Like most teachers, I dislike tests created by for-profit agencies promoting textbooks and particular methods of learning. But there is one test I don’t mind teaching to: the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition test.
Advanced Placement, a program designed by College Board and sub-contracted to the Educational Testing Service for test development and grading, offers high school students advanced courses with the aim of earning course credits upon college entrance. Institutions of higher learning award credits differently, but in the 21 years I’ve taught Advanced Placement English, nearly all my students who have done well on the test have either earned credits or exempted out of freshman-level English. Multiple good AP scores can earn students credits totaling a semester or more, saving tuition or allowing students flexibility in course selection.
I have also spent a week every year grading the test—originally near Princeton, New Jersey and later in Florida and Kentucky. Those readings have grown exponentially; this year 330,000 students in the U.S. and abroad took the AP English Literature test. During all this growth, the test has maintained its integrity.
Why is teaching to this test different? Simply put, it measures what I endorse in English class: close reading and clear writing. It does not require students to know certain texts, but instead to articulate how authors use the craft of writing to communicate a message.
Teachers therefore have the freedom to “teach to the test” using the texts they love and are enthusiastic about. As long as students are exposed to writing of each of the last four centuries, exactly what is in the curriculum is not very important. The course doesn’t rely on “covering” authors or literary works, but instead on the skills of analytical thinking and writing.
As I tell my students the first day, my class is not about the “whats” of literature, but about the “hows.” How does the author use particular words and sentence constructions to convey meaning? Anyone can look up a plot synopsis on Sparks Notes, but only a small percentage of students can rely on their own skills to examine how the author writes effectively.
Is the test absolutely perfect? No, it’s not, and those on the Test Development Committee admit to making mistakes. A few years ago students were asked to analyze Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Convergence of the Twain” about the sinking of the Titanic. The test footnoted “Titanic” for students (who had seen the popular film and didn’t need an explanation), but didn’t footnote the words “convergence” or “twain.” That led to some very creative guessing on students’ parts.
But even when the phrasing of a question can be second-guessed, there is a safety valve in place in that the test is graded on a curve. Years when the poem or prose essays are particularly hard do not, therefore, see appreciably fewer students earning high scores.
My 148 students are now awaiting their scores on this year’s test (and not so eager to buy college essays), and I am confident those who read and wrote with insight and clarity will be rewarded for their skills. And that’s why I love teaching to this test!