Why my students’ AP scores matter. And why they don’t.

May 13, 2015

Editor’s Note: Ray Salazar, NBCT,  teaches high school English in Chicago Public Schools and  is an award-winning blogger. The views expressed in this blog are his own

I fight the obsession with testing and over-testing in our classrooms.  Yet, given the choice, I choose to teach AP English Language every chance I get.  After months of intense writing and thinking, over sixty of my students take their AP test this morning.  This is the sixth time I’ve taught this class.  And each year, I value this course—and the experience of teaching it—more and more.
Focused on examining non-fiction and images as text, this class allows high-school students to enter complex conversations that matter to them—or that eventually matter to them. The only request I make of anyone who signs up for this AP class with me is that he or she be ready to write a lot and think a lot.  Every year since I started teaching this class in 2008, my classes are packed.  And when students change their minds after two weeks and want a schedule change, I don’t approve it.  “Too bad,” I tell ‘em.  “We’re stuck writing with each other for the whole year.”
In a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, we study how writers use memory, observation, and evidence.  We examine classic approaches to make an audience feel calm, kindness, indignation, or fear.  I challenge students to challenge themselves as they create complex texts that that build their competence and confidence as writers.  They complain sometimes. But when we pause to reflect on how they’re growing as writers and thinkers, students reveal their pride.
This is why, the longer I teach AP English Language, the less I define my success or my students’ success by their scores.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m overjoyed when I see some 3s or a 4 when scores come out in July.  And I’m disappointed when a student I thought might get a 3 ends up with a 2—or a 1. But even with a low score on the AP exam, a year’s worth of study ensures that they see themselves in a new way.  With a teacher’s support and deep content knowledge, non-traditional AP students reaffirm or redefine their educational identity. Most of my students will be the first in their family to go to college: even if they don’t score a 3, they challenge a stereotype.
In one conversation with a student who told me how this class helped him succeed in a college 2,000 miles away, he told me, “Before your class, I knew what I did right.  But I never knew what I did wrong.”  This is the confidence-building approach I’ve gained by teaching AP English Language: when a student’s writing does not work, we focus on whatever does work, but then the student must decide what to do next.
A student from St. Olaf in Minnesota stopped by in December.  When I asked him how college was, he said, “Everything in my writing life is fine.”
Another former student, now studying nursing, told me her professors complimented her writing each time she turned in a paper.
One student tweeted me from Northern Illinois: “Guess who’s the only one in class who can explain ethos, pathos, and logos?”
Even the student who went to Northwestern and struggled incredibly in math classes felt prepared for all the writing she had to do.
These stories affirm my belief that more students deserve access to AP courses. In November, Chicago Public Schools boasted that “the number of CPS high school students enrolled in AP courses has grown by 25 percent, with 30 percent more students passing their AP exams and earning college credit. The number of students reaching the passing score of 3 or above on AP exams, earning eligibility for college credit, has nearly doubled since 2011 for both African American and Latino students.”
This week, the Illinois General Assembly continues work to pass HB 3428, which would guarantee all public universities in our state grant college credit to any student who earns a score of 3 or better on an Advanced Placement exam. As Advanced Placement teachers, our responsibility is to ensure that we fulfill the commitment the College Board promises through its courses: to build college readiness and increase college success. And though the score is not the only thing that matters, or even the most important thing, we must maintain the goal that our students will earn that 3 or 4 or 5.
Many AP teachers will face skepticism from a colleague, doubts about the extra work or the odds of students passing the exams. I focus on my energy on engaging my students in a classroom experience that builds writing skills and simultaneously fosters conversations about poverty, race, opportunity.  These conversations—not the skeptical ones—will matter in our students’ futures.
Before today’s test, I cheered on my students and told them to persevere.  They know how to write for this test and for college.  In a few days, I’ll admit to them that on my AP English Literature Exam in 1990 when I was seventeen years old, I got a 2.  I felt disappointed in myself when I opened that envelope.  “But you know what,” I’ll add, “even if I had gotten a 3 or higher, it would not have changed my life.  I still turned out OK.”

Ray Salazar, NBCT

Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools since 1995. He is a National Board Certified Teacher. His blog, The White Rhino, tied for second place in EWA's Community Members Best  Blog category in 2012. National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio aired his essays and the Chicago Tribune and CNN's Schools of Thought Blog published his editorials. Salazar earned a bachelor's degree in English/Secondary Education and master's degree in writing, with distinction, from DePaul University.  Visit his blog The White Rhino at Follow him on Twitter @WhiteRhinoRay Contact: