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The two who passed: No surprises here

 Only two of my students passed the AP English test this year. What set these students apart?

It wasn’t their work ethic. Sure, they worked hard, but not more than their peers.

Maybe it was their performance on the multiple-choice section. But I don’t think that’s the case; all their practice exams placed them somewhere in the middle.

They’re good writers, for sure. One of them makes every word count. The other knows uses sophisticated language. And I’m sure the AP readers liked their generally-clean grammar. Yes, writing skill was likely a factor.

But I don’t think that explains their success.

Rather, the two students who passed are readers. They see themselves as readers and read a lot. They’d been readers before entering the class. They know what kinds of books they like. They have favorite books. They were two of the four students who attended an optional field trip to go see Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

Yes, it’s becoming clearer now.

In high school, I wasn’t much of a reader, and I still passed the test. So did many of my friends. But that’s because I was an expert on how to do school. In the suburbs, you can get away with that. At my former school, you can’t.

Here’s the thing: The AP English test does not grade you on what you learned in the 12th grade. It doesn’t ask you about Frankenstein or The Scarlet Letter or any of the books you’ve read. Rather, it determines how well you can read challenging, obscure texts. That’s why it’s hard on urban kids and English learners.

If you’ve been reading your whole life, and if you see yourself as a reader, you have a much better chance of passing. That’s why the two students who passed were at such a big advantage. That’s also why, like a few astute readers have suggested, it’s crucial for schools to build a culture of reading. It’s important to create literary nerds.

I’m happy for the two students who passed. But there were no surprises, no stories of students working hard and beating the odds.

Maybe the truth is better, though. Maybe it’s better to know that the gaps are wide and that it takes a concerted, multi-year effort to address them. Maybe it’s what’s necessary to convince us how important it is to make bold moves on reading.

Update: A very smart reader (go Molly!) just reminded me that the two students have one more thing in common: They both had a background at elite private high schools before transferring to our school. Hmm. This revelation might require a post on its own! 

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