Where Your Testing Money Goes

Jim Barkus, Chief Reader for AP Literature, told us our punctuality each day and steady application to the task of reading student essays would get the job done by Saturday evening; we weren’t to worry about our speed. It’s a little hard not to think of speed, though.


June 5, 2007

Jim Barkus, Chief Reader for AP Literature, told us our punctuality each day and steady application to the task of reading student essays would get the job done by Saturday evening; we weren’t to worry about our speed. It’s a little hard not to think of speed, though. The scale of this production is staggering.

According to the College Board, there are 9,000 college faculty and AP teachers “from around the world” grading (“reading”) the eight million essays written for 2.3 million AP exams taken in 22 subject areas in May 2007. By the end of the summer, readers will have gathered at The College of New Jersey, Colorado State University, the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Trinity University in Texas, the University of Nebraska, and here, in Louisville.

Our share is some 900,000 essays/problems in English literature, French, and Statistics. Two years ago, Barkus said, there were 40,000 fewer exams taken (120,000 essays), and they try to staff appropriately. Unfortunately, 75 readers have failed to show, so he asked us to work an extra half hour each day until ETS can be assured we’ll finish.

The essays are read holistically, based on a rubric and a ten-point scale, and there are constant efforts to keep everybody normalized with their grading. Barkus said that “while [he’s] distressed at the death of apostrophe”—the crowd laughed; it’s that sort of crowd—“students can get the highest score with a missed apostrophe.” About 10% of essays are back-checked, or read by pit bosses at each table, at least in the first three days. Barkus said we aren’t to think of this as “Big Brother systematically checking our work, but after 100 essays, the mind does slip.”

Sixty percent of readers are recruited from colleges and universities (a mix of tenured and non-tenured faculty, and Ph.D. candidates), and 40% from secondary ed. Only about 20% are new readers; many have been readers for several years, and some have done it for decades. Barkus said that ETS is “very concerned” that 20-25% of readers should represent minorities, but that this reading "didn’t quite yield 18% declared minorities.”

The actual reading takes place in what looks like an airport hanger, in the Kentucky Convention Center. It’s noisy and cold. One does not speak of the draft coming from the exposed ductwork 50 feet overhead; this is a wind, strong enough to move papers on the tables, and one of the six people at my table was given a linen tablecloth to wear around his shoulders to keep warm. A man at the next table of six readers said, “We’re working inside the box that Disneyland came in.”

Readers in English lit have been assigned to one of three questions that students faced last month. Those reading Question 1 spend the week reading compare/contrasts of two poems by Richard Wilbur and Billy Collins. Those with Question 2 read about a relationship in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. I’m in the group for Question 3, which asked students to write about how a character’s relationship to the past plays out in a novel or play of their choosing. Nearly 40 titles are provided, from Ethan Frome to Mrs. Dalloway to A Streetcar Named Desire, but they could use others not listed. I’d say 20% of the essays I saw today were on Great Expectations, followed closely by Great Gatsby, and Beloved.

Students had two hours to handwrite the three essays, without books or revision to speak of, and some of the third essays written (Question 3, if they went in order) look rushed. Occasionally someone doodles on the page that should have an essay written on it, or writes cute things to us. Someone at my table had a story about a student who wrote, halfway through an essay, “I’ve been accepted at Harvard, and my boyfriend just proposed to me, so I don’t feel like finishing this, but I want you to have a nice day.”

At breaks there’s a rush for the snack tables; apples, donuts, and mini-yogurt in the morning, and popcorn, ice cream, and pretzel mix in the afternoon, go quickly. The crush is terrible to see. I suspect someone at ETS made a decision not to provide bottomless coffee urns in the room; the coffee would only cause more frequent bathroom breaks and spilled messes on student booklets. Needless to say, it’s uncomfortable sitting all day on folding chairs, hunched over handwritten exam books, and they started us on four-minute stretching breaks too. I’d love to take a picture of 1,000 middle-aged teachers doing down-dog yoga poses, but my little camera won’t fit them all in the frame.

I still have doubts about aspects of the grading process, which I’ll take up next time. There are vocal critics to standardized testing in general, and the attempts to normalize the grading of so many readers, even on the same essay in practice sessions, remind me of students’ claims that “writing is subjective, so it can never be graded fairly.” But my second-day reaction to this enormous production is that the ETS has brought in an army of those best-qualified to judge, and while the mood here is friendly, even light, these people are serious as it’s possible to be about getting it right for the students’—not the company’s—sake.


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