Every summer there is one event that seriously kicks my lesson planning for the next year into gear: The College Board releases the Advanced Placement scores.
Each May, students across the country take Advanced Placement exams in a variety of subjects. Although I am always interested in the overall success rate of all the AP teachers at my school, I am, of course, anxious to see how well my AP Lit and Comp and AP Lang and Comp kids are going to do. Although the tests are taken in May, due to the complexity of the tests, they must be hand scored, which is time consuming. Each of my tests not only has a 48-55 question multiple choice section which students get one hour to answer (after reading 4-5 excerpts from poems, literature and works of non-fiction), but they also have to write 3 essays, also based on poetry, literature and non-fiction in the span of 2 hours.
For anyone who has never taken an AP test, these are not easy questions. Passing the test is supposed to show that students in high school have the same general knowledge a student would have after completing and passing an introductory college course in the subject. These kids have to not only be able to read and analyze complicated piece of literature and non-fiction, they have to answer nuanced questions about author’s intent, themes, and literary techniques and they have to do it in a manner of minutes. Really more like seconds when you consider they have to first read and analyze each passage. They get around 30 seconds to answer each question.
Here’s a sample question for you: Paragraphs 1 and 2 develop their ideas by means of
I) metaphor and simile
D) I and II
E) I, II and III
So, in 30 seconds, students have to go through and look over two paragraphs, figure out which of these literary devises are used and if they help develop the idea of the paragraph. They call these “killer questions” for a reason.
These tests are pretty darn stressful for my students. And while their performance on these tests does not directly impact my evaluation as a teacher the way the results of the ISTEP tests do*, I know my principal and my superintendent, as well as our community cares very much about the outcome of these tests. In fact, only two years ago, it was decided that the majority of our AP math and science classes would be replaced with ACP courses in order to give more students a chance to earn college credit (our AP scores in these areas were low). I love the AP program I have developed in the English department and I desperately want to keep it going, so every summer I wait for the scores to be released.
When the scores are released, I hold my breath, sign in and hope they’ve absorbed all I’ve tried to teach them.
I always check on my seniors first. In part because most of them have taken an AP test, and more importantly, an AP English test before. They know how the test will be structured, how to manage their time, and they have practiced answering both the multiple choice and essay questions so often, I’m pretty sure most of them could take the test in their sleep. Considering how some of them looked the day of the test, they might have actually been sleeping a bit. This year my seniors made me very proud. Not only did 82% of them pass the test (the national average is 55%), 63% got 4’s or 5’s on the test** which is more than double the national average of 28%. In general, my kids pass this test at a rate of 78-100% (only got that 100% one year, but I’ll take it), so this was about what I expected, but their 4 and 5 rates were just wonderful.
My confidence was not as high when I opened the file with my junior scores. Their scores are historically lower. This is due in part to inexperience with the test and inexperience in English classes. It is also due to the fact that I teach AP Lit to juniors, which is not a common practice. I have my reasons. I think they are very good reasons, but I know a large percentage of schools basically replace American Literature, which is generally taught during 11th grade with AP Language, since this course is supposed to focus more on non-fiction and it is very easy to work the founding documents of our country into the curriculum. This is a great way to teach the course. I did it for years and it worked fine. The way I teach it now just works better for me and since I made the change 3 years ago, the overwhelming majority of students who I keep in touch with after high school say the switch in classes was very beneficial to them in college.
As usual, I digress a bit.
As predicted, my AP Lit scores were not what I was hoping for. My pass rate was only 58%, which is the lowest pass rate I’ve had in just over a decade of teaching the course. I was expecting lower scores than usual. This is the largest group of students I’ve ever had take the test (it was nearly 4 times as large as the first group I taught 11 years ago). This was also the first year I had multiple students fail my actual class. As a rule, I have two or three kids who get a D during a grading period. Until this year, I’ve only had one student actually get an F in AP Lit. This year I had 7 kids get F’s and several more get D’s. I also had far too many barely scrape by with the C needed for academic honors. I expected my lowest pass rate ever, but I didn’t expect it to be only 5% higher than the national pass rate. I’ve never had a pass rate below 65% in this course. It was a bit of a blow.
My one bright moment, however, was when I went online to find the national averages and found out that according to Trevor Packer, the head of the College Board, this was lowest pass rate for AP Lit in a decade. So while my kids hit a historic low, so did kids across the nation.
Now I wait for the AP planning guides to come out so I can get a better understanding of where my kids struggled the most on the test in order to retool those lessons in hopes of boosting those scores next year.
*Part of my “success” as an educator is based on how well students at my school perform on the ISTEP test. They take the English portion of this test during their sophomore year of high school. Despite the fact that I only teach juniors and seniors and have no chance to impact their ability to pass this test, part of how “effective” I am as a teacher is based on their scores. I am also impacted by their scores on the ISTEP math and biology test. This is true for every teacher in my school. Art teachers, music teachers, PE teachers, social studies teachers, etc. are all held accountable for students they have never had in class in subjects they don’t teach. Now, go ahead and tell me teachers are the problem with our education system.
**The test is scored 1-5 with a score of 3, 4 or 5 as passing