Summer Camp

  Jerome Shea       June 30, 2007      Weekend Wonk

I have just come back from a sojourn in Daytona Beach, where the weather was unusually pleasant for mid-June. I was, however, not lollygagging on the littoral all day. Oh no. I was holed up in the Convention Center across A1A from the Hilton (where we stayed in sybaritic luxury) reading Advanced Placement essays for eight hours a day.

Well, somebody has to. This year there were over 900 of us plowing through about 280,000 booklets in English Language and Composition. Nine hundred English teachers! The heart leaps up! I have always thought of it as summer camp.

I have been reading AP essays since about 1983, back when we were on the campus of Rider College (now RU), outside of Princeton. When I mention that, an awed hush descends. To have been at Rider is to have been present at the Creation, to have walked in the Garden. Mainly because we outgrow places, we have been on the move ever since, first to an office park in central New Jersey, then to Trinity University in San Antonio, then to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (we will not speak of that interlude), and for the last eight years or so we have been in Daytona Beach. In ’09 we will be in Kansas City, the one with the crazy little women.

How do you read (sight-grade) 280,000 booklets in seven days? In addition to stuff that can be machine-graded, each AP test contains three “Free Response Questions,” i.e, essay questions: a “synthesizing” question, a rhetorical analysis question, and an argument question. We divide into thirds and a team spends the whole week on just one question, grading the essay on a 1 to 9 scale, 9 being the best. Aides bustle about through the cavernous—and always freezing—room and between the rooms, schlepping scored and yet-to-be scored booklets. Through some alchemy, the composite essay score will be combined with the machine-graded score to become the 1 to 5 final AP score; a high enough score and you can bypass Freshman Comp. There is a lot at stake.

Around each table are a Table Leader and six or seven Readers. The Table Leaders—I was one for about a dozen years, but am happy now just to be a Reader—meet the day before the actual reading commences and select a great many sample essays that are then (secretly) scored, and photocopied. We begin the first day with a thick packet of these samples in front of each of us, getting a feel for what constitutes a 9, what a 6, what a 4 (the top of the dreaded “lower half”), and so forth. We will spend the entire first morning in this “range-finding” exercise. Typically, three or four readers will give a certain essay a 7, let’s say (the score the table leaders had agreed upon), a couple a 6, and one an 8. We are rarely further off than that, even the new readers (“Acorns,” we used to call them, from the device stamped on their badges). Then the discussion begins, stuff gets ironed out, and we virtually always defer to the official score. It works much better than you might imagine.

Then come the “live books,” the real deal, 25 to a packet. The students have 40 minutes for each essay question and we are always reminded that these are, in effect, rough drafts, not finished masterworks (“Try to write your own essay in 40 minutes,” we are adjured; “you might be unpleasantly surprised.”). For the first couple of days the table leader will pull booklets at random to see that we, even the veterans, are on track (“Shea, you really think this’s a lower half essay? Give it another read, would you?”).

So it goes, with a 15 minute break in the morning, an hour lunch, and a 15 minute break in the afternoon. From time to time we will go back to the samples to refresh our perceptions. A sleepy reader—it happens—can fake a call of nature and see if that does the trick. We gorge on candy (a big yuck after a couple of days). Some papers are practically illegible (the table leader is the last resort). Some students have given up, writing bitter screeds (often with surprising and impressive illustrations) rather than responsive essays. Some appear possibly suicidal; those we track back and report.

I am often asked—isn’t every English teacher?—if students have changed over the years. The assumption usually is that they have changed for the worse since, after all, aren’t we all going to hell in a hand basket nowadays? For the last couple of decades I have refused to take the bait. This is not only because I am a tad defensive, being implicated in any sad decline, but also because I think it a very silly and worthless generalization meant to encourage a perverse satisfaction: the triumph of Eyore, so to speak.

Ok, I will tell you that these kids can’t seem to spell “receive” or “definite.” “It’s” serves for both functions (“The government has lost IT IS way in Iraq”? I mutter sarcastically). And don’t start me on “your’ and “you’re,” ok? Sometimes the “rough draft” policy really tries my patience. And most of the essays play it safe and trite.

But then along comes the essay that knocks your socks off. Along comes the student with the wisdom and acumen that you are still struggling for after 65 years. Along comes the student who—as someone noted in a case years ago—has written a far better essay than the question deserved. A desperate redemption, but there it is.

Next week we’ll look at some essays. See you then.

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