AP Students Take Note: Exams Revamped

College Board restructures AP exams to increase difficulty and ensure fairness

For AP French IV students here at Hockaday, the new school year brings more changes than just the mandatory lanyards and bread bowls in the cafeteria.

Under the instruction of new Upper School French teacher Mollie Monaco, the class will undergo a major change in curriculum due to changes to the AP exam made by the College Board.  Extensive modifications in the reading, listening comprehension and grammar proficiency sections were made, in addition to adjustments in scoring and time allotment.

The robotic scripted dialogues typical of standardized foreign language exams have been eliminated. In their stead, the College Board has implemented more free response questions and authentic print and audio material from French radio and television.

In a world where native French speakers don’t always strive for the level of contrived enunciation found in a scripted exchange, the authentic audio clips, taken from French radio talk shows and news sources, will better prepare students for real-world application of their skills. According to the College Board, the changes “reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of the French-speaking world.”

After having taken several practice tests, junior Ashley said that “the listening comprehension is definitely harder, but it’s a better assessment of our understanding.”

Students will no longer have their grammar skills tested using fill-in-the-blank passages and instead will demonstrate their knowledge of French grammar through the writing section. The free response section tests grammatical knowledge in a more holistic and in-context fashion, providing a better sense of a student’s practical proficiency than the previous fill-in-the-blank grammar passages.

“It’ll be nice to write our own sentences because we’re used to doing that, but at the same time it’s harder to come up with an idea than to just fill in a blank,” junior Evi said.

Senior Jessie, who took the AP French exam in 2011, said, “I’m very glad to hear that the grammar fill in the blanks are gone because… I don’t think they have any real life application… it sounds like the changes have made the test more fit to evaluate how well students communicate in French.”

Some of the changes are not content-related, but rather ensure that the test is fairer and directions for all sections are clear. Students will be happy to know that all audio clips will be played twice instead of once, and points will no longer be deducted for incorrect responses on the multiple choice section.

Jessie said “the removal of point deduction on the multiple choice is a great change that the AP board has been making in different subjects. It eliminates a focus on testing strategy and allows students to simply try their best to answer the questions.”

More advanced context will be given for passages and audio clips, and there will be time set aside before the start of any exercise for students to review the instructions and questions.

“In this way, students do not feel that they are thrown into the middle of a conversation without having some knowledge up front about what they are hearing,” Monaco said.

With major changes in both content and structure, the AP test’s difficulty has shifted as well. Monaco thinks that “[the changes] make the test a bit more challenging.” Her views are very much aligned with those of her students: junior Maya said that “the old system was more about whether you knew the rules of French, which made it easier to understand since there was nothing abstract about it.”

The value of the changes is not lost on students though. “It will benefit us in the long run,”  junior Renee said.

But the modifications to the French exam aren’t the only AP changes the College Board plans to implement this spring. Similar changes were made to the AP German exam, and the AP World History exam is being revamped to focus more on historical analysis and thinking rather than retention of facts.

For the 2012-2013 school year, the College Board already has adjustments to the AP Biology, AP Latin and AP Spanish Literature tests lined up. The apparent commonality in all of these changes is a shift from testing rote memorization to assessing critical thinking skills and real-world application of textbook knowledge.

All the AP changes, despite the increased difficulty they give the test, will hopefully better equip students with the analytical skills, rather than just memorized facts, that are necessary for success. As Monaco said, “There is more critical thinking involved [in the new test], and we can all agree that critical thinking is an important skill in today’s world.”

-Michelle