I got a “5” on the performativity exam!

December 23, 2009 at 1:50 pm 3 comments

| Gabriel |

So apparently high schools are encouraging huge numbers of kids to take advanced placement tests. If you’ve ever seen one of those surveys where 40% of high school kids think Obi Wan Kenobi was one of the founding fathers, you’ll be able to guess that the outcome is that very few of them pass the test. In a rare triumph of reason in things having to do with education, there is now a backlash against this. I find this interesting for two reasons:

1. I actually know something about this topic. Although I never published it, one of my two youthful forays into ethnography was at a high school college counseling office in the late 90s. One of the main things going on there was the struggle to organize the AP exams. When kids took AP classes they were obligated to take the AP exam in the spring. However in part because the school had a dismal track record of AP passage and in part because the kids themselves had to pay the AP fee, the students resisted taking the exam. This put the counselor in an adversarial relationship with the students as she tried to coerce and cajole them into paying for and taking the exam, which they (but not she) recognized was a humiliating waste of time and money.

2. Apparently the main driver of AP creep is that some high school ratings algorithms count how many kids in a high school take the AP rather than, oh, I don’t know, pass the AP. This of course is consistent with the typical nonsense you see of highly institutionalized sectors measuring performance by inputs rather than outputs. Likewise, here in California the CSU and UC have long had the concept of a weighted GPA where an AP class adds a full letter grade such that a lot of my friends in high school had GPAs of 4.2. High schools pander to these magazine rankings / college admissions criteria by adding more AP classes than they have competent students to fill. This ratings performativity is well familiar to economic sociologists thanks to work done recently on law school ratings by Espeland and Sauder. Likewise, McArdle has had two posts (part 1, part 2) recently on the development and now perfection of CBO-scoring gamesmanship.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: .

Cringe! Praxis


  • 1. Noah  |  December 24, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    When the UCs switched away from their formula for the first cut of admissions (GPA x 1500 + SAT I + SAT II x 2) as a part of instituting comprehensive review, most if not all schools added a few components to the way they evaluated student academics. One of the new components at UCLA was honors and AP courses taken. Obviously, students need to pass the AP test to get the equivalent of GE credit, but they don’t even need to take the test to get a boost in UCLA admissions. (This may have changed in the last few years since I actively followed admissions, but I doubt it.)

    In part, I think this is an issue of poor measurement tools. If students are taking AP classes senior year, then colleges have to decide on some way to factor AP into their decisions before students can take the exam.

    Something else worth mentioning is HS seniors taking local junior college classes instead of AP. This grew to be a very popular alternative at my HS. The local community college (one of the stronger ones in the Sacramento area) taught a few GE classes like freshman composition, american politics, macroeconomics on the high school campus. Students could get HS credit and a guarantee of transferring units to a UC or CSU without having to do the AP test. This option may not have had as much prestige as AP, so the few students looking at private schools did AP, but just about everyone looking at going to UC went the juco route instead of AP.

  • 2. Michael Bishop  |  January 2, 2010 at 12:59 am


    Education is one of my primary areas of research so I have a few comments. You are, of course, correct that this is a less than perfect way to rank high schools. No single piece of information is sufficient, but there are reasons why using “number of exams taken” has been used. 1. There isn’t much other data to go on (that is, data that is collected in a comparable way across states) 2. Too many schools have offered AP classes to the upper middle class while kids of the working class experience “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” There is some evidence that students benefit from the challenge of AP classes even if they don’t pass the test. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/09/AR2009010901085.html

    Some schools do pressure some students to do AP when they shouldn’t, but overall I think we should be aiming to increase participation rates.

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  January 2, 2010 at 1:18 pm

      on point #2, i think another way to put this is that allocating educational resources is lumpy — it has to be done in units of classes of about 25-35 students. if there are 25-35 students who would benefit from something, then that is great, but if there are only 10, then you have a problem. either you can deny the opportunity to those 10 or you can force another 20 to also avail themselves of the “opportunity” which isn’t really suitable for them and may (or, according to your WaPo link, may not) actually harm them. to the extent that schools are neither perfectly random nor perfectly sorted by skill, the denial of AP classes to those lower class students who are sufficiently prepared to benefit from them is then in part a peer spillover problem mediated through organizations.
      anyway, i don’t have any special expertise in education so it’s entirely possible that you’re right about the widespread AP being a net good.

The Culture Geeks

%d bloggers like this: