The AP Literature Exam Is Terrible

It’s just kind of objectively weird that college credit is awarded for a high score (usually a 5) on the AP English Literature and Composition test, right?

I mean, have you seen the test itself?

Section 1, worth 45 percent of the total, is 55 multiple choice questions answered within an hour, five sets of questions with eight to 13 questions each, asking about a passage of fiction, drama or poetry that the test taker has presumably never read prior to opening the test booklet.

Does this reflect the kind of assessment commonly used in college literature courses? Not in my experience teaching literature and observing others teach literature at five different higher education institutions, but maybe my experience is unusual.

Does this structure reflect the kind of engagement with literature we would like to foster in students? Do those who study literature spend a lot of their time answering snap questions about short passages of writing? Is that the kind of thinking that would well serve someone studying literature beyond the introductory course for which the AP exam is meant to stand in?

Section II, worth 55 percent of the total, is a “free response,” three short essays. Two of the essays (one on poetry, the other on prose fiction), are again on passages that the test taker has presumably not seen prior to the exam. The third essay requires students to use a text that they’ve previously read.

The test recommends 40 minutes per essay, so if one were doing the example test, for the first essay they would need to read the 50-line poem and then write a “well-written essay” that analyzes the literary elements and techniques as they ‘re employed to convey some aspect of meaning in the text.

I ask again, is this the kind of activity and assessment that teachers of literature value in the college classroom? Is this reflective of the work we ask college students to do when they take a literature course?

Please know, I’m not talking about difficulty. The AP Literature and Language test promises to be a grueling three-hour experience. I’m asking if this assessment is reflective of the kind of learning we associate with the study of literature in college.

It is not. We know it is not. And yet I guess we have to just pretend that it’s not a problem.

Layer on the fact that the free response essays are graded in a mere handful of minutes by an army of assessors working 12- to 15-hour days who are not given time to check the accuracy or factual integrity of the work and are instead merely looking for the moves that simulate some familiarity with boiled-down versions of academic conventions (like the five-paragraph essay), and the whole enterprise looks even more absurd to me

This is not a criticism of what’s happening in AP classrooms, either. My experience is that college literature teachers would find the kinds of activities and learning going on — not related to test prep, that is — quite familiar.

I also think it’s reasonable to believe that the students who take these AP courses have likely reached a level of proficiency that would serve them well in a college course. Millions of students are having high-quality educational experiences in those courses.

But what happens in their AP course, the work students do, what they read, the discussions they have, what they have learned… does not matter when it comes to earning college credit. What matters is that test.

I’m not naive — I understand the underlying forces that perpetuate the AP system. Heck, I benefited from them to the tune of a semester’s worth of college credit before starting college myself. It’s a great financial deal for the already-advantaged students who are more likely to have access to AP exams, and as college gets more and more expensive for everyone, knocking a semester or a year off the tab is highly attractive.

And the AP credits allow students to get out of the courses that “do not matter” and move on to the “real stuff,” am I right? Perhaps those of us who work in the humanities could reflect on the effect of assessments like the AP Literature and Composition exam on how people view our disciplines?

Would you be eager for more study of literature after taking that test?

What’s even more bonkers is how hard it can be for students to get credits from actual college courses to transfer from one institution to another. I’ve written many statements of support for students’ petitioning for credit and supplied my syllabi and even assignments dozens of times as students appeal initial denials.

But take that AP test, score high and you’re good. This is ridiculous. Even if the practice is going to continue, for honesty’s sake, we should just admit that.

In theory, there’s nothing stopping the College Board from applying the kind of assessment they do for the AP Art exam, a submission of a portfolio of work.

Oh wait, that would require a significant amount of time to evaluate at the numbers of students who take AP Lit versus AP Art. Can’t have that billion-dollar bottom line affected. As Annie Abrams reports in The Washington Postthe AP exams are a cash cow for the College Board.

There’s a lot going on inside the operations of higher education institutions that has little to do with learning, but there’s not a lot as transparently divorced from meaningful educational experiences as the AP Literature and Composition exam.

As is, it’s a huge wealth transfer to the College Board, sanctioned by numerous state legislatures, which require public institutions to accept the exam for credit because it takes them off the hook for some portion of funding general education.

You know what would disrupt this little scheme?

Tuition-free public higher education.

Honestly, the status quo is bananas, but I’ve learned to not hold my breath waiting for change.

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