This summer my students are reading books. At least, I hope they are. My rising Advanced Placement seniors have a test on one of them, Homer’s The Odyssey, the first day of school. If they aren’t reading during their breaks from flipping burgers or bagging groceries, or if a paperback copy isn’t accompanying them to the beach or the lake, they might be in trouble.
While my seniors are reading, I’ve been looking closely at how well last year’s AP students did on the College Board administered exam. Even before the students received their scores in early July, the published score distributions showed a second year of decline for AP English literature nationally. My students, who always score above the global percentages, also showed a dip.
My first response was to question what I had done differently this past year that might have contributed to the slide. Did we go too fast? Not read enough pre-20th century work? Not spend enough time on actual test prep?
My high-poverty school actively recruits students for AP, and those who are interested in the class and thrive there aren’t necessarily those who do best on standardized tests. Perhaps last year’s class had more struggling students than usual?
Call me a skeptic about standardized testing. Or for that matter, any testing in school. After four decades of teaching high school, I know that students don’t always show what they know on a single test. That’s especially true with high-stakes standardized tests like the AP English Literature exam.
Still, I want my students to score high enough to receive college credit, saving them time and money. If the English scores dropped nationally, was something else going on?
One clue might be that STEM class scores not only haven’t dropped but have ticked up slightly. For the past few years, school districts have invested more in science, technology, engineering, and math classes, often at the expense of literature and the other arts.
At the same time, the Common Core academic standards rolled out. Many school districts interpreted the directive that 70 percent of the reading matter presented to students across the curriculum should be “informational texts” to mean that English classes should focus on nonfiction rather than fiction and poetry. I know teachers who now shoehorn scholarly journal articles into every unit instead of reading short stories and poetry.
That de-emphasis on literature concerns me more than the drop in AP scores. Literature is as necessary to students’ well being and success as knowing how to read a chart in history or do a math problem.
Literature frees us from ourselves — indeed, forces us to abandon our preconceptions and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Reading a novel, tangling with a short story, navigating a poet’s particular point of view, watching a film unfold — these are what students need to better understand themselves and the people around them.
After all, human beings are by nature storytellers. Our brains are wired to look for patterns and organize what we learn into coherent narratives. The best stories—like Homer’s The Odyssey—ask us to reflect on what it means to be fully human, with all our potential and imagination.