Removing semantics from our course titles

Robert Showah
Opinion Editor

According to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, despite the tripling of students taking rigorous-sounding courses over the past two decades, a growing collection of data indicate those students aren’t scoring any higher on the National Assessment of Education Progress test.

The reason is because the content of these courses is not as “high-achieving” as their course names. It’s the course equivalent of grade inflation, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

First, standardized test results are not the prime way to determine whether these courses equate to their advanced titles. A student’s performance on the end-of-course exams and the instructor’s teaching method also play a large role.

However, one problem is that some schools actually label courses with boasted names because administrators want to help students satisfy tougher requirements, according to a recent New York Times article.

“Course-title inflation” in our high schools and in higher education isn’t entirely dissimilar to buying orange juice. I can either choose to buy the off-brand carton with the ironic mascot that offers me plenty of Vitamin C, or I can buy the sleeker and more visually appealing bottle that offers the same nutrients. It’s the difference between Chocolate Pebbles and Count Chocula and between honest courses titles and euphemisms.

The same Times article states that over the past decade, the number of AP exams taken by high school students more than doubled to 3.1 million. Though the proportion of exams earning low scores of 1 or 2 out of 5 rose six percent to 42.5 percent.

Trevor Packer, a vice president of the College Board we all know and love who administer the AP exams, called the 42.5 percent “tolerable.” We shouldn’t expect anything less from a company that profits regardless of how students perform and nickels and dimes families for exam fees and transcripts, not to mention a thick line of test preparation books.

Many high school administrators say that it isn’t necessarily about the schools but is about merely exposing students to more rigorous coursework even if they don’t perform well.

What? Since when did our philosophy claiming that “tests reflect knowledge” take a backseat to effort? That doesn’t sound like the standards-obsessed education system that I know.

In all seriousness, we should expose students to more rigorous coursework, measure their progress and understanding along the way and ditch the idea that we can judge a student’s academic potential and overall knowledge based on a single standardized test conducted by a company that encourages using exams – not to better education, but to weed students out.

Instead of working to keep College Board in business or pretending there are vast differences between students who take AP courses and those that do not, we should be challenging students – regardless of the course’s title. The same Times article also reports that SAT scores have dropped or flat-lined since 2000 despite the increased percentage of students enrolling in rigorous curricula.

So either our kids are getting dumber – which is the conventional thought – or standardized tests are just not accurately measuring students’ performance because the students see no reason to perform well on a consequence-free federal standardized assessment.

Whatever the reason, College Board’s AP test machine and the anxiety students experience in high school, and even into college, revolves in part around the laziness of those in academic community who continue to simplify and compact the transcripts of students into single letters, digits and tests based on false differences between courses.

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