Some kudos from my Table Leader
In early June, I put my teaching assignment on hold to work as an AP Reader in Louisville. Downtown Louisville transformed into AP central with a small army of five thousand readers representing both the AP Literature and AP Language exams. Between the two exams, the readers filled two entire downtown hotels and occupied eight massive ballrooms at the Kentucky Convention Center. For seven straight days, readers from across the nation spent eight hours a day calibrating, deliberating, and scoring boxes and boxes of essays. I worked as an AP Language reader and we collectively scored over 507,000 essays. (If you recall the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you can visualize the gargantuan task we had in front of us). Based on the data report I received at the end of the reading, I personally scored 876 essays that roughly averaged 175 essays per day. While scoring was both intellectually draining and mind numbing at the same time, there were many takeaways I had from the experience. Now my summer vacation has begun, I have the opportunity to reflect on what I learned, meditate how being a scorer ties back to my instruction, and how the AP rubric connects to the SBAC and the Common Core Writing Standards.
Takeaway #1 – Always Assume Good Intent: The AP essays are scored on a 1-9 scale. For a student to reach standard, he must earn a 5 or higher. A student earns a 1 if he “insufficiently” answers a prompt. A student earns a 9 if he does an “exceptional” job answering the prompt and demonstrates he has an extraordinary control of language. The challenge of a scorer is determining the difference between a 4, 5, or 6. A student who earns a 4 is just below standard, a student with a 5 just meets standard, and a student with a 6 writes “adequately” above standard. While the rubric clearly spells out the guidelines how to rate an essay, the big variable is “good intent.” As a reader, I must remember a human being is behind the writing. I always must be mindful of the nuggets embedded within a student’s essay that could raise his score. I remember one essay where the writing hovered between a 5 and 6 on the rubric. I planned to give the student a 5 because of numerous typos throughout the essay. Then I read the conclusion. The student attempted to insert a metaphor comparing the cost of college to a family heirloom. He wrote: “If you have ever watched Antiques Roadshow with your grandma like me, y’know hairlooms could be worth millions or meer pennies. Despite its worth, however, the value of an hairloom, like a collage education, is priceless.” I scored the essay as a 6, but I was unsure so I asked my Table Leader. She agreed and gave me kudos on a sticky for astutely mining a nugget of this writer’s good intent (see above).
Next fall, as I enter year 2 of implementing the Common Core in my curriculum I need to always assume my students best intent in their writing. As we struggle together to comprehend the standards, we need to mine for nuggets demonstrating our collective successes.
Takeaway #2 – Anchors Keep You Grounded: Everyday we began by reading anchor papers and discussing where the anchors fit within the rubric. Even when I had scored enough essays to intuitively comprehend the scoring guidelines, this exercise kept me grounded. It made me question am I objectively scoring essays? Am I scoring too leniently? Am I scoring too harshly?
I hope to work next school year with members of my PLC to norm common writing assessments before we score them. Yes, it takes more time initially to collect anchor essays and calibrate scoring as a group. However, once we have done so we will have a stack of anchors we can show our students. More importantly, our parents will know no matter which teacher their child has for English, he will be graded objectively.
Takeaway #3 – The Claim’s the Thing: If there was one item that was consistent amongst upper level essays it was the essays were all claim driven. What I mean is the student developed a strong thesis, and the evidence consistently tied back to the thesis throughout the essay. In the past there were many essays I would have given students a 5 because they attempted to connect their evidence to the thesis. But, as the Chief Reader unequivocally reminded us, “If an essay is evidence driven, it will never meet standard.”
As an English teacher, this may sound intuitive. When we teach our students writing, we spend lots of time on thesis development. But, it is more than that. One thing I will spend more time in the future with my students is showing them how to always tie their evidence back to their thesis. The SBAC Argumentative Writing Rubric clearly states in the category of focus: “The writer states a controlling idea or main idea of a topic is focused, clearly stated, and strongly maintained…communicated clearly within the context of the essay.” I want my students to understand for them to write a successful argumentative essay, their thesis must be sustained throughout their writing.
Takeaway #4 – Acknowledge the Good You are Already Doing: A majority of the essays I read were in the 4,5,6 zone. With over a half a million students who took the AP Lang exam, this should not be a surprise. Reflecting on my own AP students’ work, I truly felt that a majority of the writing I scored was representative of my AP students writing at the beginning of the school year, not at the end.
I won’t know my students’ scores until mid-July, but I am optimistic. This is a testament to the work that my AP Lang coworkers and I did throughout the year, but also to my English department, and my district. At all grade levels we have put an emphasis on reading and writing across disciplines: the work the elementary teachers have done teaching main idea; the work the middle school teachers have done explaining the five-paragraph essay; the work the freshman and sophomore teachers have done in instructing how to construct an argumentative essay. All our collective efforts, hopefully, will reap their rewards on how well our students perform on the AP exam.
The last day of school an SE teacher walked up to me and asked me if I knew one of our shared students had passed the state assessment in Reading and Writing. I admitted I hadn’t. She offered me congratulations. I smiled, and said I only deserved partial credit. The teacher’s efforts in her SE class equally benefited this student as well.
I have no doubt as we work to implement the Common Core at all grade levels, our successes will be our collective successes, and we will all cheer for our students’ collective growth.