Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Another Dispatch from the AP US History Reading in Louisville

Jonathan Den Hartog, our correspondent at the Advanced Placement United States History reading, has sent us another dispatch from Louisville.  Read his first post here.

Greetings again from the AP Correspondent!

With the last post I promised some description of what went on during the day. Here it would be entertaining to describe sword play, explosions, or historians challenging each other with a “You can’t handle the truth!” and throwing down a forgotten primary source. No, we’re here to grade, and that is what we do.

Students writing the exam had to answer three questions. The first was a Documents-Based Question, or in the AP parlance, the DBQ. Students were given 9 short primary sources and asked to write a response based on those documents and on their own knowledge. This year, students had to reflect on the Nixon administration’s responses to foreign and domestic challenges.

Next, students had to answer two Free Response Questions, of which they had choices. They had to select one question from the first half of U.S. history and one from the second half. The first choice was between a question on the development of slavery between 1607 and 1776 and another on the role of party competition in shaping nationalism in the early republic. The second group asked two comparative questions, whether to compare opposition to immigrants between the 1840s-50s and 1910s-20s or to compare the strategies of African American leaders between the 1890s-1920s and the 1950s-60s.

The first order of business for the reading is training. The ETS does an excellent job of insuring consistency across readers through rigid adherence to a grading rubric.  Leaders encourage readers to “embrace the standard.” The end result is the entire group is striving for an eminently fair reading. After a half day of training, we started the reading. Each of the four Free Response questions has approximately a quarter of the readers on it, more or less depending on the percentages of students who selected each question. This year, strong majorities decided to write on slavery and Civil Rights leaders. I was assigned to score the question about slavery.

Once the training ends, tables begin reading exams. Table leaders at each table keep readers on track. The day is broken up by snack and meal breaks, but the rest of the time is just reading of exams. After reading each exam, each reader assigns a score to the exam and moves on. In a day, a reader will cover easily over 100 exams, and the very fast readers can do 250+. I should note I have not reached those blazing fast speeds, but I have seen them in operation. It’s tiring work, but some satisfaction comes with finishing a folder and with the regular reminders of how much the group is covering.

About halfway through the week, the sections complete their first question, and the entire assembly switches over to the DBQ. That switch happened today, so for the next two days all of us will be reading about Richard Nixon. With greater distance from Watergate, I think historians and historical writers (like Rick Perlstein) are recognizing the complexities of Nixon and the era. Most of that complexity is probably lost on the essay writers, but I have already seen some voices trying to offer an historically fair assessment of Nixon’s efforts, so maybe all is not lost.

I have to be back at my table first thing in the morning, so I should sign off, with a hearty greetings from Louisville!