Occasionally I inadvertently find myself in the crossfire between what teachers think students know and what students actually know. From this peculiar vantage point, I’m often struck by the way the assumptions on both sides fail to line up — high school teachers often take for granted that their students can “connect the dots” on their own, and high school students assume their teachers know that they need everything explained very explicitly. What looks from one side like teachers failing to teach important information, and from the other side like students being lazy or clueless, is actually a classic case of faulty assumptions.

Let me explain.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wrapped up in AP French prep. The AP exam was revised last year ago to include a “synthesis” essay that requires students to read an article, interpret a graph, and listen to an audio clip, then write a thesis-driven essay (all in French) about a given question (e.g. “Should the French language be protected from English?”).

One of the sources always takes the “pro” side, one the “con,” and one is neutral. The audio is usually the most intimidating source because it involves authentic French spoken quickly by a native speaker, and it’s almost impossible for someone who hasn’t lived in a francophone environment to pick up on the nuances. Most kids are just flipped out about whether they’ll be able to figure out what’s going on.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s pretty easy to figure out what sides the article and the graph are taking, and they’re always presented before the audio. So by default, the audio has to take the side that the other two haven’t. Logically, a person can determine the point of the audio before they even begin listening to it.

Incidentally, I didn’t realize this until I had to calm down a panicked junior who was terrified she wasn’t even going to be able to figure out which side the audio was taking. When I inquired about the order in which the sources were presented and she told me that the audio was always last, I realized that she could deduce the position the speaker would take before she even listened to it. When I told her that… let’s just say that it was a proverbial lightbulb moment.

Now this is where it gets interesting: her teacher is a good friend of mine, and I mentioned the exchange to her. Now, for the record, my friend is a fabulous teacher with a 100% pass rate on the French AP — a major feat in a huge NYC public school (albeit a very selective one). She’s nothing if not clear. But somehow it had never occurred to her that her students needed to be told explicitly that the audio was taking the position that the other two weren’t. It just seemed too obvious. But after I told her about the student’s realization, she made a point of mentioning it in class.

The next time I saw my student, she proudly announced that Madame had taught the class the “trick” she’d learned from me the previous week. “But,” she sniffed indignantly, “she really should have told us that before.”

That moment threw into sharp relief everything I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m increasingly aware of the disconnects between what teachers and teachers think teenagers know vs. what teenagers actually know, and of the fact that high school students, given 2 + 2, won’t necessarily think to put them together to make 4.

More recently, I was explaining to a friend (a Ph.D. in Classics with years of teaching experience) that my students often have trouble figuring out when an author is discussing their own ideas vs. someone else’s ideas, and she asked me to repeat the statement because she found it so astonishing. She couldn’t even conceive of that a person could have such a problem, never mind the fact that I could be so matter-of-fact about it.

I don’t have any grand solutions for any of this. I do know that I approach the SAT with fewer and fewer assumptions about what people actually know (although every now and then I still get thrown — how exactly can someone make it through life without knowing the meaning of “permanent”?).

I know, for example, that a kid scoring 700 might not consistently be able to identify the topics of SAT passages.

I know that even kids scoring above 700 often have significant trouble figuring out what an author believes when that author spends time considering opposing points of view.

I know that kids often have trouble with tone because they can’t draw a relationship between how the words appear on the page and how the sound. I also know that sometimes they can’t sound out words in the first place because they were never taught phonics.

In short, I’ve learned to start from zero. Better for me to be pleasantly surprised than the contrary.