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Inside Nonfiction Matters

How Can Those NAEP Numbers Be True In the Age of AP? One Possible Answer

Last night I was talking about those NAEP test results with a friend who is adept at math. He pointed out that those astonishingly bad “advanced” results didn’t make sense even in terms of probability — just by pure bell curve distribution you shouldn’t end up with just 1% of 8th graders, say, scoring in the advanced range. That is not just bad, it is beyond statistical logic bad. But add that together with the fact that more and more schools are filled with AP classes — the last two years have been the most competitive college admission years ever, such that kids with grade point averages over 4 are still winding up at their safety schools — which of course means that they have been on a steady diet of supposedly college level US History classes since 10th grade. How could it be that those students still do so poorly on the NAEP Civics test?

Dr. Jason O’Brien prepares future high school social studies teachers in the education school at the University of Alabama — we presented at NCSS together last year and will again this year. I asked him about the gap between the AP flood and the students’ ignorance. Here is what he said: “To answer your question about AP courses….Have you seen the actual implementation of an AP history course in high school? I have…

Teacher: “Okay, today we have to get through chapters 23-26, there’s too much for us to do here, so I’ll give you questions that we’ve encountered on previous AP exams and you can read the remaining content at home.” I’ve see that in two different classrooms in TWO DIFFERENT states…not sure how to solve it, but I know that it’s a common problem…Block scheduling was supposed to ameliorate some of it, but it doesn’t seem to be.”

Folks — tell me he is wrong. Are we really claiming that we are giving students college level thinking but in fact are just cramming one more version of test prep down their throats? That is criminal. It is false advertising. It is a total disservice to young people. College is about thinking and questioning. An AP class should be an introduction to that open-ended, investigation-oriented approach to the past — not yet another funnel of facts and dates.

What have you seen in AP classes? Or do we need to let IB take over all our schools — at least in IB schools they need to compare, contrast, write essays, open their minds.


  1. My high school son takes several AP classes and I would say I’ve seen what Dr. O’Brien is referring to–this need to “get through” a ton of material and prepare for tests. But I’ve also seen evidence of debates, discussions, writing analyses, and critical thinking. I do get the feeling that these dedicated teachers are tap-dancing as fast as they can in order to really engage the students, teach at that higher levels, and still keep an eye on test results. I’m kind of in awe of them, really. I’m in Atlanta, by the way…

  2. Teresa Garrett says:

    Both of my daughters took AP classes. In a couple the above scenario played out. Since I am an educator and they are well read they did as well as could be expected. In a couple of classes the teachers did the best they could to provide actual AP curriculum but were limited by time constraints both girls loved those classes because they were active participants in their learning. Again they did well. One AP class was taught by distance learning with no on site support for the students and it was a nightmare beyond belief to the point my daughter dropped the class at semester. I think there is a wide spectrum of implementation and if a student is motivated and has the necessary prerequisite background knowledge they can learn in nearly all of them. I decline to mention where my daughters went to school other than to say it was in the south.

  3. You are probably also aware that AP classes are in some towns de facto racially segregated classes. I know one town in NJ where Honors classes have open enrollment to avoid racism. As a result, overbearing parents push their children into Honors classes.
    The AP classes effectively become Honors Classes. There are students who have private tutors three days each week to help them keep up to speed in the Honors classes. Those whose parents cannot pay for this service do their best, excel, tread water or fall behind.
    The AP classes are sometimes wonderful and sometimes as you describe. I know one AP teacher who assigned summer work in order to maintain the agenda and to weed out people who really did not want to be in the AP class. This is the ugly truth in one specific town.

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    I went to a very prestigious college prep school, so I’m sure my experience was atypical, but I can tell you that there was no “teaching to the (AP) test” there in 1999 when I graduated. We had to know American History backwards and forwards (same with Calculus, Chemistry, and Statistics, for that matter), to the point that I never took a history course in college, but still retain an enormous amount of knowledge of US History. So, there are SOME schools out there doing it right. Can’t say how many though.

  5. Marc Aronson says:


    Thanks for the story — I am sure there a wide range of courses and experiences, but it is useful to know what the edges of the spectrum can be.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    I like your tap-dancing image. But what is it with the misaligned standards and goals of our educational system that forces teachers into that bind? Teaching the best students in college prep should be mind expansion, not tap dancing.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    Interesting — I wish someone would do a real study of AP classes — survey, interview, observation — really help us to see what is going on all around the nation — and, more to the point, why.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    sounds terrific — and like what AP should be. Though I would think the ideal AP class would inspire a hunger to know more, to go further, in college.