Grading the AP English Language Exam: The Prompt
Educational Testing Services ETSadministers two Advanced Placement (AP) English exams, one that assesses students ability to write (English Language) and one that assesses student knowledge of famous works of literature (English Literature). On the appointed day in May every year high school students across the country line up to take these exams, hoping that their score, on a scale, will allow them to test out of freshman composition in their college of choice; for most students this means that they need to score at least a 3 on the exam. Once students have completed the exam, ETS assembles the exams and transports them to a single location, where graders from across the country will assemble to read the essay portion. This year, that assembly took place in Louisville, Kentucky, where between 1, and 1, educational professionalsranging from high school teachers to adjunct faculty at community colleges to graduate students to tenured faculty at Research I universitiesdescended to grade more than , English Language exams.
The AP English Language exam includes a series of multiple choice questions and three essay questions. Each essay question asks students to do something slightly different: the first asks students to synthesize and summarize three different sources of information; the second asks students to analyze the language of a selected passage of prose, usually a speech or persuasive essay; and the third asks students to construct an argument. Students write all three essays by hand in an exam booklet, and their final score () is determined by the averaging the score assigned to each essay and the multiple choice questions.
While every student writes three essays, a different grader reads each essay (to make sure that no students score is overly dependent on a single perspective) and each grader is assigned to a specific question. When I arrived at the first day of grading and registered as a reader, on Friday, June 11, , I was informed that I would be grading essay question three: argument. I had already read the prompt for each of the essay questions as part of my preparation, but before I arrived in the cavernous hall that would be my home for the next week I re-read the prompt:
In his book, Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton argues that the chief aim of humorists is not merely to entertain but to convey with impunity messages that might be dangerous or impossible to state directly. Because society allows humorists to say things that other people cannot or will not say, de Botton sees humorists as serving a vital function in society. Think about the implications of de Bottons view of the role of humorists (cartoonists, stand-up comics, satirical writers, hosts of television programs, etc.). Then write an essay that defends, challenges, or qualifies de Bottons claim about the vital role of humorists. Use specific, appropriate evidence to develop your position.
Rereading the prompt, I was excitedthis was, I thought, clearly the most interesting of the three questions, and I looked forward to reading essays about funny people, events, and art for the next week. What I didnt consider was the fact that many of my students would not understand the prompt at a basic level. I would definitely be laughing as I read these essays over the next week, but most of laughter would be prompted by the unintentional comedy of students misunderstandings and misstatements.
The following are excerpts from actual exams; each excerpt is in italics, with my commentary in normal typeface.
The first problem that students seemed to have was coming to terms with the definition of the word humoristdespite the root word humor and the many examples provided in the prompt. For instance, I had students who wrote:
Humorist hmm . . . what is your opinion about this people? Most likely your thinking that they are humans who work to make other people laugh. Yes. Youre right. I was thinking that they are humans.
[Humorists] feelings are usually pure, unadulterated and unedited, stripped away of stupid niceties and fluffy language, the voice of humorists become the voice of reason. Um . . . right. This is how Ive always thought of Robin Williamsthe pure and unadulterated voice of reason.
Although many satirists and comedians receive a lump sum of money after a days work, the majority do so out of compassion, and love for the people. So now humorists are both the voice of reason AND Christ figures? Who also seem to have a lot in common with Judas? Im confused.
Humorist can basically be your second parents. Methinks this student watched Adam Sandlers Big Daddy one too many times . . .
For example, the founding fathers of the United States would be considered as humorists. You know, I always thought that Washington was a funny guy.
Humorists are emotionless and do not care for other peoples feelings. Of course notthats why they spend their lives making other people laugh.
Commercials are also most of the time humorist. Um . . . you mean humorous?
Humorists play a vital role in society along with all the other organisms in todays world. Yup, humorists and gut bacteriavital organisms.
Pearl in The Scarlet Letter is a humorist. Yes, I always thought that Nathaniels novel about adultery, sin, and the Puritan culture of shame was hilarious. This, however, was only my second favorite Scarlet Letter referenceI couldnt stop myself from laughing out loud when I read about the humorous circumstances of Heather (instead of Hester) and Ruby (instead of Pearl). At least the student remembered that the daughters name was a precious stone of some sort.
The second problem that students had with the prompt revolved around their understanding of who Alain de Botton was and what they needed to say about him. I had students who wrote:
Botton will make the audience to be active because of his humor. He will not bore them and will not make them fall asleep. The purpose of being like Botton is to aim what people wants to hear. Me too. I want to be funny like de Botton too.
Maybe Alain also believes in a better tomorrow; one where presidents can be safe from flying shoes or where chickens can cross roads without being questioned about their motives. Anonymous student, this is a tomorrow that I want to live in.
Mark Twain and Alain de Botton sound similar to me. Me too. But please, continue: As soon as I read that Botton is a humorist writter Twain instintly popped into my head and that is a excellent writter. Yes, Twain writtes almost as well as you do. Botton may have been close to Twain, they may have been best friends. Well maybe they would have been friendsif they had lived in the same century!
If people like Botton dont like it then boo-hoo build a bridge, get over it! The world doesnt revolve around you. People like him are so stupid. I hate people like him. Yikes! I hope they never use my name in an AP prompt.
The last prevalent misunderstanding of the prompt involved a failure to comprehend the word impunity. I could have pulled any number of samples just like these:
Alain de Botton is against humorists things because they impunity message. Okay . . . misunderstanding the word impunity clearly wasnt the only problem here.
Do some of the things we hear, see, or read give us impunitive messages that can be harmful or dangerous? This one was fun to think abouthow would you define impunitive?
Go on to Part 2: The Rubric
Gina Haspel, President Trump's newly-minted nominee to head the CIA, was directly involved in waterboarding and torturing, a ProPublica investigation found. The subject was a man believed to be an al Qaeda leader, and the torture apparently took place while Haspel was working under the Bush administration.
Haspel led the charge at a "black site" in Thailand, a secret prison where the CIA interrogated suspects. In , Haspel oversaw the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times in one month. "They slammed him against a wall, confined him for hours in a coffin-like box, and deprived him of sleep," ProPublica wrote in its report, published last year and resurfaced Tuesday. In the end, Zubaydah was found not to be associated with al Qaeda after all.
In addition to her prominent role at the black sites, Haspel reportedly pushed to destroy tapes that held video recordings of the torture. After being promoted to a more senior position, Haspel drafted an order to shred the tapes, ProPublica reported, and they were eventually destroyed without approval from the White House or Justice Department. The cover-up led the Senate Intelligence Committee to launch a probe into the torture program.
A CIA spokesperson denied the allegations about Haspel, telling ProPublica that "nearly every piece of the reporting that you are seeking comment on is incorrect in whole or in part."
On Tuesday, Trump tapped Haspel to lead the CIA, following his nomination of current director Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. In his announcement, Trump praised Haspel's working relationship with Pompeo — but when Haspel was first chosen as Pompeo's second-in-command, her nomination sparked anger from human rights activists and lawmakers alike, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who penned a letter to Trump urging him to reconsider his choice, citing her "background."
Read more about Haspel at ProPublica. Summer Meza