Signs of the Times in AP English Exam Responses

Every spring, hundreds of thousands of high school students file into cafeterias, gymnasiums, and auditoriums to take Advanced Placement English exams. Be it literature or language and composition, they spend the first hour answering multiple-choice questions, and the next two scribbling 40-minute essays that often reveal as much about their times as they do about their individual abilities and knowledge.

To nip a budding trend, the tests now stipulate that students cannot refer to, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" if Demi Moore taught them all they know about Hester Prinn. They must have read the book, not just seen the movie or the miniseries. And - speaking of Hester Prinn - today's essays show a marked change in attitude toward such issues as illegitimacy. According to Alice DeLana, a teacher at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Conn., who has graded the English AP exam for 12 years, "shame and guilt are today interesting, not galvanizing concepts. They have become almost quaint notions."

The language has changed along with attitudes. One student wrote of Tess of the d'Ubervilles that she didn't see why "Tess just didn't tell [Alec d'Uberville] to buzz off."

"In my day," says Mrs. DeLana, "it would never have occurred to me to apply the standards of popular culture to literary works." She and Hephzibah Roskelly, the chief faculty consultant for AP English language and composition, consider this a positive development. In fact, Ms. Roskelly would like to see more students express themselves in "a voice they craft themselves," as opposed to mimicking how they think a formal essay should read.

There is some concern, however, that students seem increasingly reluctant to trust themselves and take risks in voice, form, and argument. This is probably because the exam's importance as a college-admissions tool puts them under ever greater pressure to play it safe.

Roskelly has also noticed that, while current events occasionally seep into essays - O.J. Simpson made quite a few appearances last year - students don't tend to "assimilate a lot of data" from current events. In a similar vein, DeLana has noticed that students today seem to know less about the world outside their immediate experience.

She cites the example of a student who wrote about Richard Eberhart's poem "The Groundhog." The student did a great job of analyzing the poem, DeLana says, but he didn't know what a groundhog was. "The persona," he wrote, "is a pig."

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