Home / General / In Defense of 17 Year Old Students

In Defense of 17 Year Old Students


I’m grading AP US History exams this week. It’s not a particularly fun process. Most of the tests are not very good.

But it drives me INSANE that the other graders find it just so damn funny that students are confused and say ridiculous things in their essays. Oh, you confused the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 with Executive Order 9066! Hilarious!!!!!! What a silly young person!!!!!!


Like a lot of people, history teachers suffer from the delusion that what they do is important. And while I certainly believe that history is important, I can think of a lot of reasons why a 17 year old wouldn’t care.

Given that they are full of hormones, confused about the future, having problems at home, having relationship issues, discovering alcohol and sex for the first time, etc., etc., history class might not be the first thing on their minds.

Plus, there are many, many additional reasons for the bad tests. Some states (Florida most egregiously) either mandate or highly encourage students to take the test. When you get a test from Florida, you know it is probably going to suck because lots of unprepared kids are wasting their money taking it. With the culture of testing, states love AP to get some kind of history test in.

A lot of history teachers are not very good at what they do. Hard to expect a student to do well when their teacher is the football coach (though there are of course some good teachers who also coach).

And there are a lot of crappy high schools out there. Class is as huge an indicator in AP testing as any other kind of testing. I went to a bad high school in a working-class Oregon town. I was the only person in living memory of the school to get a 5 on the AP US History exam. But you talk to these private high school teachers with rich kids and they get 4 or 5 students every year who get a 5. It’s not merit, it’s class and support that make the difference. Me, I was exceptionally nerdy at this. But I could not have passed any other AP test at that age.

So when I read these tests, I’m not annoyed that kids don’t know about immigration history or 19th century political parties or Richard Nixon. I hope they do learn these things someday–when they are in a position to learn about them. And I don’t think their bad answers are funny. I think they don’t give a shit. And that’s totally OK. Because I don’t really give a shit about most of the things they care about. If Lady Gaga is more important to them than US history, cool. As for me, I’d far rather talk about the Drive-By Truckers than think about math. And that’s OK’s too.

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  • shah8

    It always strikes me as wierd that AP exams are considered so hard. For the most part, I think it’s material that high schoolers should have anyways.

    I also wonder if AP exams in different subjects are more college or less collegy than others. My high school was pretty fussy about tracking, and so I couldn’t take some AP courses, but the one exam I did get a 5 in, I didn’t take the AP class. And in college, none of the introductory courses covered by exams seems like stuff that shouldn’t be in high school. For example, the Georgia Tech Intro to Economic was laughably easy (but GT might not have cared so little if all those engineering kids weren’t stressed out by harder core curriculum) As a result, I think the AP courses do more bad than good. If people weren’t making money offering the exam and prepping students for it, high schools would have fewer excuses to track students on the basis of class and mebbe, just mebbe school the damned kids. A free education should be worth something.

    • AP US History is actually pretty hard. There’s a hell of a lot of information it forces you to recall. I believe it is significantly harder than most AP courses, or at least this is what high school teachers have told me.

      • Formerly from Kansas

        I took 4 AP tests (US History, English Literature, Calculus, and US Government) and US History was certainly the most difficult. US Government was a cakewalk in comparison.

  • DocAmazing

    We’re all ignorant in some subject or in some setting, and there is no subject that is not vital to one and trivial to another. While the foregoing statements are obvious to the point of being trite, specialists in any field lose sight of them. Thus, historians who snicker at students mangling the finer points of US history would probably flunk a biology quiz that I would find elementary.

    That said, I have met a couple of true polymaths, and boy, were they irritating.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Though students who take the AP History exam are self-selecting. Florida aside (apparently) someone has decided that this student is prepared to take this very optional test.

      I agree with Erik that the adults who made that decision (most notably history teachers) bear a lot of the responsibility. But someone who takes an AP exam is essentially declaring that, for whatever reason, that particular subject does matter to them.

      • Rob

        Not really that self-selecting. There are a lot of schools that give extra GPA points to AP classes meaning that lots of college bound students are shuffled into the those classes especially if they don’t grade much harder so they don’t fall in class rank. Once you’ve sat though the course taking the AP exam might just be a whim because hey, its still cheaper than a course in college and you may pass and get the requirement out of the way.

        Now teachers probably should be more forceful about telling students it would be a bad idea to take the test but then they have to face parents upset their offspring isn’t good enough despite the B+ they got in the course.

        • Davis X. Machina

          The grade-increment and class-rank CYA business is so out of hand that at a lot of high schools the entire top ten, or top 10%, will graduate with GPA’s in excess of 4.0.

          And I had a student who, on the strength of AP-USH, had two cats named ‘Wilmot’ and ‘Proviso’, which by itself doesn’t justify the program’s existence, but comes pretty damned close….

          • I graduated in ’97, and this was the case at my school, where honors students got a bump in GPA.

            • I graduated in 1986 with the same situation, so it’s not as if this is particularly new news.

              • rea

                1972, same situation.

                • Halloween Jack

                  ’82, same sitch.

            • Brenda Helverson

              I graduated in 70 and was held to reasonably high standards by experienced teachers.

              Three years later, these teachers had retired and I started to hear how the Class of 73 was “Oh, So Smart” because their grades were so high. It turns out that the new teachers introduced grade inflation and lowered the standards.

          • Michael H Schneider

            will graduate with GPA’s in excess of 4.0.

            At the really, really good schools the GPAs go up to eleven.

            Of course, history is just a socially constucted explanatory narrative myth – it’s not like it’s, you know, true. So there’s room for people to be interested in questions such as ‘what happened?’ but not at all interested in the sort of answer that’s currently socially acceptable.

        • Wyrm1

          In the Washington DC area, we basically have schools forcing students to take AP exams. We have the “Jay Matthews Challenge Index” which ranks high schools by dividing number of AP tests TAKEN divided by graduating seniors, and schools in our area take it very seriously.

          One school in Washington DC (with a very significant percentage of their population reading at below grade level) requires ALL of their 11th and 12th graders to take AP English, even though many of them are reading at a 6th to 8th grade reading level.

          So at least in parts of the country, there is almost no self-selection for the APs, and at least in most of the DC area, I can’t imagine that any teacher would discourage a student from taking the exam regardless of how they score.

          My school isn’t quite as bad, but if you take the AP class, you are taking the AP exam, regardless of how well you are doing in the class, or if you are even bothering to do any work in the class.

    • The statements absolutely are trite–what’s amazing is that at least 80% of the people in the room don’t seem to understand this. I don’t know of a single person in there who this irritates as much as it irritates me.

  • Brenda Helverson

    I might add that a high schooler really can’t appreciate a lot of history because she has nothing to compare it to.

    My depression-surviving Grandfather hated Republicans in all forms. I studied the Great Depression as a youngster, at least superficially, but it took me many years to fully understand the reasons for his hatred. BTW, he was right.

    A lot of history will make sense to students in later life, but it’s hard for any young student to read about the Weimar Republic and see how it might apply to monetary policy today.

    I liked high school history and majored in History during my first stint in college. It has taken many years to understand and apply a lot of what I have learned, but I am happy that I was exposed to history and know that certain things happened. It is easier now to try to fill in the blanks.

    • Joe

      History for me at least was easier to appreciate. It’s about stories. Any one story might be something you can’t relate with but hard not to relate with others. Of course, how it’s taught often makes it harder.

      • Warren Terra

        I hear what you’re saying about the importance of a narrative to the absorption of information, and how History as a subject might lend itself better to this than do some other subjects. I grew up the child of two practicing scientists, with their peers over for dinner practically every weekend, and the disjunct between science as it is lived – science as an active ongoing endeavor, as a lifestyle and a philisophy if you will – and science as it is taught, a collection of arbitrary minutiae presented as received wisdom, was apparent even to me, and huge to my parents. Kids have to learn a lot of these things (though 99% of people would notice no difference if they never memorized “cumulonimbus” and the like), but that’s just because they’re a description of the world those kids will have to live in, not because the kids are learning “science”. Actual science is of course full of stories – discovery is an active process, after all – but my impression of presecondary science education was very poor, that it was almost an exercise in the reception of trivia and dogma.

        • Lisa

          Spot on, Warren. As a former high school teacher (4 years, physics, chemistry, & AP chemistry) I couldn’t agree more. Both science and math are ways of understanding and communicating about the world around us, yet from a very young age, both are taught as sets of facts, rules, and steps. Poor elementary teachers aren’t really in a place to help it, after all, most of them were the same students who achieved ‘success’ by memorizing and following rules and doing things step-by-step as instructed.

          And AP courses/tests expect students to learn/know a huge breadth of information, which means for a teacher to cover everything they must sacrifice a lot of the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ that are behind those facts. If you ask me, it actually pushes education in the wrong direction–I’d rather send a young person into the work force who understands HOW to do science (or math, history, english, etc.) than one who knows a bunch of discrete facts.

          • Lise

            Interestingly this is one main reason why teachers (elementary in particular) need to get both paid and respected more. Very few mathematicians or scientists with any real understanding of their subject want to use their degree to be patronized and broke.

  • jeer9

    From an English perspective, AP courses and tests are vastly over-rated and exercise far too much influence over high school curriculum. While they certainly save money for parents (if the students pass), they do not adequately prepare students for the rigor of university work – unless you believe the core of college academics consists of writing 40 minute essays. Students do not learn the necessary components of research nor do they develop the tools and critical thinking required to compose an extended eight to ten page paper such as they will surely be assigned at the next level. And when the UC system decides to no longer accept a 3 as a passing score (my daughter received a 3 and is currently bored to tears in her composition class), you have two institutions working hand in glove to increase their profits.

  • Western Dave

    17 year olds? The 10th graders at my school self-select for taking the test, and we might counsel a few not to take it. We have about 30 honors students. I think 20 took the test. If 10 don’t get fives I’ll be shocked. (I taught most of these girls last year). Our biggest problem is that the girls tend to overshoot the exam on the essay. Although we warn them not to be too smart on the exam, their outlines that we see show that they are taking about the social constructions of race and gender and I know some readers don’t know that material and have no idea what they are talking about.

    I taught AP World History a couple of years ago to seniors. Of the twelve kids in the class, the strongest 4 didn’t take it because they already had too many history APs and the colleges they were attending wouldn’t take any more (or any at all, ahem, Yale). Of the eight who took it two fives, five fours, and a three. Judging from their outlines vs. the released rubric, I think a few of my fours went haywire with extended essays on the shifts in masculinity comparing Latin America and North America (we did a DBQ on that earlier in the year and they all knew it) But I suspect they overshot the readers because the rubric was in a different direction.

    Of course the worst story I heard was last year from AP World. The phrase “From 1450 on” disqualified you from thesis credit (and thus extended point credit) on the CCOT but “From 1450 to the Present” was accepted.

  • Joe

    The things people tend to think “damn funny” is something along the lines of people not knowing the three branches of government or who we fought with in the American Revolution. If the Gentlemen Agreement of 1907 amuses them, well …

    Sure, some kids don’t give a shit. I know someone who had a low paying sales job and was annoyed when her co-workers didn’t give a shit. They were young college students just there to make a bit of money. They didn’t care if their sales were low.

    But, you can expect a certain level of effort. They don’t have to love it or rather be in class than watching a game. But, when they take a big test, they should learn how to give a shit a bit. Maturity is about that, and by 17, they should be able to be a bit mature.

    • elm

      I’m hoping Erik was exaggerating for effect with his examples, but, yes, there are examples of ignorance that is “damn funny” and not knowing the gentleman’s agreement isn’t one of them.

      I had a student come up to me in an exam, and point to one of the multiple-choice questions, and ask, “What do you mean by the 19th century?” I hope Erik won’t think me a bad person that I still smile to think of this story.

  • wengler

    Grading these things sounds like hell. I hope they pay you more than peanuts for it.

    I took these tests around 10 years ago. I think we had the opposite problem at my school. With the AP Government test they let you take the Comparative Politics test for free. All I did was get a cheap prep book and read it. I took the CP test and got a 4 and got some college credit for it. It wasn’t hard and lots of other kids from that class could’ve done the same but they didn’t.

    I can see what you mean about US History though. It was a required class so everyone had to take it. At my school the honors/AP classes were inflated a whole letter grade so a B was equal to an A in the regular class. Thus a lot of students that had no idea about US History coming into the class took it and the test and no doubt scored a bunch of 1s. With so many slower students it was never taught at the AP level.

    • Grading these things sounds like hell. I hope they pay you more than peanuts for it.

      The English Lit readers get $5,456 for a week’s work. I don’t know what readers in other disciplines get.

      • We get $1600. Does English Lit really get $5456? Is that like 1/2 the yearly salary of the English Ph.D?

        • Rob

          All English PhDs have huge advances from the novel they are writing so they have to be paid so well to give that up.

        • We also get excellent professional backrubs every hour on the hour!

          Crap, we only get about $1600. I was messing.

          Honestly, we’re just surprised we’re being paid, as opposed to flogged.

  • The week after next I’m off to grade the AP lit exams. Some of the grader-snickering you describe does annoy me, but then again, some of the unintentional mistakes are actually funny, not because the student has made an error, but, oh, because it’s odd to consider something like Mr Darcy and Elizabeth meeting Gandalf. (Not an actual AP example.) Also on occasion a student is funny on purpose. I always grade those up, if at all possible. Gotta love a kid willing (& able) to crack wise on the AP, as long as they know their stuff, of course.

    But yeah, its messed up that some districts or states require the AP. This does the students no favors at all. And makes the poor sod grading the exam miserable, which is from my perspective the worse crime.

    • jmack

      It does help lighten the mood when a student writes that something “shouldn’t be taken for granite”. It is less amusing when they horribly misread a passage.

      I do enjoy when a student is comfortable enough to “crack wise” during a timed writing. I assure my AP Lang students that I don’t read anything that has been crossed out. This year I had a student refer to Darth Vader in timed writings on multiple occasions and then cross it out to see if I would catch it.

    • asdfsdf

      I read “Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth meeting Ghaddafi,” which was, if anything, even more amusing.

  • Murc

    The AP exams are, in my opinion, at the level of difficulty we should expect from all High School students.

    I feel okay about my college degrees. I didn’t even KEEP my HS diploma, because they’ll hand one out to any mouth-breather. If we’re not going to go to the effort of educating people we for god sakes shouldn’t pretend like we have.

    • dan

      Kids, aren’t robots or widgets. They aren’t the same. Not all kids should be expected to college work because they all aren’t at that level for a variety of reasons. Some have only been speaking English for a few years. Some have parents who have reading levels that are extremely basic. Some don’t have time when they get home because they have to take care of the little kids or work. Some kids have parents beat them or emotionally abuse them and don’t want to do anything. Some kids just don’t care about History, or English. Some kids just aren’t that smart.

      • Redbeard


  • SciMom

    Agreeing with several points here. In too many schools, it’s expected that ambitious students will take as many AP courses as will fit in their schedule, regardless of their interests. Great teachers (our American History and Psychology teachers) will have many students who earn a 5 on the exams; poor teachers won’t; and those who force their students to take the test when they don’t want to shouldn’t be surprised at the results.

    Regarding what we should expect from our students, the difference between our school’s AP and college prep American History courses was HUGE – AP American was major commitment, with more reading than any course I took in high school, while the college prep course was a complete joke, with fill-in-the-blank worksheets for homework.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    I went to a small town Oregon high school (St. Helens, to be precise) and took the AP European History exam. By far the majority of students (IIRC) got 3 or less, and a small number of us (maybe…less than 5) got 4s. I know of no student in the classes that graduated before me that got a 5 on it. Only one student around that time I think even got a 5 on any AP test-biology, I think.

  • Flowers

    Sounds like they are prepared to take a bus along the eastern seaboard for their family vacation.

  • Number Three

    Like a lot of people, history teachers suffer from the delusion that what they do is important.

    Without this amazing ability for self-delusion, many human beings would become completely unable to ‘function’ in any meaningful sense. So it has it’s upside!

    @DocAmazing: We’re all ignorant in some subject or in some setting, and there is no subject that is not vital to one and trivial to another. While the foregoing statements are obvious to the point of being trite, specialists in any field lose sight of them. Thus, historians who snicker at students mangling the finer points of US history would probably flunk a biology quiz that I would find elementary.

    As a middle-aged professional working in a large organization, this is something that I come into contact with every day. Maybe H.S. history teachers don’t? What I mean is that I am THE expert on certain aspects of the organization’s work, and completely ignorant of others. For a long time, I thought the answer was to master everything. But that is simply impossible.

    Good thread.

    I used to grade AP exams (in a field not yet mentioned, I believe). It is grueling work.

  • Fascinating discussion. Am reading Eric Foner’s Fiery Trial and realized that I never took another US history course after aceing the AP exam in high school in 1964 (tho I did later endure a methods seminar in the subject about which I remember nothing whatever.) In high school and college I was an annoying little intellectual snot and thought that the history and culture of anywhere except my own country was more important. Sigh.

    My success at AP history then was undoubtedly a function of class; the more academically accomplished specimens of Buffalonian privilege were expected to succeed at such things — and we did.

    It’s been pleasant to realize over the years that a good deal of that high school exposure stuck. I think this was because I then (and now) have a knack for sequencing topics which astonishes exam readers. Comprehension is another thing, but accomplishing the trick of getting events in the right order always worked well for test taking.

  • Matt

    AP Exams? HA! I used to score state-level proficiency tests, and with those you essentially *had* to find the utter FAIL on the page funny or you’d quit after a week.

    One classic: the 11th graders from the Deep South who were asked to pick one of five civil rights leaders and write an essay about their importance. We got literally hundreds of “MLK was our first black president” and “MLK freed the slaves” papers – and one or two “Martin Luther King nailed 40 theses to the church door”, though those may have been pulling our chain…

    My favorite was the very earnest student who concluded, “because of Martin Luther King, there is no more racism in the South”.

  • Michael H Schneider

    Anyone with an interest in how history is constructed should really be following the reaction to Palin’s exogesis on the ride of Paul Revere. Apparently some ostensibly respectablie academics are claiming that her version of history is correct (see. e.g. http://volokh.com/2011/06/04/doesnt-anyone-know-american-history-anymore/ )

  • e

    I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was in high school KY would refund the exam fees if your combined scores on up to 3 exams was 7 or greater (low bar, I know). I was fairly certain I was fine with English and History, but I took calc as insurance for the automatic 1 I would get for signing my name. So good luck to those out there matching AP results to school quality.

  • Dave

    Loomis, have to say, since Dave Noon’s mostly off on other pursuits, you’re like the only sane person writing on this blog.

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