Wednesday, June 20, 2007

AP Writing Is A Fraud

Yeah, you heard it here first. AP writing, the kind done in response to a prompt in forty minutes in a classroom every May is not real writing. It is a specific skill that can be taught and honed in practice sessions. But if one wants to read real writing, material written by someone with something to say, a person willing to craft his message in carefully revised and rewritten prose, then the advice I give is to avoid reading anything written under the strictures of an AP exam.

The AP exams in literature and composition and language and composition consist of fifty-five multiple choice questions analyzing selected passages. Part two of the exam is to compose three essays in response to a specific prompt. Students are given sixty minutes for the multiple choice portion, which is worth about forty-five percent of the total score. The essays must be written in 120 minutes, or two hours, and count for fifty-five percent of the final score.

A sample question might read as follows, taken from Barron’s How To Prepare For The AP Exam in English Literature and Composition by George Ehrenhaft: “In many works of literature a character conquers great obstacles to achieve a worthy goal. Sometimes the obstacle is a personal impediment, at other times it consists of the attitudes and beliefs of others.

“Pick a play or novel in which an important character must overcome a personal or social obstacle in order to achieve a worthwhile goal. Then write a well-organized essay that explains the goal and how the character reaches it. Also explain the ways in which the character’s struggle contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

“Choose a title from the following list or another play or novel of comparable literary merit.”

What follows is a list of works such as Crime and Punishment, The Crucible, and The Great Gatsby.

A sample question from the language and composition exam, again taken from the Barron’s book, might sound like this: “Carefully read the following excerpt from Discourses In America, a collection of essays written in 1885 by Matthew Arnold. Drawing on your knowledge and experience, write a well-organized essay in which you support, refute, or qualify Arnold’s implication that we must be wary of those who pass themselves off as patriots, for they are all too often scoundrels as well.” The passage follows immediately.

To answer these questions in “well-written” essays will take time, and to address them adequately and artfully, a writing process must be used. Time and drafts are non-existent on the AP exam. It is the paper, the pen and forty minutes for each essay. This is not the way real writers write.

The only time I have ever seen writers operate under these conditions was when I sat behind the journalists’ table at a sporting event. By the time the game concluded, the writers were already typing their stories into their notebook computers which were linked to the newsroom at the paper. The thing most people do not realize is that these journalists are not creating their stories out of the air. They have spent hours, sometimes days, covering their subjects before this actual writing occurs. Therefore, the prewriting stage has been going on for a long period of time. The actual composition may occur in forty minutes to an hour, but they are working from days of notes and background.

An AP student does not know the subject of the prompt until the test lands on the desk in front of her. This is hardly a fair test, even for an experienced writer. To ask students to write this way as a measure of their ability is ridiculous. The only option a student has is to study previous years’ questions and practice writing timed essays in a format approach. There are several standardized essay formats out there; the one I encounter most often is the five paragraph essay.

As a result, writing, which is a form of deep thinking, becomes an exercise in formatted, assembly line work using selected buzzwords and jargon approved by the College Board. My philosophy is that writing an essay involves addressing a subject. It may take five paragraphs, or three, or twenty. Look at the writing David Foster Wallace does, or William T. Vollman, or David Sedaris. How can you fit the essay to a format? It is a living breathing entity that must be given its space to grow and develop as the writer creates.

Most real writers could probably handle this test, but that is only because they have spent a career writing and rewriting. To ask a high school kid to do this, a student just formulating the beginnings of a style as a writer, who is only just now learning how to think and write, is a travesty. If a college professor were to examine one of my student’s portfolios of writing from ten months of English class, she would get a much better feel for that student’s writing and thinking skills. Being able to create a formulated essay on command is not an indication of intelligence, or even proof of having taken a college-level course.

If one wants to learn to write well, there are only a few rules and options. One must have something to say. One must have studied writing, grammar, and the structure of the English language. One must write and revise and practice, preferably under the supervision of a good writing instructor, one who can do the craft as well as teach it.

I guess this is why the College Board has launched the AP Audit this year. Teachers must submit a syllabus and documentation from their AP courses. These materials are evaluated by a college level teacher who then approves the course as “AP” or asks for more information and materials in order to satisfy the AP requirements. Too many teachers simply teach the test, so I think the College Board is trying to regulate what is taught in the classroom.

This is a good idea in theory, but it may not eliminate a teacher teaching to a test. Test training is a lot easier than teaching someone to think. Just look at all the SAT preparation courses and tutors out there. They are not teaching thinking skills; they are teaching students how to handle, and may be even defeat, the test itself.

Even though I teach AP, I would prefer that my students write authentically, meaning that they compose their essays for publication, as if large groups of people will be reading their work. Writing is not an exercise. Making it one leads to dull, boring, uninspired drivel. When a student has slaved over an essay, writing and rewriting, and I can see the growth evident in each draft, until the final product emerges, a piece of writing that has grace and subtlety, insight and wisdom, that is the piece I want to read.

Save the AP writing for robots.


  1. haha!! I totally agree with you how the current system is restricting the student's ability to write freely and enjoy themselves. We do not have the AP system here in singapore but we have something much much similar to the AP exams, without the Multiple choice qns. Damn, we singapore students are one giant crowd of robots...I am really glad that "Save the AP writing for robots." is coming from a teacher, makes me feel so much better =D

  2. While I don't love the timed essays of the AP curriculum, I certainly don't feel relegated to them. I think you are missing the point somewhat by calling AP writing a "fraud." It's not fraudulent to expect a standard--a high one at that. After all, this is a standardized test of sorts that will allow students to earn college credits at a much discounted rate while still in high school. Furthermore, in the College Board's description for AP writing they state that they do no want to see students write "tired, formulaic" essays. As a reader of the test, I have seen many student essays over the years that are authentic, creative and wonderful examples of fully developed ideas. You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but to make an overly generalized comment about the kind of writing AP students "must" do for the test seems a little misleading. As for the test, there must some sort of standard in place so that the scores on the test are as fair as possible.


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