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The Trouble With The AP Literature And Composition Exam

Reading and interpretation should be contested ground, writes Alex Green. Reading is, after all, the foundation for the ideas that forge the conditions for a just society. (Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
Reading and interpretation should be contested ground, writes Alex Green. Reading is, after all, the foundation for the ideas that forge the conditions for a just society. (Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash)
COMMENTARY

As you settle into a comfortable chair with a book in hand on one of these chilly, late-fall evenings, know that hundreds of thousands of young adults around the nation are doing the very same thing, and suffering through every moment. Each year, a fresh crop of high school students enters Advanced Placement (AP) English courses. While adults read novels for pleasure and entertainment, AP students engage in mandatory reading for a much more concrete purpose and reward, both of which are worthy of our skepticism.

The AP Literature and Composition exam, which measures students' ability to interpret and write about what they read, costs $93 to take. A student who does well on it  can get out of introductory college English courses. But nearly half of those who take the test don’t do well at all, and their year of preparation gets them out of nothing but good money.

The AP course is another badge of specious merit on the near-infinite badge-collecting journey of modern youth.

The AP is big business, administered by the not-for-profit College Board, which takes in nearly $700 million a year. Predictably, then, the College Board has some well-tailored responses when students consistently do a terrible job on their exams. One of them is that, although they have recommendations, it is the responsibility of individual teachers to determine how each course is taught.

This is coy. Any course that uses the name AP has to pass an audit by the College Board. The Board also sells curricular materials, and in the case of Literature and Composition, they have a suggested reading list.

The AP reading list contains some authors I would never recommend, period, never mind to a 17-year-old  I cared to turn into a passionate reader. But that's a matter of personal taste. What I take issue with assigning, say, the drab Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins  isn't the author, per se, but the prescription itself. Teaching specific authors recommended by a large company for the purpose of coming up with some common mode of interpretation reveals the AP’s ultimate goal: Offer access to the Ivory Tower, if not the skill or experience to do well there.

Students don't enroll in AP English courses because doing so will make them stronger readers, but because it helps get them into college where, if all goes well, they don't have to take an actual college course. The paradox is rich.

The AP course is another badge of specious merit on the near-infinite badge-collecting journey of modern youth. One school website touts testimonials that summarize this mindset nicely. “I got to skip the first English course I would have normally been forced to take,” writes one student. “I found that most of the stuff that we were doing, I already knew,” writes another.

The disturbing offer for passing the exam is ultimately the easy reward of class distinction, and it shapes the AP’s second justification for why students perform so poorly on the English exams. Students struggle, they suggest, because “...both exams are more difficult than average to do well on.” Such neutral, blameless rationale overlooks a more likely reason so many fare poorly on the test: What the exam really measures are the limited literary preferences of a small group of people whose primary concern is not to foster reading as a means to fueling popular discourse about books in America today.

What I take issue with assigning, say, the drab Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins  isn't the author, per se, but the prescription itself.

Reading and interpretation should be contested ground. Reading is, after all, the foundation for the ideas that forge the conditions for a just society. But good reading is no more accomplished by ticking off authors on a checklist than rich experience is had by taking only the toll-roads, stopping at specific monuments, and passing through a narrow set of gates.

The AP Literature and Composition exam is a narrow set of gates. It takes eager readers and teaches them that joy and success in the world of letters are a matter not of following one's curiosity and passions, but of following a list. At stake is nothing less than the immeasurable peace and satisfaction that come from flipping through the pages of a new book on a quiet evening in fall, just for the pleasure of it.

Related:

Alex Green Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Alex Green is a writer and researcher.

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