What Jim Knows

We finished reading for the AP exam in Louisville on Saturday, and I’m home now. But before I left, I sat down with Jim Barkus, Chief AP Reader for Literature and Composition, and Professor of English at Baylor University, to ask a few questions.


June 11, 2007

We finished reading for the AP exam in Louisville on Saturday, and I’m home now. But before I left, I sat down with Jim Barkus, Chief AP Reader for Literature and Composition, and Professor of English at Baylor University, to ask a few questions.

Good morning, Jim. I’m wondering how many years you’ve been working for ETS or College Board.

I really don’t know the exact number, because I really haven’t kept records. I was out a couple of years, when I was retired the first time, and when there were graduations or weddings. I probably started working on the AP Exam about 1970 or ’72.

You started as a Reader, as I am now?

Oh yes, started as a Reader… Table Reader…Question Leader…Chief Reader.

Some of us here were wondering about the distinction between ETS and College Board.

College Board established ETS—this is as I understand it—to be its not-for-profit testing arm. They are two separate corporations. They have had a good relationship over the years in that ETS has served to develop and score a variety of tests, not only for College Board, but for other entities as well.

And your own education?

Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, master’s degree from the University of Kentucky, bachelor’s degree from Houghton College, Houghton, New York.

Your retirement as Chief Reader, after the next reading year, was announced today. Congratulations. I suspect that’s bittersweet?

It is indeed bittersweet! My years with AP Exam have been very important to me. I’ve learned more about teaching and more about teaching writing, particularly, by scoring these papers, and by talking about them in community, than any other professional activity. I’ll continue to teach—I’ve been a full-time teacher all along—and I suspect I’ll continue to work with ETS and College Board in whatever capacity they invite me to.

How would you describe the correlation between the objective portion of the test and the discursive essays?

Well, the correlation is what it is. We don’t have any ideal number there, because each year objective items change, and the free-response items change, and on any given set of questions the correlation may be higher or lower than another year. We think, however, that we ought to be somewhere around a 50% correlation. That is, if you just think about your classroom, about 50% of the time the good students who do well on the objective part of your examination will do well on your essays. And those students who are struggling will usually not perform well on either section. We have those other students who can’t take an objective exam. They really struggle, and yet, when they sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil, they write excellent essays. We don’t look for a one-to-one correlation. We’re more concerned about students’ performance.

When you spoke to us before the reading, you mentioned the benefits of this kind of testing to the American educational system. What are they?

I think we have benefits that both teachers and students experience. Teachers in the United States are not valued as they are in many other cultures. Teaching is not highly paid here, it’s not rewarded, and the AP program encourages teachers. It values what they do. It stretches them. Teachers are betters teachers because they are mentored by experienced teachers. They are encouraged to change their reading lists. They are asked to revise their syllabi. The result is that teachers who teach AP have higher morale and, I believe, do a better job than those who don’t have that opportunity.

Students, then, in a classroom with an experienced AP teacher, have an opportunity to soar, to stretch their wings, to read complex and dense texts, and to be able to read more than the sports page or the front page of a newspaper, with some understanding.

The end result is that there are benefits for society. I’m a believer that if we do not continue to teach students to read and to write—if we do not emphasize reading and writing—a democratic and free society is in danger.

What are the implications of required AP testing? As I’m reading Question 3, I’m finding those statements by students who refuse to answer, based on the fact that it was a forced activity.

Students may refuse to take the exam or to take it seriously for a variety of reasons. For some students, who have had early admission to Harvard, Yale, or Williams, they wonder why they have to take it. For other students, who have been, perhaps, encouraged by parents or counselors to go into an AP test, and then take the exam, and are not quite prepared for it, they could indeed become frustrated.

But College Board is committed to open access to this exam. Even if students have not had an AP course, they should be allowed to take the exam. And they are allowed to take the exam, without [taking] the AP course. Coming from Texas, I think this is very important, because we have numerous—numerous—independent school districts that cannot afford to offer Advanced Placement courses in all of these subjects. However, there are very good students in those schools, perhaps a senior class of 15 or 18 students. They all should have the opportunity to earn college credit through an AP [test].

On the whole, our surveys and our anecdotal evidence [say] that students read better and write better because they’ve been in an AP class, even if some of the tasks are frustrating. The result is that they are better prepared for college, better prepared to be productive citizens.

Who pays for the exams?

It varies, but in most cases, the students and their parents pay. Sometimes a few states will either help or cover the cost.

Any idea of the cost?

You’d have to check this, but I believe it’s $85.

[It’s $83. With a reduction for financial need, it can be lowered to $53.] Does that fee cover the scale of this operation? [At this location, for this reading alone, there are some 1,000 readers. Think of airfare, ground transport, hotel, three meals and two snacks per day, and the use of the Kentucky Convention Center.]

Yes, I think it does! The problem is that we really need more money to do it right, because the readers, as you know, are paid very minimally. It’s a very minimal amount. So, where that money is going to come from is a big question. We really do not want to increase the price of this test, because we do not want to eliminate good students from having the privilege of earning college credit.

If students take, say, four or five different AP classes at once in their high school, is it possible to maintain the rigor of each?

I suppose it is possible for students to be overburdened, but they can be overburdened by too many football practices, too much weightlifting. This is a matter for students and their parents to decide: What’s the best number of AP courses for them to take?

I would assume some of the better teachers in their schools are chosen to teach AP classes. Does that take resources away from students not taking AP classes?

The College Board has, I think, very appropriately developed something called Vertical Team Training. The idea is that students really are not prepared for an AP course in just one year. The preparation to be an AP student should begin in middle school, and move up. So the result is that it’s just not the teacher of a senior-level course or a junior-level course who profits from this kind of activity. With Vertical Teams, it moves right down into the seventh and eighth grades.

And that’s something that ETS actively tries to coordinate?

Well, The College Board does that. ETS is the testing arm that develops tests and scores tests, but it doesn’t really get involved in the training of teachers.

In your opinion, does a 4 or 5 score in AP Lit really indicate college freshman comp equivalency? [Essays we read are scored on a scale from 1 to 9. This score is combined with the score on the objective exam and reported on a scale from 1 to 5.]

I’m very comfortable with 4 and 5 scores. Those students are extremely well prepared. Can a student learn more? Yes. Can a student become an even better writer? Yes. But perhaps the best way for them to become better writers is to take the next level of writing, an advanced composition course. But a score of a 4 or a 5 is very good.

And to my understanding, colleges and universities can set that level themselves to some extent? So is a 3 also acceptable?

College Board has no intention of telling institutions what the cut-off point is. Institutions decide that. So, yes. Three, for some institutions, is quite satisfactory.

I was talking with a Table Leader at lunch. He was wondering if there was a way for AP to more effectively bridge this high-school/college divide. Like me, many people who teach college have insight into the high school process of teaching writing only through our own experiences many years ago, or by coming to something like this. I’m wondering if College Board or ETS either does or could help college teachers understand this process better, so we can be more familiar with who our students are and what they’ve done?

Well, I really can’t speak for either ETS or College Board on this point. I do think that both organizations value a Reading like this for what it contributes to that dialog between college and [high school] faculty. We have Question Leaders who teach at the secondary level; we have Table Leaders who teach at the secondary level and supervise the scoring by college faculty. And I think that this process is one of the ways in which we are encouraging communication. Can we do more? Sure. And I think we’re all open to more ideas about how to facilitate this communication, building bridges.

Many thanks for your time today! Anything you’d like to add?

Encourage college faculty to go to AP Central website and sign up for the reading process, in statistics, calculus, biology, chemistry, English lit, and composition. Find out what this program’s all about. It’s worthwhile.


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