Advanced Placement, AP, AP Reader, AP Readings, College Preparation, CollegeBoard, Critical Thinking, Educational Testing Service, Essays, ETS, Harold Meltzer, High Schools, Historical Analysis, K-12 Education, Profit Motive, US History, World History, Writing
Today marks twenty eight years (both day and date — the ’13 calender and the ’85 calendar are in the same sequence) since the end of tenth grade for the Class of ’87. It’s also the day that fourteen of us met Harold Meltzer in “Room 275 of the Mount Vernon High School” for the first time. We were a grumpy bunch that third Friday in June, having gone through days of Regents exams and other tests from a rather underwhelming (though well-meaning) group of teachers. Again, it’s all in Boy @ The Window. But because I’ve had some experience teaching high school students, not to mention AP reader and ETS (Educational Testing Service, the exam developers) consulting experience, my appreciation for Meltzer has grown over the years.
In all, I’ve given up forty-five days of my life to scoring AP US and World History essays over the years, in the not-so-nice towns of Louisville, Kentucky, Fort Collins, Colorado, Salt Lake City (not to mention Princeton and from my own home). Scoring exams in a factory-esque setting is about as appealing as being an antibiotic-infused chicken at a Tyson’s egg-laying factory in Arkansas. Aside from the long hours of sitting around reading documents-based question essays, comparative essays, other essays and listening to long discussions of rubrics and accuracy in “meeting the standard” for scoring exams, it’s a blast. Especially with all of the coughing, sneezing and farting that can be heard throughout the week!
But the one thing I’ve learned is that many of America’s best and brightest students have significant reading, writing and analyzing issues, and not just because AP exam essay questions are written to be deliberately opaque. I’ve scored about 3,500 essays for the AP folks in all, and I can honestly say I’ve never read more than ten in any session that would’ve been A-level material in any of my college courses (or when I’ve taught high school students, for that matter). My last AP read, every one of the nearly 800 essays I read made my eyeballs ache and my teeth grind.
Most of these essays lack an introduction, a thesis statement, organization of ideas, examples that provide evidence of understanding or analysis, transition sentences between paragraphs and main ideas, and a conclusion. So many students don’t even try. They spend three hours drawing, journaling, writing short stories, poems and haikus, quoting rap lyrics and theme songs, or write in detail about their terrible AP US or World History teacher.
Aside from the almost indecipherable handwriting, that’s what has bothered me most in scoring these essays. That there are tens of thousands of unlucky students out their who by virtue of having a teacher unable to teach US or World History for advanced students. Or worse, teachers who don’t care to find out how best to teach these courses, to teach students how to write a proper introduction and thesis, to teach students how to bring in outside knowledge and intertwine it with documents or other materials within the actual exams. The inability of so many students to draw solid connections and to make a critical examination of the questions that these AP exams pose stems from both teacher neglect (benign and malignant), school districts hungry for ETS and College Board (the latter runs the AP program) dollars, and ETS and the College Board pushing these exams to more and more schools.
That reality makes me still appreciate all that I learned from Meltzer during the 1985-86 school year. Eccentric? Most def. Counterintuitive beyond what was necessary for AP US History? Without a doubt. Strange and somewhat meddlesome compared to our other teachers to be sure. But if any of us paid attention in his class even twenty percent of the time, we not only scored a 3 or better. We learned how to think beyond an answer, to ask “How?” and “Why?” for the first time. We learned how to read for an argument, and not just to read for understanding. We learned how to write a college essay (not just an AP essay) two full years before college.
And all of this learning began this day and date twenty-eight years ago. I can honestly say that I’ve had more than my share of life-changing teachers growing up. Meltzer, though, is at the top of my list, giving the time in which he was my teacher. May he rest in peace.