Yesterday I read a tweet that made me gasp so loud my husband came running. When I read the aforementioned tweet, he was markedly less excited, but even he (a non-teacher) understood its implications.
Trevor Packer, College Board’s senior vice president for Advanced Placement Program and Instruction, began a series of tweets informing educators on the performance results of each AP exam. When he got to AP Lit, he didn’t pull any punches.
Packer’s first tweet said: “The 2018 AP English Literature scores: 5: 5.6%; 4: 14.6%; 3: 27.2%; 2: 36.1%; 1: 16.5%. This is bad news: after last year’s record low, this is a further significant decline in student performance, the lowest proportion of AP Lit scores of 3,4,5 ever, I believe.”
Ouch. Several teachers replied their sassy retorts, all beautifully worded of course, but that one didn’t hurt my feelings. Getting students to read anything, let alone a classic piece of literature is like trying to convince them to delete SnapChat, so I’m not surprised the scores declined a little. But more on that later.
It was Packer’s second tweet that made me gasp.
“What’s the reason for the continued drop in AP English Lit scores? Exam difficulty = constant; teaching ability has not declined; participation did not grow. A hypothesis: has increased focus on non-fiction texts in earlier years reduced student readiness for literary analysis?”
When my husband came running, I read the tweet, then said, “I think the College Board just challenged the Common Core!”
Now I’m aware that taking shots at the Common Core is no new development. People have been insulting it since its inception, and it hasn’t really slowed down much. But this was an international testing service pointing fingers at the standards in the Common Core for actually lowering test scores.
It certainly isn’t a new concept, just from a different voice. English teachers have been expressing their dismay at losing face-time with literature ever since CCSS began its enforcement. Several Twitter users agreed with Packer, saying:
“I said the same thing to my department! I truly believe that the non fiction focus has left the students with the inability to deeply read these pieces not to mention lacking the basic knowledge of terms.” @sonnimarie
“More and more nonfiction in earlier grades’ state testing is increasing focus on that area; lit analysis is becoming seen as a ‘luxury’ skill to teach. AP English Lit needs a pipeline in each school to function successfully for students en-masse.” @JasonProff
“This is exactly what I was thinking. Schools focus so much on non-fiction and argumentative writing now, including in elementary, that our students are lacking the ability to see things abstractly or layered with meaning.” @maestraJOLLY
“It was told to me years ago that it used to be 70% fiction, 30% nonfiction in most ELA classes. Now, it’s flipped. Shakespeare doesn’t matter. Novels are read as a class. Poems are cute little activities. But manuals, articles, maps, etc…those are Bible.” @theteachingcurc
Several educators agreed with him, noting that Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction reading, called informational text in their language, was designed to speak to a student’s entire school day, not just their time in ELA. When it was rolled out, many districts and administrators (and textbook companies) interpreted this to mean that ELA teachers must teach no more than 50% fiction and the rest should be devoted to studying informational text, starting a growing trend of analyzing nonfiction texts. While this movement has resulted in some great lesson plans, (and high scores for AP English Language students), it has also significantly cut into the time devoted to teach fictional texts, aka literature and poetry. Apparently CCSS has had a lot of confusion and backlash over this miscommunication, since they have a portion of their website devoted to explaining themselves more clearly:
Not all of Packer’s readers agreed with him–casting blame on other trends they’ve seen. Some blamed the lack of reading in today’s students, saying:
“I think these results shed some light on the issue. Kids are reading less overall, which affects their reading stamina, prior knowledge, and desire to dig into a work of literature.” @MeganPank
“If an athlete doesn’t practice free throws, he/she will probably go 2 for 6 in a game. If an actress doesn’t practice her lines, she probably won’t remember them for the play. If a student never reads anything…you can probably finish this statement.” @theteachingcurc
Others claimed that a lack of motivation interferes with these tests, especially since the AP tests occur in the first two weeks of May (I myself can attest to the partial truth of this, since our seniors had to come back after their finals to finish AP testing. Some even missed graduation practice for an exam):
“Speaking from my high school’s perspective: AP Lit is offered as a senior class…so senioritis and a blatant disregard for the course should be considered at least a minor factor for low scores.” @StefanLuts
Others blamed the rising trend in dual enrollment, where high school students can take college courses through their local school and earn college credit. This earns them more guaranteed credits, as opposed to AP tests which are score-based, and still dependent on the acceptance policies at each university.
“Dual enrollment opportunities have to have decreased the number of capable kids taking AP. College credit is easier to get that way, sadly.” @coopercoach
While Packer’s incriminating remarks against CCSS made some waves, I was equally intrigued by a tweet that followed it.
“Part of the issue w/ AP Eng Lit performance: the exam only has one question focused on a novel/play, but much class time is spent on long texts rather than close reading/analysis of short fiction/poetry. Top advice: reduce the # of novels/plays; focus on frequent short analyses.”
Yes. The VP of CollegeBoard actually advocated for fewer books in AP Lit. As can be expected, there was the expected outrage:
“By all means, let’s read fewer books. After all, reducing the number of books students have read prior to taking AP Lit has worked so well. *sarcasm*” @gmfunk
“I have to disagree with you here. Students can still be taught close reading skills AND full length tests. The MC and prose passage FRQ are chosen from full texts. Teachers can use full texts to teach test skills and still value the literary experience.” @TeachAPE
“Man, that sounds like a TERRIBLE idea. Are you seriously advocating for deemphasizing significant works? And that’s a better plan than revisiting the exam? Wow. Just, wow.” @mtownsel
I’ve given myself several days to think it over and have formed my final opinion: I agree with Trevor Packer.
Put down your torches and lower your pitchforks, I’m not going to stop teaching novels and plays. But I think I understand Mr. Packer’s advice here. In the days back before Twitter (yes, I taught AP Lit back then, cringe) and when AP testing was still growing, AP Lit teachers heavily emphasized classics. Most syllabi contained the same kinds of books, all at least fifty years old, and almost all written by white men. Some of these oldies-but-goodies include:
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (430 pages)
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (968 pages)
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (368 pages)
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1488 pages)
Tess of d”Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (592 pages)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (544 pages)
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (848 pages)
Absolam! Absolam! by William Faulkner (which also contains the longest sentence in literature at a whopping 1288 words!) (378 pages)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (464 pages)
(I’ve used Amazon’s top-selling paperback versions to compile page numbers, to attempt an equal approach to all titles)
Seeing a trend here? Now mind you, there are other books on that list that were shorter and/or by female or minority authors. But these classic behemoths have held on somehow and still remain on many AP Lit teachers’ reading lists. And it’s not that these books are bad, not at all. But they are long. And, yes, I’ll say it, sometimes they are needlessly long. I mean, my goodness, Dickens and Hugo were paid by the word! You don’t think they got a little verbose in hopes for a higher payday?
We obviously need to be reading novels and plays. But when forming a reading list, my game plan is to diversify my options and cover as many novels and plays as I reasonably can.
I still teach a long book by a white guy (All the King’s Men) and another longer book (Frankenstein). But the rest of my novels are shorter, being less than 250 pages long. They are also more diverse, both in writers and time period (Things Fall Apart and Beloved). I even teach a novella (The Metamorphosis), so scandalous! Let’s not forget the plays, which include A Raisin in the Sun, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night. Add to that over 60 different poems plus two individual novels (which is where you can encourage your stronger readers to take on the longer texts), and I feel my students are fairly prepared by the time they get to the AP exam. Would classical AP teachers consider them “well-read”? Probably not. But each year, they have many different titles to choose from when the dreaded open question rolls around. And I don’t assign more than 30 pages of reading each night, allowing time for other homework, after-school jobs, extra-curricular activities, and sometimes even a social life.
This is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I’ll try to sum up. Trevor Packer isn’t necessarily saying we should teach fewer books. He’s just asking if we could, and still get decent test scores. If I tried to teach 20 “classic” novels to my AP students I’d burn out (and frankly, I’d be bored). Furthermore, my students wouldn’t read them. Instead I’ve chosen a handful of diverse texts, which I love, and I teach them enthusiastically. When you make a book sound so exciting it’s harder for a student to ignore the readings; they want to know what they are missing! Since my AP scores haven’t come out yet I may change my tune by next week, but this strategy has worked in my favor over the past 10 years, so I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground.
Please subscribe to my email list or follow my blog for further notifications on future blog posts. If you’re interested in any of my teaching materials for the novels listed, please visit my TpT store for more information. If you teach AP Lit and do not currently incorporate an independent reading project, I’d strongly encourage you to begin using one immediately. I have a model for sale on TpT, called an Independent Novel Project, for a discounted price right now.