I never took an AP course in high school. I'm pretty sure it was because I never qualified for it (I went straight B-minuses throughout my high school career), but it was also because I went to school back when taking AP courses wasn't the dire necessity that it is for today's students. According to this article, taking just one AP course now doubles your odds of getting a college degree; according to this other article, "Approximately 85 percent of selective colleges and universities reported that they looked at whether or not a student had taken an AP course to make their admissions decision."
In other words, if you haven't taken an AP class, you are fucked. Or, at the very least, you will feel as if you are inadequate, dumb, and doomed to a life of washing cheese off of fajita platters at the local Don Pablo's. Students and parents alike know all this by now: They also know that doing well in an AP course gets you college credit (and I like that you can learn so much in high school that expensive colleges will be like, "Yeah, you don't have to learn as much here"). I wonder if there are advanced placement courses WITHIN the AP infrastructure, so that Harvard can only admit kids who have taken AP AP AP AP calculus. I have children in the public school system, and I'm already a bit intimidated by all this potential AP jockeying. It lords over everything.
You may have heard that the state of Oklahoma recently banned AP history from its school curriculum (CORRECTION: The bill proposing to rewrite the course has not formally passed), because the course failed to teach students about "American exceptionalism": a bit of chilling Orwellian language that makes you wonder if we should sell off that entire state for a can of red kidney beans. HOWEVER … I can't say definitively that the AP American History test is anti-American unless I see what the course is like for myself. That would be downright ignorant of me. So, in the spirit of past educational test-taking stunts here at this site, I decided to sit down and take the sample test, to see if the course really DOES teach our kids to hate America. Maybe it does! Maybe the act of taking the test itself is enough to make you want to raze this country and start from scratch.
As before, I took this practice exam cold, with no studying. I also replicated the high school test-taking environment as best I could. I took no breaks. I used a No. 2 pencil (turns out you can use a pen on the essay parts). I stopped when the timer went off. I looked around to make sure no one was watching before scratching my privates. You know the deal. I also had the essay portion of the test graded by a former AP test administrator, who then corroborated his findings with a colleague. Here now are my findings:
* Like any high school student, I found the idea of taking this test daunting. So I put off taking it a few times, circling around the test booklet without ever cracking it open, like a little kid afraid to jump into a cold lake. As I've said before, one of the very few benefits of adulthood is that you never have to take a test again. I remember the anxiety now. I remember what it's like to see a test booklet and think to myself, "Fuck, I'm gonna be here for HOURS."
* Finally, I sat down. As usual, the test instructions were stern, humorless, and intimidating—antithetical to the notion of learning itself. "DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOKLET UNTIL YOU ARE TOLD TO DO SO." That's the first line in the test booklet. I assume if you open the test early, the gates of hell open and the Great Serpent drags you down to its fiery depths.
* There were three sections to the test: multiple choice (55 minutes), short answer (45 minutes), and the DBQ (document-based question) section (1 hour, 35 minutes). You are not allowed to jump around. That results in prison time.
* Multiple choice was the first section, which meant I spent the whole time dreading the idea of turning to the written portions of the test 55 minutes later. Multiple choice should really come at the end. It's the cooldown exercise in the regimen. My hand began to throb simply thinking about the upcoming essay section.
* There is a disclaimer at the beginning of the test that says, "The inclusion of source material in this exam is not intended as an endorsement by the College Board or ETS of the content, ideas, or values expressed in the material." YOU HEAR THAT, OKLAHOMA? The AP History test has its ass covered, throwing down the same kind of legal disclaimer you'd find at the beginning of a Kurt Sutter DVD commentary. They disowned the test before I had even started. My interest was now piqued. There must have been a SHITLOAD of quality America-hating in this source material.
* Are you are fan of the late 1800s? Brother, have I got the test for you. Look at this shit…
Amazing how they managed to stick a scary math-looking thing into a non-math test. Anyway, there should have been a fifth multiple choice answer to this that said, "E) DEY TOOK ERR JERBS!", but no such choice was to be had. Because this period of American history (which represents a substantial portion of this country's lifetime, by the way) is a gaping hole in my intellect, I guessed as best I could. The Northeast! Lots of immigrants there! Ellis Island! Chinatown! I guessed right.
* If you're looking for the sort of thing that might get an Oklahoma senator's dander up about this test, I present you with this excerpt…
You listen to me, Seneca Falls Convention: Back in the day, women were just FINE with their place in patriarchal society! They churned butter and raised the younglings and died at age 36 of dysentery so that the husband could remarry well, and the system WORKED. Don't you go putting these fancy ideas about ladyfolk's rights in them kids' minds!
* At one point, I had too many A's in a row on my answer sheet and got very nervous. Was the AP History test trying to psych me out by making the answer "A" lots of times in a row, so that I'd notice and worry that I got some answer wrong along the way? I put nothing past testmakers.
* I am a filthy liberal cretin, but as I read through every excerpt in the first section, I felt as if the test offered a healthy dose of conservative and libertarian viewpoints. It was FAIR. They had isolationist quotes from George Washington and small-government takes from Thomas Jefferson. They even quoted Reagan at one point! [Doffs hat and puts hand on the heart for the Gipper.]
That's the money Reagan speech, too. That's the one where he freed the Russians or something. But look closer at the options on question 23. "Increased assertiveness and bellicosity"? Is the college board calling Reagan an asshole? That sure sounds like it to me. I guessed B. And you know what? My answer was RIGHT. Maybe Oklahomans were right to be wary of this test. They ain't hearing both sides!
* They also included an olde-timey picture of poor people in the exam…
GET A JOB, LOSERS.
* In many ways, this opening section of the test is simple reading comprehension, closer to an English test than a history test, only they assume you innately know lots of stuff about 18th-century ale tariffs. In some ways, the questions are EXTREMELY subjective, like question 55:
That's Reagan! The answer is Reagan, man. I answered Reagan and got it right. But I'm sure there are Reaganites out there who would urgently disagree with the notion that Reagan and Clinton's interpretations of BIG GUBMINT were one and the same.
* I finished the first section early and twiddled my thumbs waiting for the clock to run out. I stood up to stretch, even though I knew that's probably not a realistic thing to do in a legit test-taking environment. I'd feel like an asshole getting up and stretching the hammies in front of Miss Turdblossom.
But I will say this: No one in recorded history has EVER regretted finishing a test early. No one. You feel like a million bucks sitting there, waiting for all the other puds to finish up. Look at those NERDS, still scribbling away, trying to impress the teacher. What LOSERS. But wait … what if they knew some extra shit about the Teapot Dome scandal that I didn't? Will the teacher notice that I didn't use my full allotment of time? OH GOD HE THINKS I'M A GLORY BOY. SHIT.
* It was time for the short-answer portion of the test. There were four questions, each with at least two separate parts. What horseshit. Did Dr. Phillip Barbay write this thing?
Before you begin, the test warns, "An outline or bulleted list alone is not acceptable." O RLY? How will I get a job at Buzzfeed if I can't condense American history down to an easily digestible list for the masses? HERE'S 37 KRAYZEE THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THE EMERGENCE OF THE WHIGS IN THE 1830s.
* In all seriousness, the fourth short-answer question in this test is a fine one…
If Oklahoma legislators had actually read this test (I'm certain that they did not), they would have noticed that the idea of "American exceptionalism" is all over it. The test doesn't endorse it, because that would be stupid. But it certainly presents viewpoints that both favor and oppose it, and then ask students to (GASP!) decide for themselves. They get to decide if America's unique place in history is a sign of its innate superiority, or a sign of its constant, ongoing struggle to be a beacon of freedom to the world while indulging in horrifying, oppressive practices. The test asks you to argue about things, and arguing is good for students. Just don't let them argue near me in a coffeehouse somewhere. I'll punch the little fuckers out.
* It was now time for the essay section of the test: the longest and most arduous portion of the exam, backloaded at the end of the booklet just to ruin your day. For each essay, I was asked to supply a thesis (oh god, THESES … I bet they wanted a topic sentence, too), summon specific historic examples outside of the documents provided (uh oh ...) and "account for contradictory evidence on the topic" (gotta hear both sides). This was the first essay question, which was accompanied by seven documents to read…
The documents provided featured argument for and against America's right to expand. Was it conquest? Was it noble? Whoa, hey, we're arguing exceptionalism again! Goddamn, this test really pokes the bear! I started writing away. After one page, I was already exhausted. Look how sloppy my penmanship got…
There are prescription-refill forms that are more legible. As I was writing, I knew I was failing the test. I was making broad generalizations about America and spewing horseshit talking points without any backing evidence of any kind. I was Tom Friedman, basically. The AP History test makes you Tom Friedman. BURN IT. "Thus, the turn of the century marked the advent of modern capitalistic imperialism." Jesus Christ, I wrote that? I wanna punch myself. The test made me this way, man. It ain't right.
* The final essay gave you a choice (thank God) between two questions. The first one was, "Evaluate the extent to which trans-Atlantic interactions from 1600 to 1763 contributed to maintaining continuity as well as fostering change in labor systems in the British North American colonies." FUCK THAT. No way I was answering that shit. That is the lamest period in American history. It wasn't even America yet. That should be on the AP Pre-History test. It's false advertising to include that Pilgrim shit on the test. I feel like I just got dragged with my parents to Colonial Williamsburg.
* I went straight to the alternate question instead: "Evaluate the extent to which increasing integration of the United States into the world economy contributed to maintaining continuity as well as fostering change in United States society from 1945 to the present." NICE! Yes! The present! You know how great it is to see the present pop up on a history test? I know the present, baby. I LIVE IT EVERY GODDAMN DAY. I went right to work, talkin' NAFTA and Iraq and border disputes.
"You could by [sic] a Coke in South America but you could also find that the entire Coke factory had moved there as well." I don't know what that means. I don't know why I wrote it. I was getting delirious. But I finished on a high note: "That is the big question: Is America still America if it rejects the practices—some evil—that made it so powerful?" BOOM. I TURNED THE TABLES ON YOU, MISTER TEST PROCTOR. See how I made you think? Passing grade, pleeeez!
* At last, I was finished with the exam. I still left a lot of empty booklet pages on the table, and was worried the proctors would notice my penchant for brevity, but I had nothing else to add to my clumsy thesis: no supporting evidence to cite, no little sub-theses, nothing. I was spent. I was sick to death of America. They should give every student a beer when they've finished up. I scanned my answers and then sent them to Eric, a former teacher and test administrator in New Orleans. He then graded the essays and sent me back his assessment. Here are a few of his comments from the essay margins:
* "0: Your response lacks any sort of concrete evidence from the period re: rise of political parties"
* "Evidence? 0."
* "Explicit thesis not found!"
I also got a couple of "good" margin notes that made me pump my fist. Whenever someone redlines your work, you need that. You need that little reminder that you did something good every once in a while so that you don't feel like a complete fucking idiot. You need something to keep you going. You also need a teacher who pities you enough to give your sorry ass a passing grade. Eric emailed me a few days later:
* "Unfortunately there's no calculator for the new test (this is a new format), but I've done my best to convert the sections to weighed portions along the old scale (0-180). Based on that weighed conversion, you'd eke out a 3, which is a passing score."
BOOM. A three. You hear that, Harvard? LET ME IN, BITCHES.
(By the way, I find it amusing that the AP History test has been rejiggered so often that there's no current way to accurately grade a sample exam for students. That's pretty much a microcosm of public education right there. My children are in elementary school, and the state changes the curriculum every four weeks. The teachers just rub their temples all day. Turns out the state is much harder to deal with than 26 screaming little kids.)
To ensure no favoritism, Eric sent my answers to a colleague and told them they were from a real student (my handwriting is useful for this sort of ruse), and his colleague actually made my score higher in the process. I ended up getting a four. Eric told me, "We argued a lot about your initial response and lack of evidence, but apparently lesser responses have earned the points." Shit, yeah! God bless dumber students for pumping my ass up.
I was told I also needed to work on my synthesizing and analyzing. But whatever. I took the test and discovered, as you might have guessed, that AP History doesn't hate America at all. That's too simple a summation of this nation, and it deserves better. It deserves to have its history studied and argued and re-examined again and again and again, because how we talk about that history shapes how we interact with one another NOW. I don't think I even deserved to pass it. They should be even meaner while grading it, frankly.
And while taking any test sucks, I get why the AP history test exists. It's much better than the goddamn SAT, at least. It challenges you to use your knowledge of history in a coherent way, and it sharpens your mind by asking you to argue about very real, very difficult issues on the fly. It's important for kids to learn how to do that. You need a quick mind. It's what separates the geniuses from the regular smart people.
And I would know, because I fucking passed. I'm a genius. Fuck you. That's the real essay I wanted to write: "Fuck you." Sums up American history perfectly.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also order Drew's book,Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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