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Factoid Follies 

by Robert Herold


We call them "Advanced Placement Examinations," and our more aspiring high school students will be taking this year's menu of tests over the next few days. AP exams are designed to measure knowledge and so-called "critical thinking" skills. Those students who manage to gain the magic "3" score or above may qualify for college credit. All students who successfully completed their AP courses, regardless of test grade, will own a high school transcript with AP credit.


The question remains: Do students who take AP courses gain significantly more insight into the subject matter than those who don't? Based on more than 35 years of experience spent introducing college freshman to American government and politics, I have serious doubts.


The AP program reflects an emerging popular belief (more of a myth, really) that has been fully incorporated into President Bush's much-criticized "No Child Left Behind" Act. Specifically, that myth tells us testing can accurately measures intellectual development (and/or competencies). At the most basic level, I suppose it does -- basic reading skills, arithmetic and foreign language. Students in high school English classes can be tested on Romeo and Juliet. (Although the so-called "speed writing" required on AP tests sends students, in my opinion, the wrong message -- I'd rather see the AP give credit for the number of wadded-up paper balls the student has thrown at a wall in frustration.)


But history? Government? Here we face a breadth and depth and, yes, imprecision of subject matter that defies such reduction. The AP folks disagree and have produced texts and tests that, they claim, make their point. But if you examine both the books and the tests, the problem becomes clear: In order to design a test that can be advertised as a "comprehensive examination," the AP people had to reduce all history and government to "factoids." Events, dates and places are therefore disembodied, while the notion of context is left for a few "critical thinking" exercises. The result is a test that measures neither fact nor context very well. What's worse, in order to prepare our highly motivated kids for these irrelevant tests, teachers and school districts must design entire courses around preparing for the test.


Our more imaginative high school social studies teachers, who, if left to their own preferences might put together terrific honors sequences -- and I believe that honors courses are the answer -- find themselves trapped. They face a situation that makes it impossible to play to their own particular academic strengths. Not surprisingly, the result is canned coursework that leads to low morale. The AP preparation process calls more for the talents of a drill sergeant than those we usually associate with inspired and inspiring teachers.


Ideally, teachers should see students light up when they engage the study of history and government. What the AP courses accomplish is just the opposite.


Each fall, college instructors across America are left to face a legion of freshman who either have been turned off by the entire process or, worse yet, entertain the thought that all those factoids they have mastered are of some importance. The problem exists across the college and university spectrum, from the so-called "least selective" schools to the "most selective" ones. Some years back, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith acknowledged that he took time off to make a BBC TV series because he had become so weary of trying to teach poorly prepared and largely uninterested Harvard freshman.


James Loewin, a University of Vermont sociologist, sums up the problem with explicit reference to history: "College teachers in most disciplines are happy when their students have had significant exposure to the subject before college. Not teachers of history courses. A colleague of mine calls his survey of American history 'Iconoclasm I and II,' because he sees his job as disabusing his charges of what they learned in high school. Indeed, history is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become."


Loewin does point out that some very energetic high school teachers break out of the limitations by "abandoning the overstuffed text books and reinventing their American history courses." Most, he laments, "grow disheartened and settle for less." Paradoxically, "settling for less" may actually produce more success, at least as measured by administrators and parents who believe that the sum and substance of education can be revealed in tests, the AP in particular.


I blame E. D. Hirsch Jr., who wrote the truly ridiculous book What Literate Americans Know, which seems to be a kind of how-to book for these AP test creators. Hirsch concludes this piece of best-selling nonsense with a 63-page appendix in which he provides his definitive list entitled "What every American needs to know." We observe with raised eyebrows that he includes on this list Henry Aaron but not Ted Williams, Johannes Brahms but not Gustav Mahler, the Grand Canyon but not Grand Coulee Dam, Billy Graham but not Reinhold Neibuhr.


Or consider his list of critically important dates. One omission, out of a dozen or so glaring ones, sticks out, and since Hirsch taught at the South's flagship public university, the University of Virginia, I can't help but mention it. Civil War historian Shelby Foote tells us that for 18-year-old Southern boys, time remains stuck at 3 o'clock on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. How could a former UVA professor leave out the moment that generals Pickett and Pettigrew led their infantry from the woods, onto the field of battle and into history? And Hirsch wants us to take him seriously?


But I'm not suggesting additions to the list; no, I think such lists are dangerous to true education. All of the items on these lists, including my additions, add up to little more than a basket of verbal trivialities that brings me back to all my problems with the AP tests.


Having said all this, I nevertheless wish the best of luck to all our many test-takers.





Publication date: 05/06/04
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