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My new teaching assignment: AP English

After many years teaching ninth graders, this year I get AP English Literature. It’s been fun over the summer to start preparing for the class. I’ve been grappling with two big questions.

  • What’s the big goal? – to pass the test, or something else?
  • What books should we read?

This post will start on the first question.

When I got my assignment, my first reaction was, Let’s get these scores up. The pass rate at my school has plummeted since 2008, when 62 percent, about the national average, earned a score of 3, 4, or 5. This year, only 8 percent passed. That’s alarming, disturbing, and inexcusable.

It makes sense, then, that my primary purpose should be to help students pass the test. After all, passing the AP would mean that students would likely feel confident walking into an introductory college English course.

But what if they don’t? What happens if my students and I work hard and still fail the test?

Or, what happens if 50 percent pass? This would be huge progress from the past three years, but would that “success” be satisfactory to the half who fail?

Part of me says, there’s no way I’ll do worse than 8 percent. It’s pretty much impossible, right? But the other part asks whether I have what it takes — especially in my first year teaching the class — to get my students to the level that AP requres.

One of my colleagues, who taught the class back when students did better, warned me to make the class about more than just passing the test. I tend to agree. There’s nothing inherently memorable, after all, about the test. You take it for a few hours, and then you wait until July to get your score. My bestt classes have always been much more authentic than that: we do big things, and the success that comes on tests is just part of the journey.

The question is whether it’s possible to get a high-enough pass rate without an explicit, urgent push toward that goal.

According to the data, I don’t think it is. After all, the past three years, students have worked hard, had a good teacher, enjoyed the class, talked about literature, and gotten mostly 1s and 2s.

My challenge, then, is to push hard, make the test a collective goal, ask students how important passing is to them, create a rich learning environment, and share my passion of reading and of seeing them succeed. 


  1. Laura

    Could you have an explicit, urgent push toward SOME of the most important goals of the AP? For AP Calc, passing requires something like 50%, so a deep understanding every single content standard isn’t necessary (but understanding how to answer multiple choice, and how the free response questions are graded is necessary). Is it possible to hone your test-taking focus so that it creates the possibility to pass while also leaving room for other things?

  2. Mark Isero

    Thanks, Laura. I’m definitely thinking about how to get as many students as possible to at least a 3. The traditional approach is to focus on writing and get the multiple choice section to 50%. But the MC is 45% of the test, so I might put more emphasis there. After all, my students, though their writing will improve, may struggle with producing error-free prose on timed essays.

Please share your brilliant insights!