Monday, June 21, 2010

Grading the 2010 AP English Language Exam: The Rubric

This is the second of a five-part series on the mysteries and realities of the AP English Language Exam and its grading process. For more on the the marathon that is AP exam grading, see Part 1, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 (coming soon).

After the prompt, the official grading rubric is the most important document for any grader in assessing the quality of a given exam. Each essay is scored on a scale from 1-9, but graders are encouraged to interpret that range as a series of decisions. The first question every grader is supposed to ask: “Is this an upper-half or lower-half paper?” Lower-half scores include 1-4; upper half papers include scores 5-9.

Once the grader has identified the essay as “upper-half” or “lower-half,” they break it into a further subset. Lower-half papers are further divided into two groups. Those that are “Inadequate” have evidence that is “inappropriate, insufficient, or less convincing” or the argument is “inadequately developed.” Inadequate papers receive a score of 4; inadequate papers that demonstrate “less success” in responding to de Botton receive a score of 3. The other major category for lower-half papers is “Little Success,” for papers that “misunderstand the prompt, or substitute a simpler task by responding to the prompt tangentially with unrelated, inaccurate, or inappropriate explanation.” Papers that demonstrate “little success” received a score of 2; papers that demonstrated “little success” but were “especially simplistic” received a score of 1.

On the upper-half of the equation were two similar divisions; papers receiving a score of 8 or 9 were those deemed “effective” and those receiving a score of 6 or 7 are “adequate.” But the hardest score, by far, was the upper-half number that hovered somewhere between an “inadequate” 4 and an “adequate” 6; essays designated with a score of 5 are supposed to “convey the writers ideas” but in an “uneven, inconsistent, or limited manner.” Telling the difference between an inadequate 4, an uneven, inconsistent, or limited 5 and an adequate 6 was the most difficult distinction for any reader to make.

Graders were expected to “take everything into account: content, organization, diction, sentence structure, spelling—everything.” Everything, that is, except handwriting, because if we were allowed to factor handwriting into the grading, there would be few if any upper-half scores. Over a week of grading, nothing required more effort to grade than a superior essay hidden behind indecipherable handwriting—except maybe a bad essay hidden behind bad handwriting. Nonetheless, I resolved not to penalize bad handwriting, lest the ghosts of my youth—when I routinely received failing grades for my handwriting—come back to haunt me.

I’m sure that many exam-takers worry about typos and grammatical errors submarining their scores, but those issues were largely ignored by graders who recognized that every single one of these essays was a first draft written under pressure. Only if a paper contained “many and distracting errors in grammar and mechanics” did the rubric instruct graders that it could note receive a score “higher than a 2.” I ignored the vast majority of grammatical and mechanical errors that I saw over the past week, but some are just too delicious not to share.

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

• Without appreciating the irony of his mistake, one student misspelled Ellen Degeneres’ name as Degenderous. Do you think, perhaps, that he appreciated her stand-up routines on a subliminal level?
• In what might have been the single most wretched sentence of the entire exam, one student stated that, For example, writer of the pervious centreryes (100 years) relayed on satire in play, opera, book, and poemty. Holy Hannah! I’d rather be struck blind than read book and poemty written by this student for an entire centrery.
• Then there was the rather defensive—and lazy—student who asserted, I know how to do an argument essay, to bored to do it. Also, this gym is cluster phoebis to the max, I can’t work in this compact of a place. Hey, if you’re to tired, far be it from me to beg for more.
• This one would have been pretty clever, if only it had been intentional: The role of humorists in society can be characterized by bringing in to light the fears and destresses of society. Nothing to relieve distress like a little de-stressing comedy.
. . . as for a humorist, they just wanted a good massage to be pass down. Hey, me too—after a day spent unmoving in these chairs, I could use a good massage myself.
These humorists say unspeakle things. Yup—and so do you.
• Then there’s the student who said exactly what I think about most of the vulgar comedians I read over and over about during the week: There are comedic writers in every orafice of the entertainment business. You got that right—if only they’d stay in those orifices, instead of popping out, like pimples on . . . You know what? I think we should end this analogy.
Many cartoonists are key players in hiddening hidden messages. No comment.
• I frequently heard about people that no one in their right mind would consider a humorist—including radio alienators such as Rush Limbaugh. The student, apparently, remembered that Limbaugh made Obama out to be an illegal alien. Or, at least, I assume that’s what s/he was thinking.
• Other conservative figures invoked by students included the Christian comic Brian Regan: Comedy is a tool Brian uses to evangulate people. I can only assume that evangulate is a composite of evangelize and strangulate—which, in all fairness, is a combination that I think does justice to Regan’s routines.
• In another Christian-themed gaffe, one student wrote, Screaming “Jesus sucks in church” is very inappropriate. Yes—and so is screaming “Jesus sucks” in church, which is what I think she meant.
• Many students had spent too much time listening to Stephen Colbert’s “Word of the Day,” and apparently trusted overmuch in his “truthiness”: Comedians show the idiocracy in subjects that must be addressed.
• Of course, such baffling assertions were often followed up with a recognition of the students' uncertainty; as though an AP grader might pop out of their paper and respond, I frequently found the question, Does this make any sense?
• Sometimes student responses did make sense—especially when they stated their point more than once: Protaining to this topic not only do a person like my self agree with Botton’s claims . . . but I also support it. Ok; glad we confirmed that one.
• Perhaps the single funniest spelling error was made in an essay describing Jonathan Swift’s famous “Modest Proposal” in which he satirically suggests that the British government raise Irish babies as food to alleviate the suffering caused by the potato famine; describing this cannibalistic suggestion, one student called Swift’s essay an outrageous and digesting solution to the problem. And, I’m sure the student would be quick to point out, Swift’s solution was also disgusting.
• But my favorite typo—bar none—came at the end of an essay, as the student concluded his argument with a rhetorical flourish: How else could this point be better statted? Err . . . do you really want me to answer that?

Go back to Part 1: The Prompt or forward to Part 3: Grader Assimilation.


The Vieiras said...

Love it! I'm not sure if I should admit that after a year of AP English AND paying for the test, I somehow managed to mix up the start time of the exam. I came strutting into the front of Algonquin with a bagel and coffee in hand, ready to go, only to see my fellow APers returning to the test from their first bathroom/drink break. Oops. I turned right around and went back out to the parking lot. Oh well. I suppose the year with Bruce was what I needed more than a score:)

Jo Jo said...

We're (Tanner and I) are loving the examples. Unbelievable. Jarrod's sister in California, Janeen, has been enjoying them as well. She attended a conference to prepare you to take the tests, with her son, and have found that many of the things you say she was told.

Kel said...

Hmm. I keep notes on my favorite student errors as well and pull them out when I need a chuckle. If you're interested, perhaps I'll share them with you someday.

vicki said...

I'm reading these posts praying that you don't make fun of any of my essays. None so far! :)

ashley nedelman said...

you're a douchebag. i understand that not everyone is as smart and well-spoken as you are but that doesn't mean that you can take the work of students and put it on the internet for people to laugh at. no wonder they make such mistakes after spending 5 hours in a room writing essays. get a life. there are other ways of explaining the grading process of this exam.