Koenig: AP is No Substitute
By Aaron Koenig, Guest Columnist
Published on Friday, January 11, 2013
I was a very satisfied student right after I matriculated at Dartmouth. Entering Orientation, I didn’t have many placement tests left to take. After all, I had three full terms’ worth of Advanced Placement credits in my coffers, without even having poked my toe into the stacks at Baker-Berry Library. I could jump right in and start knocking off major requirements freshman year. Triple major or graduate early!
I came from a high school in which every student participated in the AP program, each of whom would pass virtually all of the AP exams they took. These statistics were a credit both to the high quality of instruction in AP classes at my high school and the dedication of the students taking the exams. I learned an immeasurable amount in my AP classes, a resource that I draw on every day in college. But like many of my peers, I started registering for tests that either weren’t offered in my school or that I didn’t have time to schedule. Armed with preparation books, I prepared myself for two-a-day, hours-long testing marathons during the dreaded “AP week” in May. I even had to make use of alternate time slots for conflicting test administrations. Registration after registration flowed through my counselor’s office.
I felt like I was ready for anything that college had to offer. I even criticized the biology department for not granting AP credit in my favorite subject. I decided to cash in on all allowable AP credits and placements. Terms went by, and suddenly I came face-to-face with lab-based science classes and problem sets. I didn’t study effectively and I was falling behind in labs. I was walking into quicksand of my own making. Maybe cramming self-studied chemistry before the AP only to head off to prepare anew for the next barrage immediately afterwards wasn’t such a good idea. The material did not get easier and professors were beginning to have to assume prerequisite knowledge from students in order to proceed efficiently in lectures. Labs for science classes required the ability to multitask and recognize when assistance is needed to avoid bottlenecks at equipment and repeating key steps. I was rusty while it seemed like everyone else was steaming ahead.
I am not saying that people who self-study AP tests for college placement or credit do not possess the knowledge that they need to succeed in relevant college courses. Nor am I discrediting the value of the AP curriculum in high schools. However, particularly for science AP tests, I question the value of the test as a measure of college preparedness. The College Board website notes exuberantly “you may be very surprised to see that your composite score can be approximately two-thirds of the total possible score and you could still earn a score of 5” before assuring the reader that he or she can rest easy in the knowledge “that your AP score is an accurate assessment of your proficiency in an equivalent college course.” No mention is made of how your teacher evaluated you over the course of a year of work. If you didn’t take a course at all, a nice, round, single-digit number is your assurance that a professor would trust your experience enough to let you skip over a term of their instruction.
Many Dartmouth students choose to forgo their AP credits and start off in introductory courses, indicating a lack of confidence in the ability of an AP test to prove “readiness” for college coursework. Dartmouth professors do not tailor their curriculum to meet changing AP standards, and there is no reason why they should. The decision to make an AP credit equivalent to a taught course as a prerequisite is virtually arbitrary. For these reasons, I support the faculty’s decision to forgo AP credit for future classes in favor of department-developed placement tests. The process of placement testing also encourages students to talk with advisors and professors about their individual academic plan, which helps make an easier transition between high school and college. As for me, I’m not graduating early, not triple majoring, but working my way slowly but surely towards graduation — the path that I should have taken years ago.