AP Testing and Public Education


Now that I’m back in Philly, I’ve spent a part of this morning luxuriously catching up on my RSS feed over a cup of Stump Town coffee (thanks Kristen and Chad!). I see Stanley Fish has a second column up about DH (neither aggravating nor extraordinarily illuminating), and there was some kind of primary in New Hampshire.

But what caught my eye was a Chronicle op-ed by Michael Mendillo, astronomy prof. at BU, on why we should kill the AP testing program:

Offering credit beyond the accomplishment itself (simply because it was not easy to do) is a terrible lesson to give to students. I believe this notion of value-added has led to another version of getting more bang for the buck: the fantastic pressure put on students to get more than “just a bachelor’s degree” for their four years of tuition. Double-majors, multiple minors, and combined bachelor’s/master’s degree programs are becoming so mandatory for the best students that enrichment courses are simply not an option. Is that really the optimal way to achieve an educated citizenry?

Short answer: yes. After all, why should we offer separate degrees? Shouldn’t the quality of the effort be what matters? You could extend this line of thinking to get rid of the distinction between the B.A. & B.S., combine “magna” “suma” and plain-old “cum” laude honors, fold the M.D. into the D.O. — you can see where I’m going. The Ph.D. I was conferred for all that additional work beyond the M.A. didn’t feel like a terrible lesson.

But more generally, I don’t think that Mendillo appreciates the value of AP testing for those of us who attended public colleges, particularly really big public colleges, like UT-Austin. At UT, the first 1-2 years of coursework in the major degree areas, particularly the sciences, consist of 300-student lecture halls that provide very little contact with the professor. I should know; it took months to convince Brent Iverson, whose orgo 101 class I took, to let me work in his lab. I was in that class because I’d placed out of my first year of chemistry. Same with the extraordinary seminar I took on humor and carnival in Renaissance drama.

I received more than a year of credit through AP exams and laid the foundation for doing a science as well as liberal arts degree. For Mendillo, this probably emphasizes the absurdity of AP testing in general. But it allowed me to opt out of introductory courses and fill out my degrees with courses that I took simply for the aleatory pleasure of spending time in a new department. A senior seminar on gender and power in pre-modern Asia in the history department. An introduction to early-modern Spanish American literature, in which I read Catalina de Erauso’s purported autobiography, Historia de la monja alférez (roughly: Story of the Warrior Nun). A senior seminar on “Gypsy” language and culture, in which I learned (though have since forgotten) rudimentary Vlach Romani. These aleatory experiences were made possible because of the freedom AP testing afforded me. At many private universities, which are more restrictive about accepting AP credit, I wouldn’t have had that flexibility. But it made my college experience distinctive and memorable, and filled a reservoir of experiences that shaped my intellectual formation in lasting ways.

What Mendillo does not appreciate, perhaps because of the specialization of his scientific field, is that AP is neither a feather in the cap nor a way to get a jump on a specific degree plan. At the broadest level, AP testing supports the possibility of thoroughly trans-disciplinary courses of study, allowing students to move beyond the strict rubric of their degree plan, and to follow their nose without losing their way. Isn’t that the point of the liberal arts degree?