My friend Isaac Butler of Parabasis clued me in to a nice little illustration of Campbell’s Law, which states “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Try doing a Google search for any prominent figure, organization, or event in US history, and start typing in “APUSH” after. For most things you’ll see the term pop up along with a bunch of related terms like quiz, timeline, notes, questions, etc. APUSH stands for “AP US History.” The Google suggestions come from students trying to get information for the test.
Now you can certainly make the case that there’s nothing wrong with using the internet to fortify your learning and your research. I’m guessing that a lot of kids are doing this to skip out on reading their textbooks, which their teachers probably wouldn’t be thrilled about, but I’m somewhat sympathetic to that viewpoint. But the bigger issue is this: I doubt there’s very much difference in the thinking of students who go out of their way to legitimately get more information and students who go out of their way to cheat the system. In fact I think experience tells most teachers that, when it comes to tests like the AP US History exam, the distinction is illusory. This students are interested in achieving a particular score on a test that they see as having immediate incentives for them. The challenge of learning US history is merely an impediment to that goal, so they will subvert that challenge if they can and acquiesce to that challenge if they must. By instrumentalizing knowledge of our country’s history, we have placed the priority of scoring highly on a test that contributes to a student’s college applications above the priority of actually understanding history in terms of content and as a methodology.
All of this is eminently predictable, and was in fact predicted by critics. Perhaps the elevation of the test above the material will have the beneficial consequence of more students learning about history, I don’t know. I do know that the inevitable consequence of rampant standardized testing is generations of students whose interest in the tests far exceeds their interest in the material. That’s a rational response to the world they’re living in. The question is whether the policy makers will ask if it’s rational on their end as well.