encountered a kid willing to put in the work.

I don’t want to suggest the current iteration of the AP exam is easy — for most students, it’s far from it — but when it comes to knowing the nuances of the language, it leaves a whole lot more wiggle room than the old one did.

Scoring is also extremely generous: I’ve heard from AP teachers that students they were convinced would fail ended up getting 3s.

As a result, students have no reason to actually master the details — and probably no time, given that a lot of them are probably taking multiple other AP classes. Moreover, their teachers, whose own evaluations may be based on AP pass rates, are often just doing what they need to do to get students to squeak out score above 2. A lot of the time, mastery doesn’t really have a place in the picture.

So if the only end-of-the year exam students are taking is the one written by the College Board, they don’t necessarily need to go back and review the nitty-gritty of the subject. If teachers want to ensure that students have truly mastered specific concepts, then they basically have no choice but to test that material themselves. But if teachers aren’t permitted — or are just too worn down, or feel too sorry for their students — to do so, then the result is often that students don’t really learn the material, even if they get high grades and scores.

As one teacher (with a near perfect pass rate, in a public school with 30+ students per class) told me, her AP “syllabus” basically consists of throwing different things against the wall and hoping they stick. Given the structure of the exam and the number of topics that could be covered, there’s really no other way she can teach.

That can be the problem with “holistic” assessments: if specific knowledge isn’t tested, then it becomes exceedingly difficult to know how or what to study — or, for teachers, how to structure a class. Yes, obviously students do need to be able to translate material to the real world (I say this as someone who has studied multiple languages to a high level and lived abroad, so trust me, I’m not knocking the importance of practical application), but sometimes they need things broken down in a coherent way first. If everything gets mushed together from the start, the result can easily be information overload.

In addition, a serious and rarely discussed side effect of this approach is that students also don’t learn how to learn systematically. In fact the entire concept of learning step-by-step from the ground up becomes foreign to them. As one of my students so memorably put it, “Everything’s just stuff.”

In a previous blog post, I wrote about how curricular chaos produces what look like learning disabilities; at that point, and in fact until recently, I assumed that that kind of incoherence was a deliberate, ideologically-driven choice (namely, the highly questionable notion that structured forms of education are inappropriate for a democratic society). I still think it is, in part.

But it also occurred me that pedagogical coherence may not really exist for some teachers, particularly younger ones, in any meaningful way. Having never learned things systematically themselves, they don’t really have a concept of what it means to teach a subject that way, or what advantages might be found in doing so.

The result is a muddle of good intentions mixed with half-baked ideas about fostering creativity, active learning, and data collection that produces AP students who write sentences like this (real) gem: Completely disregarding the opinion of the people differs from the views of the officials, such as the Thought Police capture people for, is not only abusing the responsibility of the government but create a society that cannot survive and thrive. 

This is a particularly egregious example, but most of the paper is written in the same vein. Oh, and did I mention that the student who wrote it had an A- in English at a supposedly tippy-tippy-top suburban school?

This state of affairs in turn drives the private tutoring industry, with coherence and access to direct, (traditional) expert instruction effectively being transmuted into luxury goods. It’s not that graduates of elite colleges are spurning teaching careers; they’re just going into private practice and charging $250/hr.

Quick anecdote: recently, a college acquaintance who works at a major NYC museum told the story of a co-worker who was assigned to come up with a lesson for audiences at a new exhibit. The co-worker proposed a program that presumed a high level of prior knowledge, which general audiences were exceedingly unlikely to have; it literally did not occur to her that audiences needed to be given a foundation in order to understand what was going on. Once my former classmate explained why it was important for visitors to be told the basics, the colleague grasped the idea — but as someone who still took the importance of foundational knowledge as common sense, my ex-classmate was pretty wigged out by the experience. Unfortunately, this sort of thing no longer really surprises me.

To shift gears again: this is in part why SAT IIs have become so problematic: they still test key pieces of subject knowledge in a very pointed way, and they don’t leave room for things to be fudged. A student with an A+ average and a 4 on an AP exam could easily max out in the low 600s. I witnessed that happen several times, and in every case, the SAT II scores were the more accurate indicator of the student’s actual level.

But if colleges don’t require SAT II scores, then admissions officers can conveniently sidestep the extent to which both grades and AP scores are inflated. To reiterate: the point is to help desirable applicants hide their weaknesses, not to obtain an honest assessment of what they actually know.

Furthermore, the AP score ranges are so broad that students with significantly different levels of knowledge can obtain the same score. On the APUSH exam, for instance, a student scoring 128/130 and a student scoring 101/130 would both receive a top score 5 — even though the latter is only equivalent to C+. That doesn’t usually happen when teachers administer their own finals, even with extra credit.

To be honest, though, I’m wondering whether the College Board will find new ways to exploit anti-testing sentiment. It’s already introduced AP Capstone and AP Seminar, and I actually wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the next few years it begins to introduce more portfolio-based alternatives to specific AP exams. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out.

But even now, I think it’s fair to say that colleges are justified in their skepticism of awarding credits for AP tests.