Forget a perfect 10; how about a perfect 5?
It's the score most Advanced Placement (AP) students hope for when they sit down to take the rigorous exams in May. Getting a 5, or sometimes even a 3 or 4, may earn them college credit before they've left high school (see story, page 18). But boiling down pages of multiple-choice and complex essay questions to a single score is not an easy process.
This year students completed nearly 87,000 AP biology exams, just one of 33 possible subjects. The multiple-choice section of the exam is graded by machine, but each exam's four essay questions require a careful, unbiased reading by an individual.
It's for this purpose that 267 "readers," a mixture of college professors and AP high school biology teachers, gathered in June. It's tough work, acknowledges Robert Cannon, an associate professor of biology at University of North Carolina-Greensboro and the chief faculty consultant for the exam. Each reader may grade hundreds of exams in a day.
But, he says, teachers come back year after year because of "the collegiality" of the experience. High school teachers have valuable interchanges with college professors; for the professors, "it's an opportunity to interact with some of the most motivated high school teachers in the world" - a good source of teaching ideas for professors who may be more involved with research than pedagogy.
One of the challenges is keeping readers consistent and unbiased. They collaborate to develop the grading standards for the questions, a process that helps readers agree on the answers and "implant them in their brains and in their hearts," Dr. Cannon says.
John Conner, head of the modern-language department at Groton School in Groton, Mass., says he likes this approach. One reader may see a certain response as excellent, while another thinks it's average, he says. "It's very stimulating to have to explain your point of view. Teachers are so used to being petty dictators in the classroom."
Readers give credit for all right parts of an answer, but deduct nothing for incorrect information.
They also focus on a single question, so each exam passes through several different hands. And consistency is enforced by table leaders, who check readers' scores periodically. Alice DeLana, an AP English table leader for years, says she reminded readers "every day and several times - reward the students for what they do well and don't be persnickety about whatever your personal bias is."
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