After taking her first unit test in an Advanced Placement class at the beginning of junior year, Alyse Tran ’18 said she felt:
b) A decline in motivation
d) All of the above
The correct answer is D. The test was an old AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam issued by the College Board that she had been given as a unit test. Tran said that, because it was a standardized test that had been issued to hundreds of thousands of students nationally, she felt that the exam tested her ability to perform under pressure as opposed to her skill in the Spanish language.
“After I took the test, I felt like I knew I hadn’t gotten a good grade, and I was frustrated because I thought that how much I’d studied and how much I was capable of was not reflected in how I performed during that test,” Tran said. “I also realized that, for the future, I completely decided that I wouldn’t waste time trying to study for these tests.”
Because Harvard-Westlake does not have policies regulating how much of AP course curricula should be geared towards preparing students for AP tests, departments are allowed to structure their courses however they see fit. Some departments devote the majority of class and homework time to preparing for the AP exam while others don’t. According to the May Chronicle poll of 369 students, 87 percent have noticed that some classes are tailored towards AP preparation more than others.
“I think AP Spanish was the most blatantly obvious class geared towards prep for the AP because all of the tests for AP Spanish are formatted exactly like the AP test, whereas, [in] other classes, they definitely are geared towards prepping for the AP because all the material you learn is strictly what’s on the AP, but as far as test formats go, it’s kind of more just a normal unit test and not the same as an AP,” Brook Kawana ’18 said.
World Languages Teacher Joaquin Fernandez-Castro said that the World Languages department uses the national standards set by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and the College Board to structure its curricula.
Students’ AP test scores have demonstrated that AP World Languages’ efforts to devote class time almost exclusively to preparing for the AP test have been effective, with 48 of 94 and 17 of 34 students scoring a 5 on the AP Spanish and AP French exam respectively in 2016. Some students, however, believe that focusing the curriculum on AP tests detracts from their overall learning experiences.
“I felt like I wasn’t learning new vocabulary and expanding in every way that I wanted to,” AP Spanish student Melanie Hirsch ’18 said.
Of 369 students, 143 said that focusing the curriculum on the AP test detracts from their learning.
However, Fernandez-Castro said that the AP language exams are more comprehensive than non-language AP exams because they include both multiple choice and free response questions, including speaking and writing. This allows students with different skills to demonstrate their fluency in their respective areas of strength.
Similarly, history teacher Nini Halkett believes that testing in the form of multiple choice can adequately evaluate a student’s comprehension of a subject.
“I suppose the argument could be made that multiple choice questions may favor a certain way of thinking, but I’m not sure that means they will have a negative effect on a student’s learning,” she said. “I have worked with many students over the years to improve both their multiple choice scores and their essay writing, and I think developing those skills is part of the learning process.”
Nonetheless, some students affirm that standardized testing is not the most effective measure of a student’s proficiency in a given subject. Hirsch, who has studied in a Spanish immersion program in Costa Rica and frequently speaks Spanish with her nanny at home, said that Spanish tests have inadequately evaluated her skill level.
“Personally, I’m not a great standardized test-taker, and I know that’s true of a lot of kids in general,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like my Spanish level isn’t reflected by my standardized test scores.”
Standardized testing has come under scrutiny following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 that advocated a focus on improving standardized test scores nationally. However, many have criticized standardized testing as an inaccurate and destructive way to evaluate students’ intelligence.
Sir Ken Robinson, an international adviser on education who delivered the Ted Talk ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?,’ argues that the culture of standardized testing in our country has led to “a disastrous waste of talent among students and their teachers.”
“It happens in part because the dominant systems of education are rooted in the values and demands of industrialism: they are linear, mechanistic and focused on conformity and standardization,” Robinson said in the Ted Talk.
According to patch.com, the National Council of Teachers released a report that said that standardized tests advocate a “formulaic” writing style in essay responses. Additionally, many standardized tests are known to award higher scores to longer responses.
For these reasons, some departments, like the English department, choose to spend less time focusing on preparation for the AP English Literature and AP English Language exams. Instead, teachers spend more time “examin[ing] poems, stories, plays and novels in order to explore, through characters rendered in a variety of moral or psychological dilemmas, what it might mean to lead a human life,” Upper School English Department Head Larry Weber said.
“We don’t assess our students using College Board material, nor do we organize our curriculum so as to address systematically the tasks of either AP English exam,” Weber said.
He said that although the course is not designed to fit the test, the fundamental concepts of the AP tests, including passage analysis and presenting clear, persuasive arguments, are already built into the curriculum of the AP English courses. In addition, teachers provide students with practice questions and prepare students for the essay tasks they will encounter in the AP exam.
AP Literature student Adam Rich ’17 said that although he felt that many elements of the AP exam were unfamiliar, he would have been bored by a literature curriculum that sacrificed discussion time for multiple choice practice.
“I liked the English curriculum a lot this year,” Rich said. “I liked the teacher and the books that she chose were pretty interesting for the most part. A lot of the classes where you know they’re teaching towards test get pretty boring because you know you’re not going to remember it, but just teaching more interesting stuff leaves a more lasting impact.”
Similarly, the math department does not devote its curriculum toward “teaching the test.” However, teachers prepare students by providing practice AP tests later in the year.
“Our department philosophy is that if we teach a rigorous and substantial course, then our students will be prepared for the AP exam,” Upper School Mathematics Department Head Suzanne Lee said. “Our students are smart high achievers, so they are capable when it comes to being successful at taking standardized test. Our goal is to help our students gain a strong foundation so that they can apply their knowledge to any type of question, whether it is multiple choice or short answer.”
Unlike some departments, in which the curriculum of AP classes is standardized among teachers, the history department allows each teacher to decide how much his or her class is geared toward preparing for AP exams. All AP United States History teachers incorporate AP preparation into their curriculum. However, some teachers model their unit tests along the lines of the AP exam more than others.
While she said that her AP United States History course was more heavily tailored to the AP Exam than her AP Biology Course, Ari Shooshani ’18 said that she did not have a problem with the difference in the structure of the courses, as some AP exams require more in-class preparation than others.
“Although practice could have been beneficial for biology, I think that practice for APUSH was absolutely necessary,” she said. “It’s also part of the course. Part of history is writing essays. I think in some subjects it is more important to have AP prep in the class, but also I wouldn’t say we were learning these skills in class just for the AP.”
However, Halkett said that spending class time on AP exam preparation can inhibit teachers from being able to spend time teaching content that they want to emphasize.
“It definitely can be limiting in terms of the content teachers want to focus on,” she said. “If we didn’t have to cover so much content in APUSH, for example, we could slow down, maybe have students read historical novels or more current events.”
Among the science department, each science class has its own policies as to how much class curriculum is designed in line with College Board standards. While AP Physics utilizes a gradual integration of AP problems into homework problems and unit tests throughout the year, AP Biology’s curriculum is not designed to teach to the test, and unit tests are designed by teachers because of discrepancies in the goals of the AP Biology curriculum and College Board’s AP Biology Exam.
“I personally, as one of multiple AP Biology teachers, am not particularly happy with the design of the AP test because our students learn a lot more biology than the test asks students to know and understand, and I find that frustrating,” Upper School Science Department Head Larry Axelrod said.
He said that the AP exam is known to be more logic and reading comprehension-based, without asking much specific knowledge about biology.
As of now, school policy mandates that all students enrolled in an AP class take the AP exam corresponding to the class in order for their grade in that class to be weighted on a 5.0 scale. However, with the shift to a purely 4.0 scale that the administration plans on implementing with the current seventh grade class, students are unsure what the policies will be regarding the requirement of AP exams in the future. Some teachers advocate that it may be beneficial to eliminate the requirement for students to take the AP exam in May.
“I’ve thought a lot about whether having students take the AP test is actually worthwhile, so I’m not a big fan of the AP test at this point, and I would be fine if students didn’t take that,” Axelrod said. “Perhaps, in lieu of taking it, the course should just continue throughout the remainder of the year without having to focus on the test as the endpoint.”