When I took AP English in 1993-4 it was still a single course. It was one of the hardest classes I'd ever taken, and hardest teachers. I ended up earning a 5 and tested out of East Carolina University's English requirements.
I only ever took one English class in undergraduate, a Shakespeare course required by my theatre degree.
This was not an advantage. As I progressed through my M.S. Ed. and then M.A in English, and now finishing my PhD, I realize how much I lost by not taking English as an undergrad. From what I see in the First Year Composition (FYC: 101/110, 102/120) courses I've taught, as well as 200 level expository writing courses and 300 level literature courses, it continues to make a difference.
AP courses are pushed in many schools, and in certain programs such as AVID, for their rigor and their college prep qualities. In addition to this I've seen in many poorer schools that students and parents are encouraged to start taking AP courses sophomore year and take 5-6 AP courses in their junior and senior years in order to "compete." This move is also sold to them as a way to spend less money on college, as they will transfer in as sophomores or juniors with all their credits. That AP courses are cheaper than college credit tuition. Dual credit courses are sold in a similar way.
Now, with math and science classes I can see the appeal and relevance. I also understand the argument of take AP courses while you still have the considerable support system of high school- one on one tutoring, parent support, extra help and resources. Unfortunately, the argument falls apart when you start talking about humanities or start examining the details.
Some key differences often not addressed in AP courses:
- Time: high school classes often meet for 50 minutes five days a week for a year or if on the block system 90 minutes five days a week for a semester. Most high schools expect students to work every day their in class, an issue of "seat time" by which schools are judged. This often means students do more work but not necessarily for pedagogical reasons
- Rigor then gets mistaken for "more work."
- Also, if they're taking the recommended 5-6 AP courses per year, this means the students are overwhelmed, buried under work
- Money: In many cases AP is the realm of richer kids. Some schools pay for the exam and/or offer waivers or financial aid. Most don't. AP exams are $92 each. In addition to this most AP courses require students to buy their own materials, an obstacle to lower income students. Compound this with lack of resources at home (Internet access, computers, etc.) and the social-economic divide widens.
- Training: While College Board offers workshops and conferences as well as online resources and training the simple fact is AP teachers are not college professors. There is no requirement to align your course, teaching, materials to actual college courses. In none of my training was I ever encouraged or pointed to college professors' syllabus to try and align mine with theirs. There is no encouragement or incentive to go observe college courses or speak to college professors to see how to bridge the gap.
- Alignment: While AP Language and Composition covers some of the material seen in a FYC course (rhetorical moves for one) neither of the AP English courses bear any resemblance to FYC.
The Medieval Academy of America recently announced moves to try and influence AP course curriculum as there were clear gaps and errors in what was being taught in AP history courses. There was an outcry by medievalists as they realized students were taught that history obviously started in the Renaissance (not even early modern). As someone who just observed someone comparing dystopian literature to "The Dark Ages" versus the Renaissance, my cringing feels their pain.
The same disconnect exists in the AP English courses (now two courses, AP Language which is typically taught in 11th grade and AP Literature which is typically taught in 12th grade).
College Board is very specific to state that they have no required works, or syllabus but rather a series of guidelines and recommendations. For AP Literature they provide this. For AP Language and Composition this.
On their webpage, College Board states:
The AP® Program unequivocally supports the principle that each individual school must develop its own curriculum for courses labeled “AP.” Rather than mandating any one curriculum for AP courses, the AP Course Audit instead provides each AP teacher with a set of expectations that college and secondary school faculty nationwide have established for college-level courses
AP teachers must submit their syllabus for the audit. But I don't know who evaluates them. I do know that graders are AP high school teachers who are paid.
I think if more high school teachers understood what FYC and college English covers, and if more college professors knew what high school English covers, they'd start to see the issues and see how not addressing this hurts all of us.
Here are some of the consequences of this disconnect:
- If students are in AP Language and Composition and then AP Literature (which most do, few if any students take one and don't progress to the other) then they miss covering foundational American Literature and British Literature texts as AP courses have their own required reading and therefore do not cover the "typical" 11th and 12th grade required reading. This means that students are never exposed to expected, canon classics. While there are lots of issues with the canon, there is still a reason why they are canon.
- This also has issues for high school teachers as these AP courses then don't align with Common Core
- Across the country, the last decade has seen radical changes in FYC. There has been a shift towards emphasizing writing for specific rhetorical situations, teaching according to a genre model, emphasizing multimodal literacy, and portfolio work. None of which is taught in AP Language and Composition or AP Literature.
- Because students are using AP English courses to test out of undergraduate English (a score of 3 or above, out of 5, gets them out at most schools' English requirements).
- At most schools because almost everyone takes FYC there is a certain amount of acclimation that happens in these courses. Here we call it sequence 0. It addresses how to work in college, study, resources, how to navigate office hours, the library, juggling work load. These are all key skills. And they are resources AP students are not getting. This has a cumulative effect as the gap becomes more apparent as they move up in courses.
But at this point, I believe the gap is simply too wide.
College Board MUST redesign their AP English courses so that they realign with the reality of the current college English courses. Colleges need to rethink how and when they award credit for AP courses. College professors and high school teachers need to have more conversations about what they do in their classrooms and how they can support each other.
There are some practical steps we can all take:
- Both sides can look at each others courses and syllabus and see what the expectations are. A lot of this can be solved by regular dialogue between high school and college professors
- MLA and other professional English organizations need to stand up and insist that College Board make changes to their English courses
- Invested people then need to be willing to put in the work to revise these courses
- College Board needs to revise both its course and teacher expectations