AP Literature vs. College English

I had an interesting opportunity this semester to compare students who placed out of their first college English course based on Advanced Placement scores with those who didn’t. I’d like to share that experience, along with some of my conclusions, and see what you think.

Like most colleges, mine offers two levels of first-year composition: ENGL 1101, in which students focus on the basics of college and professional writing—the writing process, sentence structure, paragraph development, organization, avoiding common errors—while writing mostly short essays on fairly generic topics; and ENGL 1102, where they’re supposed to put those “basics” to work writing more substantive essays, usually in response to texts and often incorporating secondary sources.

For students who already write well when they enter college—and admittedly, there aren’t a lot of those, but there are some—1101 is often a breeze. Over the years, I’ve had a handful of students I thought probably could have skipped 1101 and moved right into 1102.

Well, this semester I had an entire class that did just that: a cohort of dual-enrollment students from three or four local high schools who had received credit for ENGL 1101 based on their scores on the Advanced Placement Literature exam and were taking an early-morning ENGL 1102 class on our campus.

I’ve taught these early-morning dedicated dual-enrollment sections for several years now. (They’re scheduled at 7:00 am so students can take a class at the college and then make it over to their high school in time for second period. Yes, I’m a morning person.) Typically I’ll teach an 1101 class in the fall and then have most of the same students for 1102 in the spring, making it possible for me to observe their progress throughout the writing sequence. Because dual-enrollment students are, by definition, academically advanced, I have had several who fit into the category I mentioned above, those who could possibly (I thought) bypass 1101.

But this is the first time I’ve ever had a large number of students who actually did so, and it was fascinating to compare them with the dually enrolled 1102 students I taught last spring—students who had not bypassed 1101 but rather had just taken it in the fall. The results were not what I would have expected.

In general, I would say that my 1102 students this fall were slightly superior in most ways to my 1102 students last spring. They have broader vocabularies, use more sophisticated sentences, and make more incisive comments during class discussions.

There’s just one problem: They don’t write as well.

That was something I noticed immediately after grading the first set of 1102 essays back in September, and I have to say I was surprised and a little disappointed. After all, these kids are supposed to be the cream of the crop. They’re among the best students at some of the best high schools in the state. They did well enough on the AP exam to skip a college-level class. Next fall, they’re all going to places like Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and Emory University.

And yet they struggled with developing their ideas and supporting their assertions with evidence. Also, their understanding of how to structure an essay was sketchy, at best, and several of them had significant grammatical problems. They got better as the semester went along because I spent more time talking about those issues in class than I normally do in ENGL 1102. But frankly, I had expected then to be much better writers than that coming in the door.

Or, to put it another way, my expectation of 1102 students in general is that they already know how to organize and develop an essay and that their writing won’t be filled with comma splices, sentence fragments, and subject-verb disagreements. We deal with those issues in 1101, and usually the better students have (more or less) mastered them by the time they advance to 1102. With my dually enrolled 1102 students last spring, that pretty much turned out to be the case.

But not for my dually enrolled 1102 students this fall, the ones who had tested out of 1101. Many of them clearly had not mastered those skills.

That led me to conclude that students in AP Literature either don’t write enough or else don’t do enough of the right kind of writing, writing that actually prepares them for college writing. (Maybe they just write to prepare for the AP exam, which isn’t the same thing.) I also suspect, as I’ve long suspected, that AP classes in general, and Lit in particular, aren’t nearly as “collegelike” as their proponents make them out to be.

And I wonder now if I’ve been wrong all along about those students I thought could have skipped 1101. Maybe even good high-school writers can benefit from learning, or reviewing, the basics in college. Or perhaps we should just use other criteria for deciding who tests out, something besides AP scores (like maybe an actual writing sample?). There’s no doubt in my mind that most of my 1102 students this fall would have been better served by taking 1101 than by skipping it based on a high-school class that was not, in my estimation, equivalent.

I do recognize that this isn’t exactly a scientific analysis. I’m aware of the potential flaws in my reasoning. For one thing, my sample was very small—two classes of about 22 students each, from only a handful of high schools—too small, perhaps, to reach any solid conclusions. Also, I naturally judged those students based on what I value as an instructor, so maybe I just thought my 1102 students last spring performed better because I was the one who taught them 1101 in the fall, and they wrote the way I like. And I don’t deny being somewhat biased in favor of dual enrollment as an early-college option for high-school students, as opposed to Advanced Placement. (I couldn’t deny it if I wanted to, because I wrote about it here a few months ago.) So it’s at least possible that I just saw what I wanted to see.

Still, I’m convinced that the difference in the quality of writing between the two classes was both real and significant, and I found it fascinating that my students from last spring, who theoretically weren’t as advanced because they didn’t test out of 1101, actually turned out to be better writers than their supposedly more college-ready counterparts.

As I said at the top, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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