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Guest Post: Teaching Writing Around/To/Despite the AP English Language Exam

“Author’s purpose” is a concept central to the Advanced Placement English Language curriculum. Preparing for the standardized exam at the end of the course complicates students’ own writerly senses of purpose.

April 17, 2019
 
 

AP season is almost upon us. Annie Abrams has noticed some disconnects between intention and practice and wonders what effect those disconnects have on students and their writing. - JW

 

Guest Post: Teaching Writing Around/To/Despite the AP English Language Exam

By Annie Abrams

The Advanced Placement program’s name is based on its promise to deliver college-level curriculum to high school students. As a high school teacher with university teaching experience and a doctorate in American literature, teaching Advanced Placement English Language and Composition should be a natural fit. But I’ve struggled to balance preparing students for the exam with facilitating their appreciation for and investment in other forms of writing. Students become attached to the idea of “rules” that translate into high scores. Doing well on the exam replaces other senses of purpose. I’m continually frustrated by the pull to wrest reading and writing from meaningful contexts and to map texts and words over grids of point values.

The AP English Language exam affords school systems an answer to questions about goals—the final assessment justifies the existence of the course and, controversially, serves as a check on teachers who may not otherwise provide “rigorous” instruction. To be sure, teaching to the test introduces students to some of the skills they may need in college English classes, like close attention to language. But one cost of producing successful test-takers is spending time and energy to teach forms of writing that are divested from genuine communication.

Teaching to the test makes me wince because the context sanitizes the practice of writing and forestalls its meaning. Literacy has been an instrument of power since America’s founding. The connection between writing and national identity is complex, and civic engagement is not the only type of community-building writing can achieve. But a primary goal of secondary education is to prepare students to be 18–to give them tools to participate in public life. The types of writing the exam requires are pale simulations of the types students might use in communities in which they will oneday participate. That level of detachment obscures the ways writers make meaning and violates the principles on which the exam was founded. 

The Advanced Placement program has roots in Cold War-era education reform—civic engagement was one of its primary goals. In 1952, as Oliver Brown’s case against the Topeka Board of Education began winding through court, a committee of Northeastern private school teachers and college professors investigated the possibility of offering college-level coursework in secondary schools. In General Education in School and College, a report of their findings, they invite readers (the committee’s professed target audience was not only the Educational Testing Service and the College Board, but also their own students) to think of the initiative as civic and noble. The report is rife with patriotic language. The writers conceived of the program’s liberal arts emphasis as an explicit anti-totalitarian measure. “A liberally-educated man demands freedom,” they declared. “When totalitarian dictatorship triumphs in the modern world, truly ‘liberal’ education is the first object of attack, since it is one of the most obvious bulwarks against the brutalizations and atomization of the individual.” The committee advanced the notion that, by maximizing students’ intellectual development, the new scheme could bolster the strength of American democracy as it faced a direct threat during the Cold War.

Facility with language, in particular, was crucial to the committee’s vision for civic-minded liberal arts education. A plan for an English language course took pride of place among the disciplinary offerings they sketched out. “For his own sake and for the sake of democracy of which he is a part, the individual must be able to distinguish between the false coin and the true in the talk and writing to which mass media of communication now subject us all,” they wrote. AP English Language and Composition developed as a means to help students process an influx of televised and printed speeches and political arguments. American students needed to be able to organize their thoughts and to understand themselves as engaged participants in public discourse about the nation’s future. 

In part because they conceived of writing as a way for an individual to express dissent, the committee was sensitive to the emotional dimension of writing instruction. Given the depersonalized, sterile feel of the current exam, I was surprised by the committee’s profession that “the desire to write up to one’s own capacity is of the first importance. The means used by a good teacher to encourage and needle a student into reaching his own best level are too personal to be communicated.” They continued, “Probably in no other art or craft is there as little agreement concerning approved techniques of instruction as in the field of the teaching of writing.” Testing the full scope of how and why and what English instructors teach about writing has always been tricky business.

In keeping with the course’s history, the College Board’s current bulletin about it makes explicit that one of its goals is still “intellectually responsible civic engagement.” The bulletin warns, “Composing responses to exam prompts is not the primary writing skill students are expected to develop in the course.” Instead, the course is supposed to help students situate themselves as participants in historically rooted, ongoing cultural conversations. The College Board encourages teachers to promote “flexible ways of understanding reading and writing processes” that disrupt “templates or rules.” But the standardized exam, which demands three types of essays, each with distinct generic conventions, in just over two hours, arguably rewards neither flexibility nor process. 

Over the past few months in my own classroom, I’ve tried to emphasize why conventions and “rules” make sense in some contexts and not in others. Despite my best efforts to teach otherwise, too many of my students still think of the exam as an end in itself, and of their scores as meaningful reflections of self-worth or writerly potential. The College Board’s sterility, anonymity, and size can dehumanize the writing process. The affective dimension of writing—joy, inspiration, belonging within a community, mischief, frustration and eventual satisfaction at untangling a knot of an idea—all too easily gives way to anxiety about time management and decoding a set of vague, mysterious, faceless rubrics. In other words, teaching to the test either wholly replaces or sits uneasily beside other senses of purpose, including the original vision of civic engagement the program was ostensibly designed to promote. 

And so the bulletin discourages teachers from drilling to the test. In keeping with the course emphasis on attention to writers’ purposes and audiences, educators and students should bear in mind that “the AP Exam…is a single assessment context with a number of constraints that distinguish exam writing from classroom writing. The AP Exam provides a summative assessment, in the form of a numerical score, on a timed writing sample that isn’t expected to be revised and isn’t part of a student’s classroom learning process.” This disclaimer divorces “exam writing” from other genres students practice in class. By differentiating between the types of writing students do for the exam and the types of writing that exist beyond it, the College Board gives teachers permission to recognize that the final assessment for the course may not align neatly with the writing instruction that precedes it. But being responsive to  anxious students makes the exam impossible to ignore. 

Given the recent breakdown in civic discourse, the Aspen Institute’s recently published research about re-centering education around relationships, and the historical aims of the Advanced Placement program, it makes sense to emphasize to students that writing is about facilitating and fostering communication, not meeting quantitative goals. I’m not sure how a standardized exam could reinforce that concept. 

Last week, I tasked my AP Language students with writing op-eds on topics of their choosing. As the exam draws near and they start to prep in explicit ways—memorizing mnemonics, developing strategies and formulas for working within time constraints, practicing clear communication without much investment in the subject matter—I want to maintain space for writing that’s more immediately meaningful. Instead of grading their op-eds, I’ll be redistributing them to their classmates for peer feedback. I hope they learn that effective formal writing can be affective. In strange alignment with the College Board’s goals for the course, I hope my students understand the distinction between writing for the exam and writing with conviction, heart, and responsibility to others. I wrote this post in an effort to maintain an understanding of the distinction myself.

 

Bio: Annie Abrams holds a doctorate in American literature from NYU. She’s currently teaching at a public school in New York City and researching the history of the Advanced Placement program. Twitter: @anndaraabrams

 

 

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