I recently registered for the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic (STP). As a father of two young children, and the husband of a tax accountant, time is a luxury. If I have a prayer of successfully bicycling two hundred miles over two days, I need to maximize my free time. I joined a group of amateur cyclists to train with. I downloaded recipes that will help me slim down, while building muscle mass. Race day is already on the calendar. It is a question of what I will do between now and then to reach the finish line.
Teaching AP Language and Composition (APLaC) is analogous to training for an endurance race. From the first day of school until the exam in May, I maximize my class time with my students by modeling vital test-taking strategies, instructing essential non-fiction texts, and reviewing important vocabulary. First semester focuses on teaching reading and writing strategies and helping my students to become familiar with the content. During third quarter, I focus on building my students’ endurance to prep for the exam. But, it’s also about building confidence. The more practice they have, the more confidence they will feel on test day.
This school year I feel like I am coaching a soccer team rather than training my students for an endurance race. As a casual soccer fan, I never understood the seemingly endless soccer competitions that are at cross-purposes with each other. Take the Seattle Sounders. They are a professional team in Major League Soccer (MLS). However, they also compete outside the MLS schedule for the US Open Cup. In addition, various players are outsourced during the MLS season to US Soccer to compete for a spot in the World Cup. How can a team possibly win with so many distractions?
Lesson planning for APLaC this year has been an exercise in subtraction. I estimate I have lost ten days of instruction because of tests that distract from prepping for the AP exam. First, there are the college entrance exams: the PSAT and the SAT. Then there are the tests tied to the Common Core: the State of Washington’s Reading Benchmark Assessment (RBA) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) pilot. When I consider school photos, class registration, assemblies, field trips, vacations, late start days, and snow days, my blood pressure begins to rise. I share the same frustrations as the teachers at Garfield High School.
I understand why my school district agreed to sign-up for the SBAC pilot. Piloting the test allows us to examine the exam before it becomes a graduation requirement. However, the pilot is ten days before the AP exam. This a non-negotiable date set by the state. Most of my students are taking multiple AP exams. Their test scores could determine if they receive college credit, earn scholarships, and even be admitted to the college of their dreams. The stakes are high. The consequences are real for my students and their families. I brought this issue up with one of the administrators at my school. He shook his head in exasperation: “Until a large school district in cities like LA, Chicago, or New York takes a stand, this is the way it will be.” Should it? Yes, there are benefits to familiarizing yourself with a test before you teach it. Knowing the rules of the game in advance will certainly help our students be successful in tackling the exam when it counts. However, if my job is to prepare them for the AP exam, and with the new TPEP evaluation model, if I am being evaluated partly by my students’ test scores, isn’t over-testing preventing my students from being prepared for the test?
I just tuned up my bicycle to begin my training regiment for the STP. I visualize myself crossing the finish line and a smile comes to my face. Let’s hope, however, I don’t have to ski down Mt. Rainier, swim across Lake Washington, and race in the Seattle Marathon, just to bicycle to Portland.