Five minute primer: Advanced Placement test scores
May 29th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

Five minute primer: Advanced Placement test scores

By Jordan Bienstock, CNN

(CNN) – It began on May 7 with Chemistry and Environmental Science, and ended on May 18 with Human Geography and Spanish Literature. During the two weeks in between, millions of U.S. students pored over questions and essays on more than 30 Advanced Placement exams.

Now, all they can do is wait.

Advanced Placement, or AP, courses provide high school students the opportunity to earn college credit. They’re overseen by the College Board, the same organization that administers the SAT college admission test.

The battery of exams takes place in early May, but students won’t find out how they did until July, when scores are revealed.

Even then, students won’t know which questions they got correct or what individual mistakes they may have made on essays. All they receive is a number, 1 through 5, with a 3 or higher being a passing score.

How does the College Board arrive at those scores during the two months between the exams and the results?

It’s a multi-stage process, much like the AP tests themselves.

Nearly all Advanced Placement exams are comprised of multiple-choice and free-response sections.

The multiple-choice sections are scored by computer. The number of questions a student gets right equals his or her multiple-choice score. Simple enough.

The free-response sections consist of essays and problem solving. To evaluate this part of the exams, the College Board gathers teams in early June for the annual AP Readings.

“We believe it’s the largest scoring experience in the world in terms of the number of student responses that are scored,” says Trevor Packer, the College Board’s senior vice president for advanced placement and college readiness.

The AP Readings take place at four sites around the country with an all-star team of graders.

You know that scene in an action movie, when the team of heroes has been assembled and walks in slow motion together while an electric guitar wails on the soundtrack? Replace the actors with academics, and you’ve got the general idea.

According to Mark Cavone, executive director for AP program operations and finance, the College Board flies in 11,000 graders, split between high school teachers and college faculty.

“I’m amazed we can get people to give up a week of their summer to sit in a windowless convention center and score exams for eight hours a day,” says Packer.

That’s eight hours a day for seven straight days, if you’re a reader. If you’re part of the leadership structure at an AP Reading, you arrive four days ahead of time.

At a Reading site, teachers and professors are divided into tables to grade tests in their subject areas. Each table is staffed by eight readers and a Table Leader, who is responsible for managing the readers. The entire AP Reading is overseen by a Chief Reader.

Before the readers arrive, leaders look at sample student responses to establish scoring standards. Each question is assigned multiple score points, and leaders identify what level of student work meets each score level.

“When the readers show up, the leaders train them on each question so they understand clearly the standards around what a 1 is, what a 2 is, what a 3 is,” says Cavone. “We spend two full days making sure that they are understanding how to grade each of the questions, and that they’re clear on how to set standards and how to range the score scale.”

Throughout the AP Reading, Table Leaders are also responsible for what’s called back reading: re-reading a large number of exams at their assigned tables to make sure that what they see as a 7 on a scoring scale is what the reader saw as a 7.

“A Table Leader’s sole job is to make sure readers grade tests fairly and according to an appropriate standard,” Cavone says.

Once the scores are totaled for every question in the free-response section, those numbers are combined with the multiple-choice results to create a student’s composite score.

Some might question why the College Board doesn’t automate the free-response scoring, or move the AP Readings into an online community. After all, it’s the single-biggest expense in the organization’s budget.

“There are so few opportunities for higher and secondary education to rub shoulders,” says Packer. “I think it’s important to support bringing people together to share perspectives.

“The level of trust that is built is really healthy and vital in American education right now.”

The last two weeks of June are spent on the final step in the AP scoring process: grade setting. This is how a composite score is translated into the 1-5 number that students ultimately receive.

Packer says that when an AP exam is changed in a meaningful way, or when a new test is created, new standards are set.

Since AP courses offer college credit, the standards are established by professors testing college students on disguised versions of the AP exam questions.

An A-level performance from college students “becomes the threshold for what AP students need to earn to get a 5,” says Packer.

A 4 on the AP exam is equivalent to an A-, B+ or B from a college student, and the scoring scale continues from there.

In other years, instead of setting new standards, the College Board compares student performance on this year’s exams to previous years, based on questions that appear on both tests.

The range for what constitutes a 1-5 varies from year to year and from exam to exam. You can see a sample chart here.

Two weeks of testing, two weeks of preparation, two weeks of AP Readings, and two weeks of grade setting. The final AP scores may be simple, but it’s far from a simple process that dictates whether all that hard work in Advanced Placement courses will pay off in college.

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soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Bob Tog

    The picture illustrating this article is of the SAT answer sheet, haha.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  2. Grad

    As a recent engineering grad and now medical student, I think AP classes are amazing. I loved being able to take first year college chemistry in a class of 20 people instead of a lecture hall with 400. Also being able to take classes like gov/econ and european history allowed me to finish the general education requirements of my major faster and gave me the opportunity to take upper level psychology and graduate school level biomedical engineering courses my senior year of college instead of wasting time sitting in random 101 level history classes to meet graduation requirements.

    May 30, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  3. Ann

    I am an AP grader, a college instructor who has taught dual credit, and have a child currently taking AP classes. My experience with the program is that it is much like any curriculum – the students get what they, and the teacher, put into it. My child's human geo teacher was incredible; my son learned more int hat class than any other he has ever taken. He felt engaged, empowered, and intelligent. The teacher set high expectations which the students challenged themselves to meet. It was an incredibly positive experience for all. I have a niece who took an AP chem class at one of the best high schools in the country – the teacher talked about dragons each day.

    As far as dual credit – that is a great option,especially in smaller, rural schools where AP is not a viable alternative. Local colleges come teach classes or offer them online. But, as an instructor, I often have students who have no business in the class. I am not supposed to "dumb down' the material, but if I don't and the D's and F's start to mount, I have been pressured to up the rate of A's and B's. Which defeats the point of the class and undermines the integrity of the program.

    As a grader – some of the essays we see are brilliant. Some are doodles. The saddest are the ones where it is obvious the kid tried, but just shouldn't have been in the class or had a horrible teacher. It is great for high school and college teachers to sit with each other and talk about expectations, curriculum, pedagogy, etc. Both sides benefit, but more importantly, the students benefit from that sharing of experience and knowledge.

    For the record, my children will take a mix of AP and dual credit, on a case by case basis. I can say there will be no AP maths for the oldest – it's too hard and pointless for him career-wise. That's where dual-credit comes in- college credit without the added AP stress. :)

    May 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  4. Laurie

    I beg to differ, I learned more in my AP LIterature and AP Language class than I learned in any other class in high school and even some of my college courses. I'm in my last year in college and I still use those skills I learned.

    May 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  5. dlvail

    Never knowing what they got wrong or what they need to work on goes against everything "teaching" is about. I agree with above this becomes more a lesson in test taking than in actual assessments of knowledge. The same test with access to corrections would make a lot more sense. For the master test takers and very bright the AP world works...for the average student it is difficult with no opportunity to learn from mistakes.

    May 30, 2012 at 6:51 am |
  6. kapil

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    May 30, 2012 at 5:37 am |
  7. Tracyn1

    Interesting, and valuable comments. We push our kids so much, (well, some of us do) that they may be missing important life lessons. Or, as we learned in pre-school, "incidental learning" for the sake of the pre-ordained test schedule. Not good it you want to foster thinking outside the box.

    May 29, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  8. Studies

    For my experience most AP class rooms are an expensive way to add stress to students lives. The "credit" you buy into is mostly just taking a text book a faster pace. Sadly this equates to less time learning and more time getting a copy and paste style of information crammed into you to vomit out later. Sadly this even applies to essays.

    May 29, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  9. Prof

    It has been my experience that AP courses are not generally successful. Like much of the curriculum in schools today, the test is being taught, and all else excluded. When possible, dual enrollment courses should be preferred over AP. The high school students not only get college level courses, but also college credits, without this mysterious grading rubric that takes three months. In short, kids taking college classes should get college grades, not a 1-5.

    May 29, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • raggedhand

      The problem with dual credit classes in high school is that so many are not taught well. With no outside standards and usually no state standards, DC is pretty much catch as catch can. AP, on the other hand, has a standardized assessment. You might not agree with the curriculum, but at least you know what it is and you know that a kid who makes a 4 as a score has pretty much the same knowledge base whether he comes from Cambridge or Paducah.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:11 am |