Saturday, June 19, 2010

Grading the 2010 AP English Language Exam: The Prompt

This is the first of a five-part series on the mysteries and realities of the AP English Language Exam and its grading process. For more on the marathon that is AP exam grading, see Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 (coming soon!).

Educational Testing Services— ETS—administers two Advanced Placement (AP) English exams, one that assesses students’ ability to write (English Language) and one that assesses student knowledge of famous works of literature (English Literature). On the appointed day in May every year high school students across the country line up to take these exams, hoping that their score, on a 1-5 scale, will allow them to test out of freshman composition in their college of choice; for most students this means that they need to score at least a 3 on the exam. Once students have completed the exam, ETS assembles the exams and transports them to a single location, where graders from across the country will assemble to read the essay portion. This year, that assembly took place in Louisville, Kentucky, where between 1,100 and 1,200 educational professionals—ranging from high school teachers to adjunct faculty at community colleges to graduate students to tenured faculty at Research I universities—descended to grade more than 350,000 English Language exams.

The AP English Language exam includes a series of multiple choice questions and three essay questions. Each essay question asks students to do something slightly different: the first asks students to synthesize and summarize three different sources of information; the second asks students to analyze the language of a selected passage of prose, usually a speech or persuasive essay; and the third asks students to construct an argument. Students write all three essays by hand in an exam booklet, and their final score (1-5) is determined by the averaging the score assigned to each essay and the multiple choice questions.

While every student writes three essays, a different grader reads each essay (to make sure that no student’s score is overly dependent on a single perspective) and each grader is assigned to a specific question. When I arrived at the first day of grading and registered as a reader, on Friday, June 11, 2010, I was informed that I would be grading essay question three: argument. I had already read the prompt for each of the essay questions as part of my preparation, but before I arrived in the cavernous hall that would be my home for the next week I re-read the prompt:

“In his 2004 book, Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton argues that the chief aim of humorists is not merely to entertain but ‘to convey with impunity messages that might be dangerous or impossible to state directly.’ Because society allows humorists to say things that other people cannot or will not say, de Botton sees humorists as serving a vital function in society. Think about the implications of de Botton’s view of the role of humorists (cartoonists, stand-up comics, satirical writers, hosts of television programs, etc.). Then write an essay that defends, challenges, or qualifies de Botton’s claim about the vital role of humorists. Use specific, appropriate evidence to develop your position.”

Rereading the prompt, I was excited—this was, I thought, clearly the most interesting of the three questions, and I looked forward to reading essays about funny people, events, and art for the next week. What I didn’t consider was the fact that many of my students would not understand the prompt at a basic level. I would definitely be laughing as I read these essays over the next week, but most of laughter would be prompted by the unintentional comedy of students’ misunderstandings and misstatements.

The following are excerpts from actual exams; each excerpt is in italics, with my commentary in normal typeface.

The first problem that students seemed to have was coming to terms with the definition of the word “humorist”—despite the root word “humor” and the many examples provided in the prompt. For instance, I had students who wrote:

Humorist hmm . . . what is your opinion about this people? Most likely your thinking that they are humans who work to make other people laugh. Yes. You’re right. I was thinking that they are humans.
[Humorists’] feelings are usually pure, unadulterated and unedited, stripped away of stupid niceties and fluffy language, the voice of humorists become the voice of reason. Um . . . right. This is how I’ve always thought of Robin Williams—the pure and unadulterated voice of reason.
Although many satirists and comedians receive a lump sum of money after a days work, the majority do so out of compassion, and love for the people. So now humorists are both the voice of reason AND Christ figures? Who also seem to have a lot in common with Judas? I’m confused.
Humorist can basically be your second parents. Methinks this student watched Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy one too many times . . .
For example, the founding fathers of the United States would be considered as humorists. You know, I always thought that Washington was a funny guy.
Humorists are emotionless and do not care for other people’s feelings. Of course not—that’s why they spend their lives making other people laugh.
Commercials are also most of the time humorist. Um . . . you mean humorous?
Humorists play a vital role in society along with all the other organisms in today’s world. Yup, humorists and gut bacteria—vital organisms.
Pearl in The Scarlet Letter is a humorist. Yes, I always thought that Nathaniel’s novel about adultery, sin, and the Puritan culture of shame was hilarious. This, however, was only my second favorite Scarlet Letter reference—I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud when I read about the humorous circumstances of “Heather” (instead of Hester) and “Ruby” (instead of Pearl). At least the student remembered that the daughter’s name was a precious stone of some sort.

The second problem that students had with the prompt revolved around their understanding of who Alain de Botton was and what they needed to say about him. I had students who wrote:

Botton will make the audience to be active because of his humor. He will not bore them and will not make them fall asleep. The purpose of being like Botton is to aim what people wants to hear. Me too. I want to be funny like de Botton too.
Maybe Alain also believes in a better tomorrow; one where presidents can be safe from flying shoes or where chickens can cross roads without being questioned about their motives. Anonymous student, this is a tomorrow that I want to live in.
Mark Twain and Alain de Botton sound similar to me. Me too. But please, continue: As soon as I read that Botton is a humorist writter Twain instintly popped into my head and that is a excellent writter. Yes, Twain writtes almost as well as you do. Botton may have been close to Twain, they may have been best friends. Well maybe they would have been friends—if they had lived in the same century!
If people like Botton don’t like it then boo-hoo build a bridge, get over it! The world doesn’t revolve around you. People like him are so stupid. I hate people like him. Yikes! I hope they never use my name in an AP prompt.

The last prevalent misunderstanding of the prompt involved a failure to comprehend the word “impunity.” I could have pulled any number of samples just like these:

Alain de Botton is against humorists things because they impunity message. Okay . . . misunderstanding the word impunity clearly wasn’t the only problem here.
Do some of the things we hear, see, or read give us impunitive messages that can be harmful or dangerous? This one was fun to think about—how would you define impunitive?

Go on to Part 2: The Rubric


Jenny said...

the prompt? BRUTAL.

And that would be me... calling Pearl RUBY.

To think kids PAY for these things.

The Renaissance Man said...

Thank you dear uncle zach. Not only do you make me feel highly confident about my score but also you alleviated any remaining fears over whether or not the united states public education system is failing. Miserably, I might add. Truly your pieces, on pieces on humorists are written by a true humorist indeed.

The Renaissance Man said...

oh, and i had that prompt as well. (how is a gym of all places claustrophobic?)