The College Board’s bad faith power grab

The Washington Post is running an op-ed by our friend Stanley Kurtz about the College Board’s effort to nationalize the high school curriculum and move it leftward. I understand that Stanley’s op-ed will appear in the Sunday paper edition. It is available online here.

We have described the outrageously left-wing slant of the College Board’s new AP U.S. History curriculum framework, a slant not cured in the revised framework. Stanley ties this development to the College Board’s effort, aided by the federal government, to jack up enrollment in AP courses.

The two developments — ideologically-based curriculum and large-scale enrollment — go hand-in-glove. The more students who take the ideologically-driven courses, the more indoctrination occurs.

Stanley shows that the percentage of public high school graduates who took at least one AP exam rose from 18.9 percent in 2003 to 33.2 percent in 2013. Even at the beginning of this period, around the time my daughters were in high school, too many students were taking AP courses in our public school system.

With over-subscription comes poor performance. Thus, Stanley reports:

A substantial body of scholarly literature now raises questions about the excesses of AP expansion. Yale University’s William Lichten, for example, describes whole schools in which not a single AP student passes an exam. He calls the AP surge in many places a “disaster.” The proportion of students earning the lowest AP score of 1 has doubled over the past 20 years. Of all AP exams taken during high school by the class of 2013 in the District, 51.9 percent received a failing grade of 1.

Summarizing the critics’ findings, Harvard University’s Philip Sadler challenges the College Board’s claim that students who fail AP exams still benefit from having taken the course. Such students would be better served by less rigorous courses designed to strengthen their foundations, Sadler says. Yet the surge goes on.

There is reason to believe that, in response to low scores, the College Board is attempting to dumb-down its AP U.S. History test by pressuring test-graders to give good scores that aren’t earned. As a reader who grades these exams told me:

[A] huge number of students take the exams without any reasonable chance of passing. I would say that 75% of students in past years should never have taken the US History exam. But that’s not good for business.

Over the past few years, [The College Board] has subtly pressured graders to increase student scores. This year the pressure is no longer subtle. Graders have been told to “give students the benefit of the doubt” and “set the bar very low.” (Those are actual quotes.)

But that’s not all. The whole structure of the exam’s scoring has been changed specifically, I believe, to increase scores. The old exam, for all its flaws. . .tested content and it was surprisingly rigorous by today’s standards of education. That’s why so few actually passed the exam.

So what they have done is largely eliminate content knowledge as a criteria for grading. For example, we are instructed to look for a thesis in student essay. An essay with a thesis gets a point and one without gets a zero (on a scale of 0-7). The problem is that is doesn’t matter what the thesis is, as long as there is a thesis.

Likewise with the use of documents. Students are given a set of documents and need to analyze the documents in an essay they write in 40 minutes. We are told to give the student 1 point if they use 4 of 6 documents and three points if they analyze most of the documents. Again, it doesn’t matter at all that the use is correct.

In short, being factually correct, understanding the context of the documents, etc., isn’t being graded (though some of us are violating that injunction). The exam has gone from a history exam to an exam that tests pedagogy, from “does this student know something about U.S. history?” to “does this student know how to take a test?”

The AP program began as a good faith effort to challenge talented students. It has become an effort to exercise national control over the education of average (and above) students in service of an ideological-political agenda.

As Stanley concludes, “in the absence of competition from a company advised by top traditional scholars, the College Board will have nationalized the curriculum — and pulled it sharply to the left.”