Darrell Huckaby - U.S. history's hay is in the barn

I used to coach with an old Alabama boy named Tommy Stringer. In fact, I did two tours with him; one at Clarkston High School in the early '80s and another at Loganville in the '90s. He was a good coach and is a better man - and that's saying something. Tommy believed in running the wishbone and spent hour after hour after hour with his quarterbacks each week, making sure they understood the defenses they were likely to see on Friday night and the reads they would have to make.

"The reads they would have to make." That's football talk for knowing what to do.

But every Thursday evening, once the week's preparation was done, as the coaches gathered in Tommy's office for a final skull session, he would sigh and say, "Well, the hay is in the barn," meaning the preparation and hard work for that week was done and the only thing left to be done was to play the next night's game.

Now, I told you all that to tell you this.

I teach a class at Heritage High School known as A.P. US History. A.P. means "advanced placement", and the class is the equivalent of a year-long college survey class in American history. In fact, if the kids who take the course do well enough on the national standardized test given at the end of the year, they can earn a year's worth of college credit.

That's easier said than done, however. Last year, slightly more than half the students who took the test nationwide earned a passing grade of 3 or higher (on a scale of 1-5). That means that almost half earned less than 3.

I bet y'all didn't know I could do math, did you?

A test where almost half the students fail is a tough, tough test - and if your students are going to be prepared to accept such a rigorous challenge, you'd better, as a teacher, offer them a rigorous course of study during the school year.

And I try to do just that - but believe me; it gets harder and harder every year.

For one thing, when you teach history, the material expands year after year. We keep making history - so we have to squeeze more and more dates and facts and events into the curriculum, and we never take any facts or dates or events away because the College Board - which is the sadistic body that administers AP testing, believes that no item in history is too small or too insignificant to be a potential question on the exam. So we try to cover it all, and in as much depth as is humanly possible in the time allotted.

The time allotted. Now that's another challenge.

When I first started teaching AP U.S. History, I saw every student for right at an hour every day. Now, we are on a block schedule, so I see them every other day - for about 90 minutes. You can do the math for yourself. There's just not as much time for direct instruction - so we have to work harder and smarter and the students have to be responsible for learning more on their own, outside of class.

But we are also the testing generation. The president's "No Child Left Behind" law means that we, as educators, spend more and more time each year giving standardized tests and evaluating the results - which is not altogether a bad thing, but it can't be done without cutting into the already short instruction time.

I'm not trying to make any kind of policy statement here - merely stating a fact. What I really wanted to say today is that the scores that their respective students make on the AP exam are a point of pride for AP teachers - at least those worth their salt. They are a measure, if you will, of how their efforts have paid off. Just like a football or basketball coach evaluates his effectiveness by the results on the scoreboard on Friday night, the AP teacher evaluates his or her effectiveness by how the class did on the AP exam.

In other words, I have given a year of my life to trying to prepare my students for one test and my success or failure will, in many ways, be measured by the scores they achieve - or don't.

That's a lot of pressure to put on one morning's work - and Friday is the morning that the test will take place.

Since the last week in July, I have discussed the history of our great land with some of the best and brightest young people you would ever hope to meet. I have begged, cajoled and pleaded with them to read and study and listen and learn; and then read and study and listen and learn some more. We have laughed and occasionally cried together; shared pride in our nation's achievements and shame in her frailties. We have studied the famous and the infamous, from Capt. John Smith and Jamestown to George W. Bush and the Katrina disaster, and now it is finally test time. Friday, AP US History students all across the nation will be tested on what they have or haven't learned - and we won't find out how they've done until July.

But for better or for worse, the preparation is done, or will be tomorrow. For another year, the hay is in the barn.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.