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Junia Yearwood

A lesson in Advanced mis-Placement

By Junia Yearwood
April 25, 2011

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THE AP English test in May, 2009 marked the end of a tortuous journey. We teachers served breakfast, gave a rousing pep talk, and the students trooped into the English High School auditorium to battle the exam.

“What the hell am I doing in AP?’’ Veronica (all students’ names have been changed) cried the next day when the class reconvened.

The outburst shattered the stillness of my 12th grade classroom, and all heads turned in Veronica’s direction at the back of the class. Her eyes blazing red and her face taut with anger, she continued to vent her frustration at her forced retention in an assigned Advanced Placement class despite her repeated requests for a transfer.

The mood was somber. There were some favorable reactions: the test was challenging but manageable; I did well on essays one and three; and, the test was good preparation for college.

Nevertheless, the majority voiced varying degrees of Veronica’s anger. She railed against the injustice of being denied a transfer from the class and her total lack of preparation for the academically rigorous course. She believed that the D for English on her last report card in 11th grade was a clear indication of her ongoing struggle to achieve proficiency in standard English. Haitian Creole was her first language.

For the four years I taught the AP English and composition course at English High, many of my students were victims of the AP mania that had invaded the system. Suddenly, officials had recognized the dearth of faces of color in AP classes and the drive to augment the AP minority population went into high gear. The College Board and sympathetic philanthropic rescuers rushed in to solve the problem by dangling the carrot of grant money, and the feeding frenzy was on. AP classes sprouted and multiplied across all disciplines. AP scouts scoured students’ report cards hunting for qualifying scores; teacher recommendations were solicited for students with the “potential’’ to do AP work, and the nominees were summarily conscripted.

Even though students had marked deficiencies in basic reading and writing skills, and little desire to work hard, and even though they made repeated requests for transfers, the dragooning of students into my AP course persisted.

My frequent reminders to school officials that students’ reading and writing levels and willingness to work hard were more important indicators of AP success than their perceived academic potential were berated and ignored. Administrators and some teachers countered with the “data-driven’’ argument that, not only does more exposure to AP courses and tests benefit students by preparing them for the rigors of college, but it signaled our high expectations of them.

My students’ test-related emotional distress was dismissed as normal post-assessment symptoms. One teacher said, “It is better that they experience the stress and trauma now than experience it later in college.’’

Consequently, I was forced to continue teaching my 12th grade AP students material they should have learned long before: the eight parts of speech, basic sentence structure, and the correct conjugation of regular and irregular verbs. When Maureen’s essay on an AP sample test included ’’have tooken’’ for ’’have taken,’’ and when Grace interrupted my explanation of a periodic sentence with the question, ’’What is a clause?’’ and when all the other students admitted they were just as puzzled as Grace, my crash course in English grammar became necessary and urgent.

I often wondered what parents would say if they knew that many of my AP graduates were placed in no-credit, remedial reading and writing courses their freshman year in college, and that, in spite of our school’s “underperforming status,’’ as designated by the state Department of Education, our AP enrollment was second only to our city’s prestigious exam schools.

I wonder if an impartial jury would hold me, the teacher, solely responsible for my students’ failure to conquer the AP test and side with one of my colleagues who said that, if my students were not performing well in my course and on the test, then I needed to check my classroom practice.

But mostly I worry about Veronica’s rage at being used in an AP numbers game.

Junia Yearwood is a retired Boston Public Schools teacher.