Teaching to a Test


In her book Now You See It, Cathy Davidson argues that traditional measures of academic achievement are outdated and harmful.  She says, “Part of our failure rate in contemporary education can be blamed on the one-size-fits-all model of standards”(77).  An example of a course that uses a one-size-fits-all model of standards is the Advanced Placement United States History Course.  This class, is one of many “AP” classes, which gives a uniform test to students all over the country after they took part in a standardized AP curriculum.  The AP Unite States History course would be a double offense in Davidson’s eyes, because not only does it use outdated, multiple choice, standardized testing methods, but it also aims at providing students with a standardized curriculum.

“Death Comes In Paperback” by Aly Norris. (By Antmony Funk!), Creative Commons 2.0.  Retrived from http://www.flickr.com/photos/subliminalpudding/8573292/

Pictured above is a typical review book the AP US history course.  Although there is not one text book produced by the test makers, the information on the test always covers the same material from year to year, and therefore, all of the review books contain the same content.  In this way, students from all over the country learn the same information, and are all taught the same perspective so they can do well on the test.  When I took the class in high school, my teacher taught straight from a review book, because he knew it contained all of the information that we would be tested on.  He knew this because he attended “AP camp”, as he called it, where the test makers would tell the teachers exactly what would be on the test.  Below is a picture I took of my sister’s AP score results.

Pigott, Christiana. “AP Scores” photo, 2012.

When teacher’s focus on student’s getting good scores on the test, they only focus on teaching the facts that are important to the test makers.  This is especially harmful and impractical in a US history class because history, is shaped by endless points of view, and should never be viewed as having one “right” perspective.  For example, the British account of the Revolutionary War is much different than an American perspective.  If one truly knows the complex nuances of a historical subject, they know that no side is completely good or bad, and that there are many interpretations of historical events, and arguments over what really happened.  A multiple choice format forces students to choose one “right” answer, and confuses students who know that none of the answers are completely correct.  For this reason, the test is an inaccurate measure of which students truly know more about United States history.  Davidson points this out when she explains that students do poorly on tests because “they can’t be categorized by our present system,” “a system that isn’t working”(10).  Davidson had personally proved that standardized tests in the traditional education system did not work when she took the ACT’s, a multiple choice intelligence test, in high school.  She had written essays on the back of the test explaining which questions could not be answered with the choices provided.  Although she had a low test score, the ACT grader wrote to her principal saying that “the ACT committee had gone over all of (her) comments–there were fifteen or maybe twenty of them—and they wanted (her) to know that (she’d) been right in every case”(10).  Because of this multiple choice format, the standardized AP US history exam is an outdated and inaccurate measure of knowledge of the complexities and multiple perspectives that exist in US history.

In addition to inadequately teaching and inaccurately measuring the knowledge of students on the topic US history specifically, the AP class is also missing out on an opportunity to prepare students for the digital age.  In today’s world, the internet provides each person with endless sources of information on any given topic.  Some of these sources are valid, while other sources are not.  It is necessary for students to learn to identify which sources are most accurate and relevant to the topic they are researching.  An AP US history class would be the perfect opportunity to integrate multiple sources of information, so students could learn to identify credible and relevant information, an important skill in today’s digital world.  As Davidson states, “To be prepared for jobs that have a real future in the digital economy, one needs an emphasis on creative thinking, at all levels”(77).  To simply present students with the facts they need to know for a test eliminates creativity, and the possibility for students to find and use sources to put together a diverse, sophisticated, perspective on the subject.  A key disadvantage of this goes to Davidson’s point about attention blindness.  In attempting to teach everyone the same information, and by result the same perspective, the AP courses are taking away the possibility for students to have different “blind spots”.  Blind spots are created when individuals focus on or pay attention to something.  Davidson uses the example of an experiment that she took part in.  Everyone in the room was told to count the number of basketballs that were being thrown back and forth.  At the same time, a gorilla walked around the tossing of the basketballs.  Because most of the people in the group were focused on counting, almost no one saw the gorilla.  Similarly, if students are taught to focus on the same information, no one will see the “gorilla”, or other perspectives in US history.  Davidson acknowledges that blind spots are inevitable, but that we can utilize them if we work together with people who have different blind spots and different areas of focus.   This is especially important in the digital world as the economy is become more globally connected and diverse.  It is essential to understand different point of view, not be too narrowly focused, and formulate international relations based on understanding.

“Boost SME’s in the Digital Economy (SEMINAR)” by Alberto Novie. (By ALDEADLE), Creative Commons 2.0.  Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/aldeadle/7345559654/

For this reason, it is important in US history that students have access to an integrated education that takes advantage to the multiple points of view that are available through the internet.  An excellent way for students to do this is by conducting their own research on a historical topic or debate, and then presenting, discussing, and debating their information and opinions with one another.  Not only would students avoid blind spots by sharing points of view, they would also learn to draw on sources of the web to gain information, and persuasive interpersonal skills, two skills which Davidson cites as crucial in the digitally based economy.

In the AP US history curriculum, there are many missed opportunities to give students the skills useful to them in the digital age.  Multiple choice testing and a standardized curriculum, overlook the complexities of history, and creates blind spots, which easily could be avoided if the education system took advantage of the diversity of sources and opportunities created by the internet.

poster credits: “New Arrivals October 2012: 5 Steps to a 5 AP US History 2012-2013 and Princeton Review AP US History 2013” by The Unquiet Library. (By theunquietlibrary), Creative Commons 2.0.  Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/theunquietlibrary/8090723282


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