Sunday, September 21, 2008

Becoming an AP Grader = Becoming a More Effective Instructor

A Band of Brothers?

When I began teaching Advanced Placement Government and Politics I was totally overwhelmed by the task. The prior instructor had a phenomenal pass to failure ratio on the AP Exam, consistently producing "5" students. Upon taking the job, I knew I had to accomplish several goals. First, be as successful as my predecessor; second, create an interesting curriculum that would draw more students; and third, not just teach to a test, but teach practical government capable of helping students navigate the world of politics. My first several years were mildly successful. I did grow my program. I like to believe I gave the students a practical, in depth class. I was not, however, successful in maintaining a high passing ratio.

To be fair, it is hard to "grow" an AP program and maintain scores. If you are recruiting students from beyond the elite students in your school or district, test scores are most likely going to drop. But do they have to? Is there something we can do to be inclusive and successful?

In my quest to raise scores, I tried a wide variety of tactics including Summer AP Institutes, mini-AP seminars, meetings with other district AP teachers , and reading books and guides on improving AP scores. For a couple of years I watched scores slowly creep up. Then came the epiphany. At a one day AP seminar at the University of Kansas the presenter highly encouraged us to become AP graders. His argument was simple. It will help you become a better teacher and raise the test scores.

The grading gig sounded a bit tedious. For one week you sit and grade essays. OUCH!! I was desperate, however, and signed on and was selected by Educational Testing Services (ETS) to be a grader. My first year grading was at the University of Nebraska. The next year, my students scored much higher and I have never looked back.

Here is what you gain from the grading experience. First, you become totally immersed in the free response question aspect of the exam. Grading gives you new insight into the grading rubric, its application by the graders, and the writing methods that will give your students the best score on that portion of the test. I found that much of the advise found in self-help study guides was incorrect. Tips that I had been giving to my students that I had gleaned from those sources were not always beneficial and even harmful.

Second, the formal and informal professional sessions gave me huge insight into the workings of the exam and proven methods for teaching AP Government and Politics. During the grading week, Professional Nights are offered by College Board with selected topics to help instructors. These are always very helpful, but more helpful were the informal sessions that occurred in the evening when groups would gather and do what teachers love to do: talk about teaching. The mixing of college professors, community college teachers, high school teachers, online teachers, and others is the richest experience you will ever have. During my seven years I made close friends from Maine, Texas, Florida, Michigan, and many other states. We email constantly sharing lessons and ideas. I am never alone. I now have a band of brothers always there to assist.

I would highly encourage you to apply today as an AP Grader. ETS is constantly looking for new graders (there is a six year limit). The current grading is in Daytona Beach. Graders stay at the Hilton on the beach...not bad. The stipend is adequate, but more important, if you are looking for that edge to make you a better teacher, this is a sure fire way to acheive your personal instructional goals. Next week, winning tips on writing the free response questions. Until next time...

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