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When I was a new English department head in the mid-1980s, my principal suggested that we add an AP English course. I told him I didn’t like the idea because it was “elitist.” He retorted that the course would be added, and I would be teaching it. Preparing for an unwanted task, I enrolled in a weeklong AP Summer Institute in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. For me that summer session helped shatter the myth that AP English towers at the top of a hill only the most highly talented English students can ascend.

In that week at St. Johnsbury I realized that rigor is the core of AP English, not ZIP codes, not last year’s English grade, not teacher recommendations. Yes, there is a correlation between SAT® verbal scores and AP Exam grades. All of these criteria can be factors, but they needn’t be eliminators. If one quality ranks above the rest, that quality is motivation. Some argue that motivation is not enough—I say it’s a good place to start.

Take, for example, a student who was an exceptional reader. As a ninth-grader this student had read more than I had in my first 20 years of life. His ninth-grade English teacher stayed after school twice to go over the format of the AP English Literature and Composition Exam. Because the student could not afford to pay for the exam, the teacher paid the fee. In May the ninth-grader sat for the exam with the 18-year-olds and received his grade of 4 in July. That thinking-out-of-the-box teacher had opened a door for this young man. During his senior year he participated in a dual-enrollment program and earned college credit.

When I first started teaching AP English Literature and Composition, my students earned grades of mostly 3s with a few 4s and no 5s. I was so frustrated. We had killer summer reading assignments with tests on the second day of class: still, the grades did not go up. I attended many professional development workshops and altered my writing and reading instruction. I added creative writing as an integral part of the curriculum. This helped motivate the students as they experimented as writers with the techniques used by the authors they read.

Our school system developed a version of vertical teaming in which K–12 teachers designated as curriculum team leaders periodically met. We instituted a junior-year AP English Language and Composition course. Our state implemented a high-stakes exit exam administered during sophomore year. Rigor became an expectation in earlier grades. Now many of our students earn AP Exam grades of 5. We still have our 3s and occasional 2s. But our students have a system that supports them. More doors are open and many guides help our students through.

My favorite time of the school year is when the students who did not earn the 4s and 5s return from college in the fall and tell me that they are at the head of their classes in English and have been asked to tutor and share their expertise with others. As educators, we must remember both equity and access. We must sometimes think out of the box for all our students and create policies that implement that concept.

Authored by

  • Mary Ellen Ackerman

    Brewster, Massachusetts