Not that long ago, if you wanted to play in the National Football League, particularly if you were a linemen, you pretty much had to take steroids.
It wasn’t always that way. Before some mad scientist envisioned anabolic-androgenic steroids as athletic performance enhancers, if you were big, strong, fast, talented and, most of all, worked hard, you didn’t have to cheat. If you weighed a solid 275 pounds and, without the aid of pharmaceutical supplements, could bench press 400 pounds, you had a shot to make it.
Then things changed. Starting in the 1970’s and reaching its peak (we think – we hope) in the 80’s and 90’s if you were honest and clean, you’d find yourself competing for a job against someone who was also big, strong, fast, talented and worked hard – but cheated. You, the legit 275 pounder with the 400 pound bench press, would have to contest the 325 pound steroid-enhanced monster with a 500 pound bench press.
So, despite the frightening side effects, despite your misgivings about them, even despite your ethics, if you wanted a job, you used steroids. If you didn’t, odds were, you’d come in second to someone who did.
Advanced Placement Courses (AP’s) aren’t illegal. Taking a bunch of them isn’t cheating. Yet the motive for loading up on AP courses is unnervingly like the motive to load up on steroids – to compete. A student may have little or no interest in taking many (or any) AP courses. He or she may prefer to take a non-AP elective, spend more time on an extra-curricular activity, do community service or work part-time. But as long as colleges focus on AP’s as the gold standard for high school performance, kids especially privileged kids – will not only focus on them, they’ll take as many of them as they can cram into their jam-packed schedules.
Which wouldn’t be all bad if AP’s were all good. Only they aren’t. Unquestionably, tests have their place in education, but the chilling fact that they dictate curriculum is the AP tests’ intolerable flaw. When teachers are dictated to, when they’re told exactly what to teach every student, when they’re evaluated on how well their students do on a test they didn’t create, well, AP courses are, at best, overrated and, at worst, a plague upon our schools.
They’re also an insult to teachers. Hey, I can write my own tests! I’m fully capable of designing a “rigorous” curriculum that fits my students’ diverse interests and individualized needs. I can evaluate my students with measures beyond traditional exams. I want my economics students to show me that they can empathize with the obstacles facing America’s disadvantaged and understand the hardships that citizens in developing countries face every day. I want them to be able to generate innovative ideas and start something new, profitable and beneficial. I want my government students to prove that they can ask and answer high-level questions, form intelligent opinions and convince others to join and contribute to their causes.
How do you measure these with a written exam? You don’t! You find other ways to test. Talented teachers and leaders do. Management expert Thomas Peters claims, “What gets measured gets done.” But he never says that traditional testing is the only method for measuring.
Besides being a source of revenue for the “non-profit” College Board (19 of its executives make $300,000+ annual salaries and its president pockets well over a million per year), AP courses were established to give bored, under-challenged high school students a taste of college. Ironically, AP courses are absolutely nothing like college courses. College professors don’t design their curriculum with the primary aim of having their students pass a standardized test written by someone they’ve never met and their students will never know. (That’s the business model of the ubiquitous and flourishing test-prep centers.)
Colleges courses are better than that. At least, they should be.
So should we.