Raising the Cut-Off Score on the College Board Advanced Placement Examinations in Composition and Literature: Justification for a First-Year Writing Curriculum
Richard H. Haswell
Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi
24 August 2003
Sometimes English departments want to raise the level that allows waiver, placement, or credit for their first-year writng courses, raise it from a score of 3 to a score of 4 or 5 on the College Board Advanced Placement Literature and Composition Examination. But they get resistance from their administration and from the local high schools serving their institution, or they are asked to provide justification for the move. This Webpage provides some data, bibliography, and expert opinion that can help justify raising the cut-off.
The main argument for raising the cut-off score has been that a score of 3
The following has four parts:
A. Table of institutions with a cut-off above a score of 3
B. Some opinions from experts in composition
C. Brief bibliography on AP validity
D. Memorndum justifying the move from a cut-off of 3 to 4
Some institutions offering placement or exemption for first-year composition with an AP score of no less than 4 (information gathered August 2003)
4 or 5
Montgomery College, Germantown
4 or 5
|Quinnipiac University||4 or 5|
Seton Hall University
4 or 5
does not earn exemption from English 101
no AP credit for composition courses
State University of New York, Buffalo
4 or 5
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
4 or 5
|University of Miami||4 or 5||4 earns credit for English 101; 5 for English 101 and 102|
Texas A&M, Corpus Christi
4 or 5
exempts from English 101, not English 102
University of Arkansas, Little Rock
4 or 5
University of Colorado
4 or 5
University of Missouri Columbia
4 or 5
University of San Francisco
4 or 5
University of Texas at Tyler
4 or 5
University of Washington
no AP credit for composition courses
University of Wyoming
4 or 5
Univesity of Illinois at Urbana
4 or 5
Washington State University
4 or 5
earns credit but not for English 101 or English 102
Some extended defense of an AP cut-off at no less than 4, for waiving of first-year composition requirement or for first-year composition credit (source: The Writing Program Administrators listserve [WPA-L], August 2003)
(1) My daughter's AP American History class was told by their teacher, who is also the chair of the History Dept at the high school, that only a 4 or 5 on the AP test would be accepted by any "quality" university. Apparently, the 4 or 5, then, is the common assumption for AP tests, and students are told this by teachers in every AP class at the high school.
Deborah H. Holdstein, PhD
Faculty Associate for Graduate Studies and Research, Office of the Provost
Professor of English and Rhetoric, CAS
Governors State University
(2) This takes me back a bit. I think ASU still accepts only 4 or 5 for credit. When I was WPA, we got some pressure to give some credit for 3's. I'm not sure about the current stats, but then about 20% of the students who took the test scored 4 or 5 while over 60% scored 3, 4, or 5. That was a sign. You can certainly see why ETS would like us to give credit for 3's. But we actually read the AP essays that were awarded a score of 3, ands then we understood why the big jump from 20 to 60% and we decided that 3 level writing did not merit college credit. The essays were pretty weak.
What I don't really know is how students who earn 3's on the AP actually do in our composition courses. I suspect that they do quite well. Students who take AP courses tend to be high school achievers who are reasonably conscientious students. They are more likely than many other students to be successful in college. That does not mean, however, that they would not benefit from our composition courses. It means only that they would do well. I remember someone around here once proposed that we should identify the profile of the students who got A's in ENG 101 and exempt students with that profile from the course. I have never heard that proposal made for CHEM 101. The logic is interesting. Students who do well in a course do not need the course. That would make college a quick trip for a 4.0 graduate.
The very idea that such logic would be applied to first-year composition suggests that others do not view a comp course as a learning experience but simply as a test of competency already acquired.
David E. Schwalm
Vice Provost for Academic Affairs
Arizona State Univerity East
(3) David's point is crucial and bears repeating. An equivalency exam such as AP must use the OUTCOMES of a course as criteria, not just some general ability measure. That's why you can't use the same test for both placement and equivalency. Even perfect understanding of algebra (good preparation for calculus) doesn't mean you know calculus. If your program can't distinguish good preparation for college comp from completion of the goals of college comp, your course is a real problem.
University of Arizona
(4) At DePaul, we accept a score of 4 or 5 on the AP English Language and Composition examination to waive with credit the first of two required FY writing courses. A student who presents a score of 4 or 5 on the AP English Literature and Composition examination gets credit for English 120, an elective Introduction to Literature course.
As the incoming chief reader for the English Language and Composition exam (and therefore the target of a good bit of animadversion from my colleagues in rhetoric and composition), I unofficially support colleges' and universities' holding the line at scores of 4 and 5, and not accepting a 3 for credit and/or waiver, which is what the College Board wants.
Two more thoughts from someone who's been working with the AP English Language and Composition Program since 1992:
First, ETS doesn't want colleges and universities to accept scores of 3; the College Board, which "owns" the AP Program, does. ETS is the subcontractor here--it only oversees the development and scoring of AP exams. The College Board, which is a very different organization from ETS and becoming even more so, has for many years been trying to advocate for a score of 3 as "qualified" for advanced placement. Second, as I've pointed out before, the name of the program is Advanced Placement, not Advanced Exemption, and this distinction has implications for both students and college/university writing programs. Students need to see instruction in writing as a continuing education, and those earning scores of 4 and 5 need to go into more advanced, more challenging rhetoric/writing courses. Colleges and universities, for their part, need to offer an array of writing courses as entry points into this continuing education for students with varying writing abilities. So long as first-year composition is a one-size-fits-all monolith, diligent students are going to try to avoid it.
(5) The University of Washington has stopped accepting any AP score for composition credit. We are giving general humanities credit for scores of 4 or 5 on either or both exams, but nothing that includes writing. It seems like a good compromise to us. Students do typically get a meatier course in AP, but . . . I'd still rather have a high school teacher not go through contortions trying to fit American literature into AP Language and Composition.
As for the recruiting issue, I suspect that most state universities are in the same position as we are: far more qualified students than we can possibly accept. So until the gremlins and demons in our various state legislatures agree to teach the baby boomlet, perhaps recruiting won't be as big an issue.
Our admissions director also tells me that some colleges are proposing "banking" AP type credit, allowing students to wait until after their first year to see if they want to use the credit. For calculus here, for example, it turns out that students track differently depending on whether they intend to go into the biological sciences or math-based sciences and accordingly take the appropriate track. AP Calculus courses don't typically address the different disciplinary communities using college level math (um. . . sort of like writing). One of the problems we've run into here in WA is legislators who are unhappy with students who are graduating with more than the minimum credit hours. We had a bill this year, which thankfully died, to charge 5th year students the full state support plus tuition. Those "extra" hours available from AP, CLEP, dual credit and the like may come back and bite us.
Director of the Expository Writing Program
Associate Professor of English
University of Washington
(6) When I was at Michigan, we cooperated with ACT folk to compare the correlation of ACT scores vs our placement test scores as a predictor of success in FY Composition. Basically, the ACT scores were useless as predictors, since the average was above 25. The range of ACT scores was just too small for them to predict performance in FY Comp
Director of University Writing Programs
Professor of English
Washington State University
(7) Seton Hall University restricted the acceptable AP cutoff scores to 4 and 5 a few years ago when we realized that the score of 3 did not guarantee an acceptably high level of achievement. While Seton Hall has recently entered the ranks of Tier II institutions, it doesn't pretend to be Princeton or Williams. The point is that even a somewhat less competitive school like ours felt the need to raise the bar because those students with 3's looked pretty much like the rest of the College English I students
Assistant Professor of English
Seton Hall University
(8) We did a study here last year that looked at the writing of students in their sophomore year who were enrolled in a history of civ course. We found that students with AP score of 3 who did not take FYC wrote significantly worse than students with 3 who had taken FYC. We also found that students with AP scores of 4 and 5 who didn't take FYC wrote significantly worse than students with 4 and 5 who took FYC. We interpret this to mean that taking FYC adds to a student's ability to write. We hope to use this study to persuade our admin to raise our cut-off score from 3 to 4. Right now we accept 3, but we shouldn't. A score of 3 on the AP exam (either one) is nothing to boast about.
Assoc. Dean of Undergraduate Education--University Writing
Brigham Young University
(9) During the years that I was at Ohio State, we managed to change the AP rule so that students who would have placed out of first year writing instead were highly recommended into a special first year seminar: students were generally very happy to take that course and, of course, profited from it a great deal. I am all in favor of AP courses, but they are NOT the equivalent of a college-level writing course IMHO.
Two years ago, on the advice of the University Writing Review Committee, the Stanford Faculty Senate voted to drop AP for placement into writing; as of this year, all incoming students will take one writing class in their first year, a second writing writing course by the end of the second year, and then a writing in the majors class (and usually a capstone course of some kind).
Professor of English
(10) I believe that the University of Wyoming accepts only scores of 4 or 5. We made this change several years ago, and I haven't heard that we've gone back to a score of 3.
As a former scorer of AP exams, I strongly think that it should be a 4 or 5, not a 3. Of course, I also think that all college students should take a college writing course soon in ther college career, no matter what their AP scores from high school.
Jane Nelson, Director
University of Wyoming Writing Center
(11) I recently upped our AP cut-off score to 4 or 5 for FY exemption at U Colorado-Boulder. In reviewing the AP curriculum and exam, I found that students in Colorado who scored well were likely to be proficient in a typical, literature-based English course but not a writing course that emphasizes critical inquiry and research across disciplines and methodologies, as our FY course does.
Director, Program for Writing and Rhetoric
University of Colorado at Boulder
(12) Drew University cuts at 4 on the AP English Literature and Language exams. Students with a 4 or a 5 on either exam exempt composition and earn four credits toward graduation (one course worth). In the spirit of David's reminder that this is a placement exam not an exemption exam, this fall my department will propose that exemption be granted only to students earning a 4 or 5 on the English language exam. Students with a 4 or 5 on the literature exam will simply be placed in a more advanced class. We may negotiate that to an exemption for a 5 on either exam, although I don't see why a literature exam should exempt students when the composition course it replaces is not a literature course. Students coming out of most AP programs lack skills in research and source use and general critical and analytical thinking, and are therefore not as prepared for college-level writing as students who have taken a college composition course. And a 3 is certainly not an indication of college-level proficiency.
Director of Composition
A Brief Bibliography
Camara, Wayne; Neil J. Dorans; Rick Morgan; Carol Myford. “Advanced Placement: Access not exclusion”. Education Policy Analysis Archives 08.40 (2000). http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n40.html. Response to William Lichten (see below). Hopes to refute his contention that there has been a decline in AP levels of quality.
Henderson, Sarah. “Why do I have to be here? The Advanced Placement student in first-year composition: Problems and issues in cogntive development”. Journal of Gifted Education 07.1(1995), 324-332. Describes the resistance of students who have been placed in regular comosition yet went through Advanced Placement programs.
Herr, Norman Edward. “Perspectives and policies of undergraduate admissions committees regarding Advanced Placement and honors coursework.” College and University 67.1 (1991), 47-54. Questionnaire survey results of admissions officers and committee chairs on their policies in handling Advanced Placement credit.
Hershey, Susanne W. “College admission practices and the Advanced Placement program.” Journal of College Admissions, No. 128 (1990), 8-11. Surveys and tabulates admissions policies in the Northwest USA and Ohio.
Lichten, William “Whither Advanced Placement?” Education Policy Analysis Archives 08.29 (June 24, 2000) http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n29.html. Extremely useful data substantiating the historical shift of colleges and universities toward a higher cut-off for AP advance credit in all content areas. Argues that less than half of colleges and universities allow a score of 3 or lower for credit/exemption/placement, and that the rate is dropping (this is over all subject areas). The piece documents another general trend: the more prestigious the school, the higher the cut-off score.
Modu, Christopher C. “The validity of the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition Examination.” College English 43.6 (1981). Based predictive power of the AP exams on course grades.
Olson, Gary A.; Elizabeth Metzger; Evelyn Ashton-Jones (Eds.). Advanced Placement English: Theory, politics, and pedagogy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann (1989). Collection of essays, pro and con.
Smith, Paul. Grading the Advanced Placement Examination in English: A Report. Princeton, NJ: College Board Publications (1983). The CEEB’s apologia: see Vopat.
Vopat, James B. “Going APE: Reading the Advanced Placement Examination in English composition and literature.” College English 43.3 (1981), 284-292. A caustic description of irregularities in AP rater training and reading practices. For responses to this piece, see College English 44.2 (1982), 195-201.
When you’re studying for your AP Literature Exam, you’re going to want to use practice tests and questions to hone your skills. But where can you find AP literature practice tests? And are all practice exams equally useful for you?
The real exam has 55 multiple-choice questions and three free-response questions, but there are practice tests with every conceivable number and combination of question types.
In this article, you’ll learn where to find every official College Board AP English Literature and Composition practice exam, free unofficial tests, and paid practice test resources. You’ll also find out which tests are high-quality and how you can best use different practice exams to fulfill your studying needs.
Official Free AP Literature Practice Tests
The gold standard of AP English Literature practice tests and AP English Literature practice exam questions are College Board released materials. That’s because the College Board administers the AP exams, so their practice questions are most like the actual AP questions you’ll see on the test. There are three different kinds of resources offered by the College Board: complete released exams from past years, released free-response questions from past years, and sample questions from the “AP Course And Exam Description.”
Official Released College Board Exams
There are two official released College Board Exams. However, neither is quite complete--while they each have the standard 55 multiple-choice questions, both are missing parts of the 3-question free-response section. You can still use these as complete exams if you supplement with released free-response questions from past years.
1987 AP English Literature and Composition Exam
For reasons that are not totally clear, this exam excludes the third essay question, the poetry analysis. If you want to take this as “complete” exam practice, use a free-response poetry analysis prompt from the bank of free response questions linked to below.
1999 AP English Literature and Composition Exam
This test excludes the poetry and prose analysis questions of the free-response section and only has the student choice question. So, to take it as a complete exam, you’d need to supplement it with questions 1 and 2 from the released free-response questions below. You can actually get question 2 for the 1999 test from the official free-response questions bank, but the excerpt for question 1 can’t be reprinted, so you’ll need to supplement with another poetry analysis question.
Or supplement with this tree-poem.
Official Free-Response Questions
There may not be very many complete released exams, but there are tons of available free-response questions from previous administrations of the test. These are great practice, not just for practicing complete essays, but for practicing writing thesis statements, outlines, and so on. What’s also great about these is that most of them come with sample response and scoring guidelines, so you’ll be able to see exactly what makes a high-quality AP essay by College Board standards. Be aware, though, that some of the prose and poetry excerpts can’t be reprinted due to copyright concerns.
Below is one link for more up-to-date free response questions and another for older versions. However, there doesn’t appear to be a significant substantive difference between the old and new prompts.
AP English Lit Free Response Questions 2003-2017
AP English Lit Free Response 1999-2003
Sample Questions From the Course and Exam Description
The AP English Literature Course and Exam Description has practice multiple-choice questions and practice free-response questions. They don’t add up to a complete test--there are only 46 multiple-choice questions and a whopping six free response (enough for two tests!)--but they are great for simple practice.
Your AP teacher may have access to copies of old AP exams that you can use for practice. She probably can’t let you take them out of the classroom, but she may be allowed to loan them to you in a supervised setting. This is because teachers can purchase resources directly from the College Board that students can’t. Asking your teacher may not bear fruit, but it’s worth a try.
Why are you asking me for AP lit practice tests? I'm your econ teacher!
Free Unofficial AP Literature Practice Tests
In addition to the free College Board resources, there are also several places online where you can get free, unofficial practice tests. Be aware that, because these resources aren’t College-Board created or approved, they are of variable quality. For each of these resources I’ll describe what’s offered and how it compares to official College Board tests.
Barron’s Books Free Practice Test
Barron’s, those distinguished makers of review books, also offer a complete free practice test with multiple choice and free response. They provide the author and name of the work, but not the date. All of these free resources probably credit the authors for copyright reasons, but you won’t have this information on the actual exam.
You can take the test timed or in “practice” mode. While answers are provided for the multiple-choice questions, no scoring guidelines are provided for the free-response prompts.
This isn’t an official resource, but the questions are of a high quality and are a good option when you’ve run out of official material. If you combined the multiple-choice questions with some official released free-response questions (with scoring guidelines and sample essays) you could get a pretty good approximation of a complete practice test.
McGraw-Hill AP Diagnostic Quiz
McGraw-Hill, textbook and review book publisher, offers a 25-question multiple-choice diagnostic quiz for the AP English Literature exam. You may actually be able to get more than 25 questions out of this, because each time you open a new test window, you get 25 randomly ordered and selected questions from a question pool.
The passages open in another window, which is a little annoying. However, the questions are fairly difficult and pretty well-written AP imitations, so the annoyance is worth it. You’ll get the author and title of the works excerpted.
Varsity Tutors AP Literature Practice Tests
This site has practice multiple-choice quizzes divided by concept--things like “interpreting the passage,” “claims and argument,” and “interpreting excerpts.” The questions aren’t worded exactly the same way as AP test questions, but they are still okay for testing your passage-interpretation skills. Basically, the questions test for similar skills, but don’t necessarily mimic AP test questions in style.
Also, the site provides the date, title, and author of each work, which is not something you’ll receive on the AP exam.You can make a free account at the site to track your scores, but it’s not necessary to be able to take the tests.
Kittens not included with free practice tests, unfortunately.
Learnerator AP English Literature Quizzes
Learnerator offers multiple-choice quizzes divided into prose, poetry, and drama categories. You are given the title, date, and author of the work--which you will not receive on the real AP exam. Like the Varsity Tutors quizzes, Learnerator offers questions that test similar skills as the AP exam, but the questions are worded differently.
High School Test Prep Tests
This site offers three short multiple-choice practice tests. You’re given the title and author of the work. The questions for these tests are fairly surface-level, so I would only use these if you are working on your reading comprehension skills.
Practice Quiz AP English Literature
This site offers a 20-question multiple-choice quiz on two passages--one poetry, and one prose. The passages are extremely basic, however, so again, I would only use this resource if you are working on your reading comprehension skills.
4Tests AP English Lit Test
This site offers 35 multiple-choice questions. However, there are lots of ads, the questions are poorly written and vague, the interface is clunky, and the passages are very long. Overall, I do not recommend this site.
College Board SAT Literature Materials
While they aren’t identical by any means, you can definitely use SAT Literature Subject Test practice questions to hone your skill in answering multiple-choice questions about passages. The SAT Subject Test in Literature focuses a little more on the meaning of words and phrases in context and less on making inferences and describing the author’s purpose, but they can still be a useful resource simply for reading and answering high-level, in-depth questions on prose and poetry.
You can get sample SAT Literature questions online here or in the “Getting Reading for The SAT Subject Tests” booklet released by the College Board.
The queens of AP Lit practice give you their blessing.
Paid Unofficial Practice Tests
There are also several paid resources that offer unofficial practice questions.
Shmoop - Paid Subscription
This is a subscription service with questions for tons of different tests--SAT, ACT, AP exams.They also have videos and other review resources. I can’t really speak to the quality of the questions because the entire service is behind a paywall of a dollar a day.
Peterson’s AP Practice Tests
You can pay twenty dollars to get two English Lit practice tests from this site. However, I wasn’t able to find much information on these tests or reviews from students who had taken them.
Most, if not all, review books contain practice tests and questions. These will vary in quality depending on the quality of the review book, so be sure to look for reviews online of any book before you buy it. In general, Barron’s and the Princeton Review are fairly reliable review book sources.
I definitely advise paying for all of these resources with whatever loose foreign change you have lying around.
How to Use AP Literature Practice Tests
How to use a given practice test depends somewhat on the resource itself. I’ll offer some recommendations here on how to best use different resources.
Complete Official Released Tests
The best way to use a complete official practice test is to do a practice-run for the exam. So find a quiet room, bring a timer or watch so you can time sections, and get to work! This will help you get familiar with the exam experience so you’ll feel more comfortable on exam day!
Since there are two complete AP Lit practice tests, it makes sense to take one early on in your studying time, and one later. You can get a parent, tutor or teacher to grade the exams. The early test will help you figure out what you need to work on, and the later test will show you how you’ve improved! Since the AP English Literature test is more skills-heavy than content-heavy, you shouldn’t feel totally lost taking a practice test even in the middle of the school year.
Official Released Free-Response and Sample Questions
Official resources that aren’t complete tests are best for practicing individual sections of the test. The sample multiple-choice questions in the “Course and Exam Description” make for great AP English Literature multiple-choice practice--they’ll help you get familiar with the style of the questions and practice close-reading.
The wealth of released free-response questions are great resources for building your timed essay-writing skills. You can practice complete essays or develop essay outlines.
Unofficial Practice Tests and Resources
Since unofficial practice tests aren’t going to be quite as similar to the real AP exam as official College Board materials, they won’t be quite as useful for preparing for the format of the exam or its questions. However, they can be very valuable close-reading practice. And since that’s a critical skill for the exam, it’s still worth it to use unofficial resources.
Be very quiet. She's close-reading.
Practice tests and questions are a hugely important resource as you prep for the AP Lit exam. The gold standard of practice resources are those that come from the College Board, but there are many other places where you can get practice questions that will help you hone your close-reading skills for the exam. Most of the resources listed in this article are free, but a few are paid.
When you’ve assembled a stable of practice resources, you might not be quite sure how to use them. Official College Board practice tests are best for simulating the exam experience. College Board questions are good for focused preparation for individual sections of the exam--especially the essays. Unofficial resources are best for further honing your close-reading skills.
Now that you know where to find these resources, you’ll have even more time to prep for the AP Literature exam by completing practice questions!
Need more study guidance for your APs? See my five-step AP prep plan. Or see our guide on when to start studying for your APs.
If you're looking for practice tests for other AP exams, see our assembled practice tests for AP US History, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP World History, and AP Psychology.
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