Andrei Markovitz, a Golden Apple professor at the University, asserts that the U.S. is the most meritocratic country in the world. Nowhere else are one’s past achievements as important to one’s future successes as in this country. He says that studies show a larger percentage of U.S. citizens than any other citizenry believe that individuals live in poverty due to lack of a strong work ethic. And no other culture is equally obsessed with rankings as we are. According to Markovitz, even the BCS system of re-ranking college football teams on a weekly basis has a distinctly American flavor.

Discussing the pros and cons of our merit-based culture goes beyond the scope of this column. But I do want focus on one area in which our continuous pursuit of achievement has gotten out of control: college preparation, particularly the College Board’s Advanced Placement exams. Today’s high schoolers are pressured into thinking that such exams — which have almost no long-term significance — are the pinnacle of all high school achievement.

If you took any AP exams in high school, take a second to think about why you made that decision. Maybe the most logical answer is that success on an AP exam leads to college credit. But I don’t think that’s the real reason — as a high school senior, it’s very difficult to gauge how AP credits might help you fill your eventual college requirements. I can only speak for myself, but the reason I took AP exams is because I lived in a neighborhood where teachers and parents were neurotic about anything having to do with college preparations. I hardly knew any better.

But let’s take a look at what my AP credits got me. Because of AP credits, the University thinks I’m a senior even though it’s only my third year here. Upon arriving home for Thanksgiving last week, I found plenty of mail reminding me to take my senior portrait. And when the University began charging me upper class tuition last winter, no one in my family was particularly happy about it. Over the course of high school, I took eight AP tests, but only two of them have helped me fill prerequisites for my major.

The entire AP system is a scam. High schoolers invest loads of time and energy into one test — which they have to pay to take — under the presumption that the credits will be useful in college. But students often take tests over a broad range of subjects, meaning that few AP credits are actually useful for a specified major. In the end, AP credits bump up tuition faster without necessarily helping students to graduate.

I’m not saying that AP classes themselves are useless. Rather, I think students would learn more if such classes weren’t structured completely around passing one meaningless test.

Take U.S. history, for example. To me, the most valuable aspect of taking AP U.S. history during my junior year of high school was reading James Loewen’s book, “The Lies My Teacher Told Me.” The book details how common renditions of U.S. history — often repeated in elementary-level textbooks or public discourse — romanticize historical figures by excluding accounts of their less-than-flattering actions. Loewen gave a strong argument that history courses need to be more analytic because classes in which students primarily memorize information often perpetuate false narratives. Ironically, after reading this book at the beginning of the year, we proceeded to prepare for the AP test, which strongly emphasized memorization over analysis.

The caveat here is that AP exams for math and science courses are decent approximations of college level exams, since one’s ability to do math and science problems is easy to measure objectively. But for humanities and social science classes, AP exams are often far from their college-level equivalents. Students would likely learn more if the class emphasized papers or analytic projects.

College preparation today is steered by people who look to the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings as their guide. Merit, achievement and prestige are always emphasized. Just as many students are convinced that going to the 15th best university is better than going to the 16th best, they are also convinced of the importance of getting fives on multiple AP exams. The College Board shouldn’t be the main authority that determines what high school students are learning. As a student who’s more than halfway through college, I’d like to show that AP tests have gotten me little more than an earlier registration date and some unnecessary mail.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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