AP Literature, the College Board and You

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Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

It's a commonly recognized fact that AP classes are designed to prepare students for the skills and stamina required in college. But what happens when the design precludes students from developing the skills they need?

Jac McCarty, Editor-in-Chief

AP courses. We all know the drill. They prepare you for college, offering university-level curricula in nearly 40 different subjects to high school students across the globe. However, many students also suspect that the College Board may not always have students’ best interests at heart. Whether it’s pricing tests at $94 a pop or lobbying state governments to require students to take the SAT, at its core, no matter its non-profit label, the College Board is a business, and at the end of the day, businesses must prioritize the bottom line, even if that means sacrificing product quality.

This is where we come to the AP Literature and Composition class. While certainly not the worst of College Board’s college prep offenders, it still raises some glaring concerns that merit discussion as we approach AP testing season. 

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College Board has been frequently criticized for its high profit margins and pricey exams. In 2013, CEO David Coleman made over $700,000, despite its status as a non-profit.

According to Professor Kimberly Mori, an associate professor of education at Lone Star College-Cyfair, the problem lies within the multiple-choice section. “The whole idea of a multiple-choice test—it leading to a particular grade because you got certain answers supposedly ‘right’—is sort of a fiction, and it doesn’t truly represent, in many cases, actual learning or the outcome that we really hope to see, which is students having gained an understanding of the text that is relatable and applicable to [current experiences].” 

In most college literature classrooms, Mori explained, professors assess students’ understanding through their ability to communicate a novel’s themes effectively through an essay. Yet for some reason, in this supposed “college preparatory” course, 45 percent of students’ final exam scores come from how they perform on the multiple-choice section.

In this reporter’s opinion, the weighting of the multiple-choice section is likely attributable to the fact that multiple-choice tests are easier and less time-consuming to grade. This does not change the fact that a not unsubstantial percentage of AP Literature classes is spent learning how to accurately ‘tick the right box’—an essentially useless skill when it comes to real-world applications of literature analysis.

According to Boulder High AP Literature teacher Laura Cornacchione, the section’s inclusion is due in part to the high levels of grade inflation within the high school system, both at BHS and, she assumes, across the country. She says that the multiple-choice section provides an objective and quantitative scale to measure students against, a scale that excludes grade-inflation from the equation altogether. 

“In a perfect world,” she said, “we would read poems in a group, and you would have somebody who really knew the poetry well to guide and question, and the students would have all the time to explore their own thoughts and learn how to read better and understand the allusions, the metaphors and all the honest poetry, and it would all just be a really great activity. And at the end, we can put a stamp on everybody that said ‘yay.’ Unfortunately, that’s not what colleges want.” 

They absolutely ignore kids who may get actual brilliance but don’t achieve brilliance in 40 minutes.”

The multiple-choice section, she says, is a fairly accurate indicator of a student’s knowledge and talent. “You would think there would be a way to be a really good writer without being as good at multiple-choice, or that you can be a really good multiple-choice taker without being a good writer, and statistically, actually that’s false.” 

However, the fact remains that most college literature courses assess students using long-form essays, something that Cornacchione acknowledges: “My biggest critique is the way the English exams are structured; it really privileges kids who can perform under stress and under pressure and perform quickly. They absolutely ignore kids who may get actual brilliance but don’t achieve brilliance in 40 minutes. So I think, again, in an ideal world, it would have a more portfolio element.” 

Mori agreed, saying that a longer essay could foster better depth in thinking and more accurately reflect a student’s true skills on a test. 

In the end, however, this is not the ideal world, and the AP Literature class is still a high school course, no matter the college preparatory skills it claims to tout. 

Every business must improve its products when deficiencies are detected, and the College Board should be no exception. It’s high time this AP course got the overhaul it needs; it’s high time AP Literature became a truly college-level class.