Losing Placement


The controversy over AP African-American Studies, explained (vox.com)
NCAA eliminates ACT and SAT scores (The Bulletin)

Throughout my high school years, there was a lot of pressure put on us students at the abattoir to enroll in as many AP classes as we could. We were constantly told that not only would taking these classes be expected at the top-tier colleges that most of us were expected to apply to, but that high scores on the AP tests would allow us to skip a lot of introductory-level college courses altogether, potentially even shaving a term or two off of our undergraduate careers. While I didn’t qualify for every AP class I wanted to take (mostly due to teachers who were actively sabotaging me), I took my fair share, and I got to bypass a number of gen eds when I got to college, which felt like a good thing to me at the time.

When I was a graduate student, though, and I was learning about the dynamics of teaching in higher education, as I prepared for my own teaching career, I was surprised to hear one of my professors argue for the abolition of students being able to skip first-year writing courses, either through AP test scores or any other means. The professor even argued against placing students in either advanced or remedial English classes at the outset of their undergraduate careers; all incoming first-year students, regardless of ability, would be placed in the same first-semester composition course, if this professor had their way. Although my first instinct was to think of this as some kind of draconian cost-cutting measure, the professor explained that students who skipped a large number of gen eds were missing out on a lot of the important social functions of these classes in the first months of college life, and that having all students go through the same two-semester composition sequence, even if it bored students whose writing skills were clearly advanced enough to not require the material taught in the classes, would create a better overall experience for students who would otherwise get to bypass first-year English courses.

As I’ve taught English in higher education for the past eighteen years at a variety of institutions, this argument has popped up every now and then, and it always makes me pause whenever it comes up. When I was a teenager looking at the exorbitant costs of attending a top-notch university, the mere cost savings of getting to finish my bachelor’s degree half a year ahead of schedule was very compelling, especially since my father had made it clear to me that he wasn’t going to support me going to college. For that reason, I’ve always learned more towards allowing students to bypass gen eds through demonstrated ability in each course, especially after working for so long at two-year colleges where students were often barely able to afford even the lower tuition rates there. I’ve also been a strong advocate for the social dimension of college, though, and there is substantial merit to the idea of having all students take the same classes at the start of their college careers, regardless of demonstrated ability through tests or other placement methods.

Needless to say, the growing hyperfocus on standardized tests in American education over the past few decades has definitely influenced my views on the roles of these tests in education as a whole, both at the K-12 levels and in higher education. Although AP tests don’t get the same kind of attention as the SAT or ACT, or the batteries of state tests that have popped up and choked modern American education like so much kudzu, they’re obviously open to a lot of the same criticisms that those other tests get, and I’ve definitely welcomed the recent moves of many colleges and universities to stop requiring standardized test scores with student applications. Even if the tests weren’t problematic in and of themselves, the way they’ve been perverted by so many of the people damaging American education these days has me wishing that they’d simply go away.

With the recent capitulation of the College Board when it came to the formulation of the guidelines for their AP African-American Studies course, though, this raises a new question of how much colleges and universities should trust the College Board’s tests to be representative of the realities of the world that students, and the rest of us, inhabit. Decisions over curriculum are always political in nature to some degree, but for the College Board to surrender to the interests of a coterie of extreme conservatives in Florida smacks not just of cowardice, but of complicity. Much like the textbook manufacturers who let Texas twist their arms into publishing texts that indoctrinate students into radical right-wing ideology, that conservatives across the country can then slide into their local schools, the College Board is now assisting not just Republicans in Florida, but across the nation, in their efforts to force their ideology on children in every state.

If conservative state governors and legislators want to throw their weight around to try to reshape American education (and history, and so on), then there’s no reason why America’s colleges and universities can’t do the same, especially when the role of standardized tests in American higher education is already so problematic. If enough institutions simply announced that they would no longer accept AP test scores in their class placements due to the College Board’s right-wing political truckling, then most high school students would have absolutely no incentive to take AP tests, and if the College Board didn’t reverse course in allowing radical right-wingers to dictate the contents of their curricula, then they would quickly be starved into obsolescence. The inconveniences to current high school students would be substantial, to be sure, but the long-term consequences of allowing these political machinations to stand would be far more damaging. American higher education has an incredibly poor track record when it comes to standing up for itself in recent decades, but maybe this can be the incident that finally gets colleges and universities to fight for what is right when it comes to education in this country.

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