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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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