My View: Scoring AP exams is a learning experience
Educators work on AP exams at a scoring session in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June 2012.
July 6th, 2012
06:24 AM ET

My View: Scoring AP exams is a learning experience

Courtesy Leah McDonaldBy Kevin McDonald, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Kevin McDonald teaches AP English Language and Composition at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, OK. He and his wife, an elementary music teacher, have two daughters who are well on their way to becoming educators themselves. He works as a consultant for the College Board and also helps with his high school's marching band program.

(CNN) - Advanced Placement scores for millions of students are being released to schools this week. What most people may not realize is that the free-response sections of these exams are scored by thousands of AP teachers and college faculty. Teachers like me.

I just completed my 15th year of teaching, 14th year as an AP English language and composition teacher, and 11th year as an AP reader. This year, 11,000 of my fellow educators and I from across the country and around the world convened to score more than 3.7 million AP exams in 34 subjects.

Learn more about the AP Reading and scoring process here.

In my time as an AP reader, I’ve also spent six years as a member of my reading’s leadership team, and I can attest that the reading – the annual gathering to score student exams – has truly been some of the best professional development I’ve ever attended.

In fact, my willingness to give up nine to 14 days to score as many essays as humanly possible should stand as testament to my belief in the process.

One of the main benefits of the reading is the immersion in the scoring process, where it is your sole occupation for eight hours a day. This, matched with the fact that I’m removed from the rest of the distractions of daily life, allows for a focus that is difficult to reproduce.

After being trained to score essays, and then reading several hundred of them over the course of a week, I return home with a stronger sense of what the AP English language and composition course expects of students and more confident as I approach the development of content for my own AP class. I also share that knowledge with my colleagues and through workshops I present for the College Board, so that more educators can benefit from my reading experience.

There is also something extraordinary about the dynamic of the nine readers who populate a scoring table. As a small group of extremely motivated, highly trained professionals, we have detailed conversations about student writing and what characteristics a student must display on one of three writing tasks to demonstrate collegiate quality work.

These tables are a mix of high school teachers and college and university professors who share their own concerns and biases, all while working to accept the norms established by the reading leadership. This exchange is invaluable in the preparation of not only my AP students, but all of the students I come into contact with on a daily basis.  As much as my experience at the reading works to prepare my AP students for exam success, it also enhances the richness of my non-AP classes.

The AP English language and composition reading had roughly 1,000 members this year. The dedication and professionalism of those individuals is geared toward one thing: ensuring student success. This is not about all students “passing” the test, but about engendering the kinds of dialogue that will lead to improved instruction for all students.

It is about diagnosing trends in writing on an international scale and brainstorming ways to help all of our students - particularly the ones not yet college proficient - to improve as writers in a world that increasingly demands skills in multiple modes of writing, including email, tweets, blogs and status updates.

As one of the few venues where college professors and high school teachers work side-by-side for an extended period of time in such large numbers, our ability to bridge the notorious gap between high school and higher education grows exponentially.

The AP readings represent a microcosm of professionals who devote themselves to students, and the annual event has introduced me to some of my best friends, all of whom I admire for their commitment to student learning. We share our bags of instructional tricks that can make students stronger in our subject and better prepared for the world they will enter once they leave high school, be it a college or university or the work force.

Having had the good fortune to be selected to the reading, and to have proven worthy of returning repeatedly (each invitation is only for one year), has made me a better teacher. This has happened because of the people, process and professionalism that I have only found at the Advanced Placement reading.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin McDonald.

Posted by
Filed under: Testing • Voices
soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. H. Steve

    Helping our kids to survive school violence is pivotal to saving them from the many acts of violence they may encounter in and outside of the classroom. Because school violence occurs at any school and any age we believe we need to teach survival skills at an early age. Let us prepare our kids to win and survive if violence does occur at their school. In response to this need to teach our young kids, my wife, Dr. Natalie Johnson-Leslie and I wrote a book to help kids survive. You may find more information at

    July 10, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  2. Debra Larson

    Mr. McDonald writes, "As one of the few venues where college professors and high school teachers work side-by-side for an extended period of time in such large numbers, our ability to bridge the notorious gap between high school and higher education grows exponentially." The word "venues" in the opening clause does not correlate with the words "our ability," which follow the comma. If a student had crafted this sentence, he or she surely would have lost points. It is unfortunate to see an AP grader make this mistake in his own writing.

    July 9, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Adam

      Actually that looks correct to me. He's referring to the AP scoring session as the venue and is speaking for the AP scoring sessions and what it accomplishes. Both the "venue" and "our" refer to the AP scoring session, so it works. But I'll admit you made it read it a couple times to make sure.

      July 10, 2012 at 5:09 am |
      • Mr. Herrington

        Ms. Larson,
        The AP English Language exams are treated as "drafts" and not Final Process Papers. Therefore, students EARN points for what they do well instead of "lose" points for their mistakes. Furthermore, as "Adam" pointed out, Mr. McDonald's syntax is actually correct. Perhaps, you should not be so harsh to judge others for what you yourself have not been invited to do (ie. score AP English essays or write a guest blog for CNN).

        July 11, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  3. profecorrea

    As a long-time reader, I'd have to agree with Mr. McDonald about the experience. Yes, we are paid, but that doesn't mean we don't have students' best interest in mind (I fail to see the language that claims altruism here). Yes, it is hard work, but not "mind-numbing". As readers, we are consistently reminded that students worked hard and deserve our attention and fairness. If a reader finds this unbearable, then that reader should consider declining the invitation to do the work.

    I apologize in advance for my horrid grammar. Please refrain from correction as it will be duly ignored.

    July 9, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  4. J.R.

    This touchy-feely nonsense would have been complete if he had just managed to work the work hero in somewhere.

    July 7, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Mellow Yellow

      Why are you so angry, J.R. ?

      July 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  5. metaphysicallyconceited

    Perhaps you should provide a link to a therapist, because some of the people on here seriously need some anger-management classes.

    July 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  6. Dr. B

    Wow, what bunch of crabby-pants on this board! This is not a news article, it's a blog. Learn the difference. He's sharing his feelings about being a grader of AP exams and why he does it. That's it. That's the purpose, and he achieved it. You don't have to like it, but don't criticize it for not being something it never purported to be in the first place.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  7. KK

    I have scored AP Human Geography exams for the past 11 years and have been involved in reading leadership for the last five years. It is clearly the best professional development an AP teacher can be involved with and definitely allows the teacher to be become much more effective in the classroom. Let's hope for continued support from administrators and school districts alike to allow teachers to attend this valuable annual gathering.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  8. One-Time AP Grader

    I graded AP essays only one year. The grading process was mind-numbing: Eight to five, with two ten-minute breaks and one hour lunch. At various intervals, we received reports on our scoring; i.e., did we score too many with high or low scores. The quality of lack thereof could not justify having scored "too many" on one end or the other of the scale. I could not (will not) do that again. The pay is not grand.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • dorian

      So sorry to hear that your experience as a grader was not good ..... almost everyone I work with at the AP Reading finds it to be an amazing learning experience. It certainly has made me a better AP instructor as well as improving my instruction techniques at the college level!

      July 10, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  9. Rob

    How does something like this make it to the 3rd ranked story in the NATIONAL news section of CNN? I have a hard time imagining that NOTHING is happening ANYWHERE so they need to fill space with THIS? This isn't NEWS, it's an editorial that should NEVER be on a "NEWS" page....

    July 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • William

      We're not like you.

      July 6, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  10. ieat

    good to know many cnn commentators (in the comments section) know how to write. This is so different from reading comments where people cannot tell the difference between your and you're....

    July 6, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  11. John Doe

    "...I return home with a stronger sense of what the AP English Language and Composition course expects of students and more confident as I approach the development of content for my own AP class. " - Not sure one can find a more clear admission by a teacher of personally engaging in and perpetuating one of the biggest issues plaguing education today: TEACHING TO THE TEST.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Rob

      you can't teach to the test if its a paper....if the test is not objective, then you can't teach to that objective....subjective testing allows for true intellect to shine through a poor education....

      July 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Betsey

      I'm assuming that you have never taken an AP English Composition test before by this comment. How on Earth do you think an English teacher would "teach to" a composition test other than by teaching basic rules for composition? Please explain what you mean by this.

      July 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Owl96

      Except, he is teaching advanced placement writing, the exact same thing they are level writing skills. What they are looking for on the test is the exact same ability that college professors are looking for when they read student papers. Maybe it is not teaching to the test, but testing for what should be taught, and he know what should be taught.

      July 6, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
      • APUSH Teacher

        Owl96=If he didn't already know that they were testing for college level writing skills, he probably had bigger problems to begin with. AP is a college level course in a high school. As AP teachers, I'm positive all of us are aware of this since it's our job. If someone were to mention July 4th as Independence Day at the US History reading, does that now give me an advantage that I can bring back to my school and help my kids pass? Because if it does, I need to immediately quit my job for not previously being aware of that fact . Please understand the program before you comment.

        July 11, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • APteacherBurton

      John Doe: One cannot "teach to the test" when one does not know specifically what is on the test. Teaching a curriculum of measurable skills and content which is then measured by a test is not "teaching to the test". I read for the AP US History exam. I don't come away from the reading with any special magic tricks to make sure my students pass the test. I do, however, come away with a better picture of how well I am preparing my students with the skills and content knowledge required of colligiate level education.

      July 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  12. Aaron Schiff

    Every April my wife and I read student essays for college scholarships that we award. Most of them are vacuous pap about how the student’s life was transformed by a volunteer position helping those less fortunate and, as a consequence, they are now worthy of receiving our money. This article demonstrates the same pattern and perhaps indicates that our local students are learning a national standard for incompetent “happy-talk” writing.

    Aside from the saccharin tone, Mr. McDonald’s essay is grammatically deficient. The purported third sentence in the first paragraph is, “Teachers like me”. If this were a sentence, it would indicate a fond reaction of teachers to Mr. McDonald. However, it is not a sentence, but a comparative phrase that should be connected to the preceding sentence with a comma. Mr. McDonald begins his 10th paragraph with the pronoun “it”, but the antecedent is located in the 9th paragraph. Clearly, the division between the the 9th and 10th paragraphs is uncalled for and they form a single topic. These are only two examples of several deficiencies.

    I have spent the past 35 years as a technical writer and reviewer. Mr. McDonald’s essay is only slightly better than I would expect of my 4th grade grandson.

    July 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • ieat

      I feel so deficient reading your response. My strength has always been in math and science. I would love to improve my writing skills and vocabulary, but I have yet to find an efficient way to do it. I am pretty much done with school since I am in my 30s and I have kids. I would love to hear what you think is the best way to do it.

      July 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • kirstenquigley

      I noticed a grammatical issue as well:

      "This year, 11,000 of my fellow educators and I from across the country and around the world convened to score more than 3.7 million AP exams in 34 subjects."

      The dependent clause "from across the country and around the world" should immediately follow the noun it modifies, "fellow educators." As is, this sentence is awkward at best. I have no doubt that he's good at grading AP tests, but such a basic mistake makes me question his own abilities.

      July 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • No free rides

      I'll bet your 4th grade grandson doesn't like spending time with you. You probably criticize the manner in which he plays. Pun intended.

      July 9, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  13. cantstandzya

    Grading AP exams for 8 hours a day, day after day, sounds like my idea of hell, paid or not. Basically, you take the least rewarding and mind-numbing part of teaching, and turn it into a full-time job. No thanks.

    July 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  14. J.J.

    A memoir of Kevin's experiences and process at the readers table...A meaningless article for information to the public, especially AP students and their writing teachers.

    July 6, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  15. John

    Good god, why are you people so negative?

    "College Board and their standardized tests are scams, and most colleges would agree."

    No, they wouldn't. Quit making up things.

    July 6, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  16. Katie

    Pity only the kids who've been seriously coached through the AP process score well on these tests. In truth, most school don't teach children any kind of skills. They think they're 'writing' in kindergarten these days, but in truth the teachers are fleshing out their sentences for them. Kids don't learn penmanship (what's the point, teachers say, they can use a keyboard) they don't learn the parts of speech, they don't learn what makes a complete sentence. They don't learn what makes up a paragraph. They supposedly write essays in fourth grade and after that no one ever tries to teach them what a real essay is. In seventh grade they treat research papers the same way. They don't learn to spell (and tend to ridicule anyone who thinks it's important) and heaven forbid anyone learns how to use an apostrophe correctly. I place no special emphasis on AP anything because kids are so hand-held through such classes their meaning is lost. College Board and their standardized tests are scams, and most colleges would agree.

    July 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Luke F

      It's pretty clear to me you have absolutely zero experience with AP courses.

      July 6, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Paige

      Actually, you are wrong. Not all children are "hand-held" through classes these days, especially when you choose to take a class at the Honors/AP level. As a product of such classes, I am appalled that you would insinuate that. I went to a specialized "math and science" intensive school where only the top 1% of the students in the state are admitted, and we did not get any kind of preparation from our teachers for the AP tests. Why? Well, 1) because none of our classes were distinguished as AP (they were all taught at the college level) and 2) because our teachers knew that we were prepared enough without having to be "coached" through the process. Having attended "normal" schools as well as a residential school, I feel as though I have been thoroughly immersed in a variety of different teaching styles from teachers of all calibers, and I can ASSURE you that I not only know how to use an apostrophe but also can write an intelligent sentence as well as identify the parts that make it up. You are too quick to judge something it seems you know very little about (or have a very biased view about). Maybe you are just the product of a subpar school system or have children who are, but you have no idea how every single teacher in the US teaches.

      July 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
      • Katie

        My son also attended a prestigious math and science school and there was indeed plenty of hand-holding, special tutoring, and lots and lots of taking the AP test for practice practice practice until they finally took it for real. Don't be so appalled, it happens. He knows how to use an apostrophe and he will be the first one to admit he did NOT learn this in any school he attended. AND – this well-known, highly-ranked residential math and science high school is well known to toss out the kids who won't pass so they don't have to show on paper how many kids fail. 11% of the first years were asked not to come back. In his Senior year, my son lost fourteen kids from his class – six of them were asked to leave two months before graduation. The school can rightly claim 100% graduation rate, but they only count the kids they didn't force out for failing. Of my son's graduating class, all but one went on to college. Of those that went on to college, eleven dropped out their first year, and of the remaining kids, five more failed to complete more than two years. His class started with 56 kids and graduated 33 kids. You do the math on how well they were prepared for college.

        July 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Rob

      Where did you get that idea? I took one AP class, took 5 AP tests and transferred 15 AP credits to Carnegie Mellon...

      July 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  17. leon111

    In truth, you and the rest of the testing community are precisely what IS wrong with the educational field today. By the sound of the article, you care more about the process and rigidity than that of the welfare of the students. That sounds harsh, but I have seen too many AP teachers that lose sight of the facts that we have to educate the whole student and prepare them to be productive citizens. Testing does not accomplish that. Instead of teaching the AP, try teaching classes of at risk students. You will have a brand new appreciation for teaching.

    July 6, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • kake79

      @leon111... No, this is not what is wrong with education today. Do you understand what an AP class is? It is a college class taught to high school students. College classes should not "teach the whole student"; they should teach the subject matter and do it well.

      For the records, 2 AP classes, 2 AP tests, 2 AP tests passed. And we NEVER took a "practice" test or spoke of the placement tests at all during the year. We just learned, and from some of the best teachers I ever had in my life.

      July 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • APUSH Teacher

      I teach in the one of the largest districts in the country, over 50% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 2/3 are ethnic minorities, and 20% are ELL. 78/100 passed the exam. That is just because they learned; not because I pushed the test. Most of us do educate the whole child. Please get your facts straight before you judge.

      July 11, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  18. Larry

    reading is fun. duh, mental!

    July 6, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  19. I'm with Alvis

    Seriously agree with Alvis... this article is shallow and unsupported. I also agree with Val – You get paid for those days you spend working, so it's not like you're a philanthropist donating time.

    July 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  20. crappygovernment

    Feel free to check out my 1960's historical blog by clicking my name. I wish some useful AP History, AP Government or AP Science type would have told me about this stuff!

    July 6, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Eisini

      They didn't mention those things because, as has been proven on many occasions, the moon landings did occur. Even the Mythbuster's did a show de-bunking crackpot theories.

      July 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
      • crappygovernment

        Mythbusters pointed to the laser reflectors as evidence of manned Moon landings, but there is plenty of stuff on the Moon, all sent up in UNMANNED missions. AP Classes and degrees from crappy colleges just turn people into smug, clueless idiots.

        July 6, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  21. Alvis

    I hope the essays you're reading are more skillfully written than this article. Where are the details? We get that the Raading is awesome and you learn a lot, but why's it awesome? What did you learn? Back in my essay-grading days (which I do miss), I would have given this a C. Bonus points for eloquence and syntactic complexity, but the message is hazy and the supporting details are completely absent...

    July 6, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Garrett

      I totally agree. The article had no substance and this guy is a grader! I kept looking for Next Page but there wasn't one! What a waste of my time.

      July 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Ann

      Alvis completely misses the pupose of this article. Minus points for that.

      Did he even read the whole article? His questions are concisely answered. I'm glad he's not grading essays any more.

      July 6, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • dorian

      The "details" of any AP reading are confidential and the author correctly did not elaborate on those details. If you want to know what goes on, apply to become a reader if you teach the subject....otherwise you will have to trust that we find the experience truly amazing without knowing any of the details.

      July 10, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  22. Sunshine100

    Rod and Valentijn, you're grumpy-grumps and should go back into your caves.

    July 6, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  23. Rod C. Venger

    Self-Aggrandize much?

    July 6, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Matt

      My sentiments exactly.

      July 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  24. Valentijn

    "In fact, my willingness to give up nine to fourteen days to score as many essays as humanly possible should stand as testament to my belief in the process."

    Aren't you guys getting paid? And if not, where's all the money they charge from AP students going?

    July 6, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • kirstenquigley

      Valentijn: Yes, they are. The author's grading AP exams is not as altruistic as he makes it out to be. From the College Board site:

      "Secondary school Readers can receive certificates awarding professional development hours and continuing education units (CEUs). In addition, Readers are provided with an honorarium of $1,639 and their travel expenses, lodging and meals are covered. "

      July 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • dorian

      Of course readers are paid for their time grading. The time given up refers to traveling to the reading site to do the reading, in effect we are 'giving up' our free time at home!!!

      July 10, 2012 at 11:29 am |