Looking at the Fairness of Advanced Placement Exams

Abrams, Annie. Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students. Johns Hopkins UP, 2023.

Over the summer, I did "assessment" for the AP language & literature test. They had originally contacted me because I'm a Director of Undergraduate Studies for a university English department, and they paid $500 for the labor. Now, granted, this payment is partly for self-advertising purposes; now they can put a "UArizona" faculty member as an assessor on promotional materials. But they did solicit feedback on the quality and fairness of the questions, and overall I didn't think it was a bad exam. These AP tests are important, too. At the U of A, for example, a score of "4" or "5" allows an incoming freshmen to place out of English 101, so that's a significant savings in terms of tuition. It also improves retention and times to graduation.

But I know Advanced Placement also faces a lot of criticism, which is why I just read Annie Abrams's short book denouncing the whole shebang. Overall, she makes several points with which I thoroughly agree. Abrams's biggest critiques involve the canned, formulaic, and "mechanical" (a favorite word) nature of the written portion. For instance,
  • Abrams wants to teach students real college writing -- the rhetorical situation, the writing process, audience, writing to explore ideas -- but parents and students simply want to be taught the test. I.e., “Parents, students, and administrators were anxious about the tests, so we’d been drilling forty-minute, five-paragraph essays for months” (172).
  • Although "[e]vidence-based arguments reliant on close reading are not inherently bad, and the concept of disinterested academic critique certainly occupies an important place in American thought” (130) .... the real “problem is that the Common Core standards make a reader’s unique perspective unimportant” (131).
  • “Instead of helping students understand themselves as conversant with other readers and writers or pursuing cultivation of their own interiority, the current rubrics and exam structure encourage uniformity” (129).
All these things are true. However, sometimes Abrams's rhetoric runs away from her, as she frequently imputes evil "corporate" motives to the College Board, and by saying how the "College Board’s approach to education is antidemocratic” (16). A particular rough passage is the following:
 “More than ever, AP essays measure a basic ability to conform and regurgitate, not the cultivation of subjectivity nor a meaningful understanding of the writing process …. Instead of empowering both parties to exercise discretion, they are rewarded for compliance to an enormously wealthy centralized authority’s increasingly schematic expectations” (126).
But even beyond this anti-College Board rhetoric, her general argument is pretty one-sided. Like I said, I've read through and assessed the test. It's a pretty decent given the format limitations. Although Abrams criticizes AP exams for not fulfilling their creators' broad original vision of a liberal education accessible to all, the current exam utilizes a “no prior knowledge necessary” philosophy specifically meant to support marginalized communities and poorer school districts who don't have the resources to teach all their students Shakespeare. A lot of students simply don't get the college prep that wealthier school districts can provide . At MTSU, for instance, it was pretty well known that most students born in or near Memphis would usually struggle with college coursework. By emphasizing close reading skills rather than prior knowledge, the AP lang and lit exam seems to do pretty well.

Likewise, despite the truth of Abrams's criticism of AP exam writing, the real problem is the practical one of grading tens of thousands of short mini-essays. Evil corporation though the College Board may be, it's hard to imagine a viable alternative. For instance, here are the scoring criteria from the 2023 exam:
In your response you should do the following:

• Respond to the prompt with a thesis that presents a defensible interpretation.
• Select and use evidence to support your line of reasoning.
• Explain how the evidence supports your line of reasoning.
• Use appropriate grammar and punctuation in communicating your argument.
While those won't produce a marvelous college-level essay, if all my freshmen in ENGL 101 could do that kind of evidence-based argumentation as a matter of course, well, that's a start. Although these scoring criteria clearly are formulaic and mechanical, the exam's written portion does require a set of skills upon which college students can build. So .... yeah.


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