Publication Date: 2011-04-11
The true story of what it's like to spend a week grading Advanced Placement exams
From Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 2008
Ohanian Comment: Note how "quality" is defined: Our performance is not measured based upon how many folders we complete but upon quality ΓΆ€" namely, how well our essay scores correlate with the students' multiple-choice performance as well as with mean scores in the room.
Note the passing observation that AP might be a cash cow. Also note how the early observation that it's clear that Advanced Placement no longer necessarily denotes academic excellence and that many students with very little aptitude take AP courses and tests transforms into applause for AP by the end of the essay.
It is interesting that the author, who writes on history of radicalism, remains so supportive of the Advanced Placement process and product.
Day of Arrival: I drive down to Louisville, Ky., on the evening before I am to begin reading Advanced Placement exams in U.S. history.
I haven't a clue, really, about what to expect. My last contact with Advanced Placement was in high school, when I took the AP exam in English. I harbor the hope that reading excellent essays will boost my spirits, but my main motivation is $1,555 plus free meals, free housing, and travel reimbursement. Not bad pay for a week's work.
Since the free housing involves a random roommate, I opt instead for a single room at the Seelbach Hilton ($50 a night with the AP discount). As I pull up in my Saturn with 130,000 miles on the odometer, I realize I'm the outlier in this Lexus-Mercedes set. In all other respects, the Seelbach is ideal. Built in 1905 and lavishly restored, it features dark wood paneling and a sweeping curved staircase from lobby to mezzanine. Like Eloise at the Plaza, I search out the hotel's more obscure stairways.
Day 1: Early this morning, I walk the four blocks to the Louisville Convention Center, which is teeming with thousands of AP readers in subjects like French, statistics, and English. I register and file my payroll documents.
The hall housing the U.S. history readers is indescribably vast, reminiscent of an aircraft hangar. I am pointed to the far end of the room, where I find my seat after walking what seems like a mile.
The day begins with a speech from the "chief reader," whom I come to refer to as "the Voice From Above" because of his frequent announcements in the cavernous room.
At my table are a high-school teacher in her mid-30s from Salt Lake City who will be our table leader, three other AP history teachers (two from California, one from Illinois), a community-college teacher from the State University of New York system, and me. Three of them have been AP readers before; the other three, myself included, are new.
Our table leader begins to coach us on the free-response question ("FRQ," in AP lingo). We are responsible for the one about the antebellum market revolution. Among the 350,000 students who took the AP test in U.S. history this year, about half opted to write on that topic. Each essay, from bad to brilliant, is to be scored on a numerical scale. We review some already-scored examples. Then we try a dry run, assigning numbers to some samples.
I don't fare well. I try very hard to "embrace the standards," as the Voice From Above counsels. But I find it difficult to perceive what the College Board wants. It's very hard for me to determine what sort of essay warrants a middling rating rather than a high one.
I find the rationales explaining the scoring to be lacking in precision. One sample essay that I consider weak receives the highest-possible mark. Others that I think are admirable receive lower ratings. I feel like a hapless beginner at archery. This should be easy ΓΆ€" I grade about 1,000 papers every year ΓΆ€" but my aim here is bad.
To encourage comity, the Voice From Above says that neither high-school teachers nor university professors are superior as AP readers, but I conclude that that is false: High-school teachers are, in fact, superior. They are better at adapting to the evaluation criteria because they work closely with the AP curriculum every year, and they impress me with their command of obscure factual information about the topic we are marking.
When we break, I commiserate in the lunch line with another college professor new to the process who is just as confused as I am.
But things change after lunch. Real essays arrive, and as I wade through my first folder, the standards become clearer. My worries over midrange distinctions become less of an issue when I realize, with both relief and disappointment, that almost all of the essays are of a much lesser order. I make it through two files, each containing 25 exams, by the end of the afternoon. We trade student howlers across the table, such as one mentioning "the Midwest, also referred to as the Melting Pot."
On the way out, I bump into a graduate student from the City University of New York who knows my work. We decide to have a drink at the Seelbach bar, and I order a rare and exceedingly fine Kentucky bourbon, which costs me $15 for a double. Deduct that from the week's gross.
Day 2: We settle in quietly after our table leader reminds us to remain silent while reading and wait until break time to share bloopers. I was probably the worst offender on the first day, but I heartily concur. I finish more folders before lunch than I read in the entire preceding day.
I admire the scale of organization here. In the U.S. history hall alone, more than 1,000 AP readers, and hundreds of temp workers, are moving boxes from one point to another. Here is the endpoint of the market revolution I am reading about in the test question: a massive socialization of production. The effect leaves me feeling a bit like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, with test after test moving along the assembly line before and after me.
But that is not quite right. Our performance is not measured based upon how many folders we complete but upon quality ΓΆ€" namely, how well our essay scores correlate with the students' multiple-choice performance as well as with mean scores in the room. According to the data analysis that arrives daily from the Educational Testing Service, in Princeton, N.J., our table's accuracy is fine. But that is cold comfort, because the essays are almost wholly barren. I am able to award one a fairly decent mark but not in the very top range. I check frequently with my table leader, who monitors my marking. I am doing it correctly.
Day 3: The day stretches out like eternity. We pass the hours in different ways. My table leader chain-consumes Wint-O-Green LifeSavers. I drink a million Diet Cokes. Every few hours, we get a break for peanuts or popcorn.
I am beginning to like my tablemates, with whom I speak during breaks, especially the community-college teacher and a young AP teacher from California. I learn a lot about how American history is taught in high schools.
I am reading much more rapidly now. I have a firm grasp of the schema but am getting a little cranky. Not a single essay in my folder today reaches as high as yesterday's best one. (Every time an essay gets near to that, I double-check with the table leader in hopes of being able to bump it up. Alas, nothing warrants it.) Toward the end of the day, one reader at our table finds a top score. I ask to read it and then rain on her parade by telling her I'm not sure it deserves it.
That evening, I run into the professor I met in the lunch line the day before. She says people tell her, "You may say now that you'll never come back, but next year, you'll be here." I wonder.
Day 4: Overnight, I've reconsidered. I tell my tablemate she was justified in her high mark on that essay. We all agree that our nerves were fraying yesterday. (Sartrean themes of "other people" come into play when seated with a group of strangers at a table nine hours a day for seven days in a row.)
On the first day, our table was laden with saltwater taffy and chocolates, brought by our table leader. At first I thought that a silly distraction. After three days, though, chocolate seems an absolute necessity. Our supply is dwindling. I buy us some more.
I had always thought of AP as an honors program, so I'm mystified by how many dismal essays we endure. I ask around and get a range of answers. Some say that entire school districts now put all kids into AP classes. Others say that students elect to take AP classes for the extra point it adds to their GPA. Others blame No Child Left Behind. One describes the test as a "cash cow," implying that fee revenues encourage the College Board to allow anyone to take it. High-school teachers, though, emphasize factors that would affect performance, pointing out that the antebellum period was covered six months earlier and that students are stressed from taking multiple AP exams in the same week. Nevertheless, it's clear that Advanced Placement no longer necessarily denotes academic excellence and that many students with very little aptitude take AP courses and tests.
Day 5: Today we turn from the FRQ to the DBQ, the document-based response. That is the main question on the AP exam, and every student must answer it. Because students typically answer it first, and since it is based on documents that may prompt memory, rumor has it that the DBQ answer's quality is higher than the FRQ. We are glad to be moving on.
This year the DBQ is about the Vietnam War and its domestic consequences. I'm fresh from teaching courses on the 1960s and Vietnam, so I'm on firmer footing here, and I become a source of knowledge for my fellow readers, in marked contrast to my spotty knowledge of the early 19th century. A handful of the essays in my first folder are extremely fine, and by the end of the day I've been able to award a mark in the highest range, my best score yet in all the time I've been here. I begin to realize that my experience early in the week was in part a function of the luck of the draw, and my perception of AP moves up several notches.
In one booklet, I come across the rather fabulous student error that the protesters at Kent State in 1970 were shot by "the Federal Reserve." That blooper achieves the rare distinction of being read aloud by the Voice From Above at the end of the day.
Day 6: My stomach is in a state of rebellion against cafeteria food, Diet Cokes, and chocolate. Our table leader is showing signs of wear from the evening party scene among the young and single. Fatigue makes us all a little punch-drunk by the end of this second-to-last day. Undaunted, we plow ahead. The essays are not quite as fine today, but hope glimmers momentarily here and there.
Day 7: For several days now, a schoolteacher who grew up in Alabama and retains his good-ol'-boy accent has hovered near our table, eavesdropping on our electoral discussions. Twice I've heard him refer to Barack Obama as a "socialist." Today 'Bama Boy pounces, ripping into my casual remark at break that the reason the national debt has ballooned over the past eight years is the war combined with tax cuts for the wealthy.
"What's wealthy?" asks 'Bama Boy, apparently persuaded that he has an excellent debating point.
"Those with capital sufficient to pay the capital gains tax?" I reply.
"What's wealthy?" 'Bama Boy repeats, with even greater belligerence.
I ask him the point of this Socratic dialogue: "Do you actually think that there are no rich people in America?"
Like fighters in the ring, we have to be pulled apart by our table leaders. I feel glad to be heading home soon.
At precisely 4 p.m., the Voice From Above announces that all AP U.S. history exams are finished, one hour early. A cheer goes up. I bid a hasty adieu to my tablemates, and 13 minutes later I am on the highway home to see my children. In the back end is a Louisville Slugger baseball bat with their names on it ΓΆ€" literally, etched on it.
It is a perfect golden evening as I fly back up I-71 to Ohio. I am left with a feeling that the AP reading process has integrity and that its standards are being upheld, if not met. Universities that award credit based on its scores are on firm ground. I may never go back to the world of AP, but I am glad to have experienced it. And I'll sure miss the Seelbach Hilton.
A historian could get used to living like that.
Christopher Phelps is an associate professor of history at Ohio State University at Mansfield.