The 2020 AP® English Language Exam: The Rhetorical Analysis

by Katie Upton

It’s official: The free-response question on the AP® Lang exam is rhetorical analysis. For more information about the exam changes, check out this article about the changes announced on March 20, 2020. For many AP® English Language teachers, this was not a surprise. It is, after all, the most unique of the three free-response questions. The synthesis question is very similar to the document-based questions that students see on the history exams, and students write argument essays on several other exams, such as AP® Seminar and AP® U.S. Government. Additionally, this question best exhibits students’ learning in AP® Lang. They must clearly illustrate their understanding of the rhetorical situation while developing a logical line of reasoning.

While the rhetorical analysis was anticipated, it does present some challenges. For example, it will be hard for students to annotate the passage. If a student is working solely from a cell phone, they may be able to screenshot the document and annotate it. However, that is simply not ideal. The text will be small and margins almost non-existent. For students who are working from laptops, they will use up valuable minutes trying to annotate a digital document.  For those lucky enough to have a printer, they will lose time in the printing process. We also know that the College Board will require students to submit their responses from the same device on which they retrieved the question. Therefore, they must scroll back and forth between the passage and their own writing as they work. An alternative here would be for students to hand write the exam, take a picture, and upload it, which is an option. However, there are logistical concerns here. How much time will students spend uploading their photos from their phones to their laptops where they accessed the question? Luckily, students will be able to simulate this practice, according to Trevor Packer, but I am still a little concerned about this process.

So, where do we go from here? Truly, I believe that the rhetorical analysis essay is the best option for AP® Lang students. While the argument essay poses fewer technology or time issues, it does bring up equity issues as far as content is concerned. Because there is a text included in the rhetorical analysis question, students have the foundation they need to demonstrate their skills. To continue to prepare students for the impending exam, we now have two tasks: continue developing students’ understanding of the rhetorical situations and line of reasoning, and developing a process for analyzing a rhetorical passage online. While it is certainly not required that students annotate the passage, they are far more successful when they do interact with the text. Therefore, we must strive to find a way for students to do so. Whether that entails developing an annotation chart or giving students multiple opportunities to practice with digital annotation apps or extensions, that is our next challenge as we forge through this new world of AP® testing.

Looking for advice about teaching online? Check out this article about five apps you can use to effectively teach online.

Katie Upton has been teaching English courses for 15 years, helping students become college and career ready. She is an expert in AP® Language and Composition and a leader of the AP® Capstone program, and has led professional development as well, helping teachers blend 21st century learning with educational practices that have stood the test of time. A former basketball coach herself, Katie spends her free time cheering on her two boys in all that they do and supporting her husband, a head girls’ basketball coach.