Why test-scoring tedium is worth it

It was a humid summer morning as we poured into the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla. Although practically wilting, most of us carried sweaters, knowing we'd freeze once inside. No doubt, that cold helped keep some 600 high school and college instructors awake as we scored exams in Advanced Placement English Literature, taken by more than 150,000 students in the United States and Canada.

AP courses allow students not only to learn a particular subject in depth, but also to hone skills in analytical thinking and writing. We teachers who score the exams reap our own benefits. Each year we renew our faith in the wit, creativity, and depth of insight of America's youths. And we return to our classrooms as better teachers.

Each of us was assigned to score one of three required essays. Scores ran from 0, when a student wrote nothing, to 9, often the mark of a gifted student.

I made my way to Question I, the poetry analysis, located in a large partitioned area with 25 tables - dotted with little dishes of candy - of eight teachers each. We began the morning with one of us reading the poem aloud, so we could envision its context. A teacher stood at the microphone, slowly releasing each line like a winding country road. We applauded as she finished, and turned to our sample essays.

Those samples were essays already scored by the table leaders. We evaluated them according to a rubric of guidelines. The leaders then checked to see if our scores matched theirs.

Our real challenges, of course, were the "live papers," or student essays. Table leaders would randomly select batches from each of us to give a second reading, checking our accuracy in scoring. Most readers scored about 150 essays a day. By the end of Day 2, we had mastered the rhythm of the grading and the nuances of the poem.

On the other side of the partition, our colleagues graded Question II, which asked students to analyze a prose passage, like an excerpt from a biography of Florence Nightingale.

But it was upstairs that teachers faced the greatest challenge: Question III, the open-ended question. Students had to apply a given topic to a novel of their choice. Those writing on more complex literature usually earned an extra point.

After a full morning of grading, lunchtime was one of our best opportunities to learn from one another. We took notes on a poetry project put together by a teacher in Omaha, or a family biography project in Tampa. We put in another four hours of grading after lunch before heading back to the hotel.

While a certain amount of tedium is inevitable in continuous essay-reading, the students provided us not only with insights into the works we taught, but also a few good laughs and a variety of other diversions.

"I don't want to take this exam," bemoaned one test taker. "I've gotten into Harvard," she wrote, "and I would prefer to write about my boyfriend." This she did for five pages.

"If you meet Mrs. Janet Simmons," wrote another, "please tell her she is a wonderful teacher and I'll miss her." Comments like this we were eager to pass on. Some students drew little cartoons at the end of an essay; others made humorous remarks: "I'd rather be almost anywhere but here, but I hope I did well anyway," or, "I wish they'd bring me a pizza; it would help me concentrate."

At week's end, we were ready to return to our other lives.

Our request to future exam takers is only this: Write us a smashing essay that yields a fresh look, from your younger eyes, at a familiar piece of literature. Then you will have given us a great gift - something new we can pass on to others.

Elaine K. Markowitz is a former AP English teacher in Tampa, Fla.

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