Sunday, April 26, 2009

Count Down...T-Minus 7, 6

Using the Last Week Constructively

OK folks, the final count down begins. I get pretty nervous/excited about right now. As a teacher I have invested almost nine months instructing, guiding, honing, directing, and cajoling my young charges in the hopes that all would pass the AP Government and Politics Exam. I have given lectures, reading assignments, essays, quizzes, tests, group activities in every size, shape, and format that I could invent. Now it all comes down to them...have they learned?

The last week before the test can be important in the entire process. 8:00 am on May 4th is fast approaching, and as the students start to feel the pressure and begin cramming for the Exam you can be a huge help. Two weeks ago I discussed writing the Free Response Questions. If you missed my blog, skip back and take a look at it. One day this week could be used to review the writing process and looking at for clues into writing point earning answers. Having student practice a couple of questions time well spent. I even let them do the practice in pairs. This takes the pressure off the students, gives them a chance to communicate and collaborate on an answer, and makes the review process less stressful.

A second day this week could be used for looking at the multiple choice section of the test. Last week I had a discussion on this, so again, if you missed that blog take a peek back at those suggestions. One thing I encourage my students to do is take a practice test (this can be done in class or as homework) and grade it using the AP method (number of right answers minus 1/4 number wrong equals points off for blanks). I then ask them to take the questions they missed and analyze what type of question it was they missed using the Alisal High School site's question classification. This may help them understand why they missed the question: was it wording of the question's stem or wording of the several choices? Was it the type of question? For example, students seem to struggle with the "sequencing a series of related ideas or events" type of question. Was it the time factor? If the student can identify a problem area and come and talk with me, we can usually work things out and develop a comfort zone for the student on the problem area.

One other thing I will be doing this week is using Hippocampus. I will start with the 1st section, Underpinnings and Documents, and using the glossary, will go term by term until I get to Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. We will define each word and have a quick discussion on the concept. I will also throw out questions AP might ask concerning a word. For example, the term Linkage Institution might draw a question from me such as: "describe 3 ways he media can have an effect on public policy". Or for Policy Making Institutions I might ask: "Describe 3 ways the Courts can affect public policy". It can be a bit of an ardious task going through all of the terms, but for several years now students have come back after the Exam and have said it was very effective in triggering their recall and recognition memory.

I am preparing for a wild week with the kids. Prom, spring sports, graduation, and other AP Exams are competing for space in the kid's gray matter. I hope I get a cell or two for APGOPO! We have all done our best...we will just have to wait and see. As they say, the die is cast. Have a great week and I'll write a few comments next week on Exam Eve! Until then...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Reviewing for the Exam

Multiple Choice Review

Last week I had a discussion on the Free Response section of the AP Government and Politics Exam. I hope you found a few ideas that were useful for sharing with your students. I don't pretend to know everything about the Exam, but after Reading for seven years, serving on the Question Writing Committee one year, and teaching AP for what seems an eternity, I have a pretty good handle on how students can be successful. To sum up my advise from last week: read the questions carefully, follow the commands exactly, be neat and organized, and write succinctly.

This week I wish to have a short discussion on the multiple choice section of the Exam. This, as we all by now understand, is a 60 question test. The students have 45 minutes to complete the test. This is different from some of the AP Exams that give the students 100 minutes. They need to work very efficiently to get done in time. During the year I give my students 20 question quizzes on each unit and give them 15 minutes to do the quiz. I try to prepare them for the time limit. Every year I have students return from the test saying they did not feel they had adequate time to do the multiple choice. I believe some of this is test anxiety, but some of it is good kids struggling to complete a very difficult exam.

A couple of things to remind your kids before they begin on the multiple choice section of the test. First, and most obvious, read the question carefully. I tell my kids to be an active reader. Underline key words, circle words that would be critical to the answer (such as "except" or "always"), and look for patterns in the answers that help to understand the question.

Second, be sure to tell the kids that guessing is not always the best policy. One quarter of a point is deducted for each wrong answer. If a student can not narrow the selection of answers down to two and make an intelligent guess from the two possibilities, then guessing may be costly.

Leaving too many unanswered questions is also a problem however. While the student does not get penalized for an unanswered question, it cut away from correct answers. I always tell my students that they need to get at least 40 correct answers on the multiple choice. If you leave 10 unanswered, that means you don't have much room for error on those you do answer.

The multiple choice questions fall into three basic types of questions. The simplest and often easiest to answer are the identification questions. These usually are asking students if they understand a principle, concept, or term. Reviewing vocabulary and basic facts will help in the studying for these types of questions. The next type of question are the analysis questions which go beyond simple identification and ask for interpretation, compare/contrast, or cause and effect. Like the Free Response Questions, the multiple choice questions are scaffold. AP test writers include easier questions, moderately difficult, and very difficult questions. The higher threshold of questions determines the "5" student from the "3" student.

The final type of question, those that ask for interpretation from graphs, charts, political cartoons, or other data sources can be the most difficult and time consuming of the questions. These questions will give a data input and expect students to use their understanding of the topic to interpret the data and find the correct response to the question. During the year it is important to give students charts, graphs, cartoons, quotes, and other data sources and have the students respond to these in writing. At this point in the year, a short lesson on reading charts and graphs would be a good reminder of these skills. It is also good to go do a short lesson on analyzing political cartoons and give students examples.

Sample AP multiple choice questions are not hard to come by. AP Central has 20 or 25 sample questions (see the hyperlink) for you to look at. I have found several useful sites online also. Alisal High School Social Studies Department in California has some great test taking strategies. They break down multiple choice questions into categories and discusses how to answer these types of questions, and have a breakdown of the percent of topics covered on the Exam. I highly recommend looking at this site. I do not know who is responsible for developing the information, but it is very complete and should be helpful to your students.

60 question tests are also available from the many AP study guides available at your favorite book store. The Princeton study guide has the best tests in my opinion. I do not like the Barron's tests as well. The questions are less "APish" and actually more complicated and more difficult than the actual test. Peterson's tests are pretty good and look much like an AP Exam. REA's guide is also good, and they have come up with a CD with tests that are good. I have a small library of these books that I have purchased and lend to the students to use in study groups. Browsing the study guide section of Borders, Barnes and Noble, or local book stores will give you an idea of the large number of offerings available for you to suggest to your students. Sparknotes also has a 4 page quick study guide that I recommend to my kids for the last minute cramming session. It only costs a buck or two and has all the important facts of government in chart form. I suggest to the students to get in groups and quiz each other on facts from the charts.

May4th is fast approaching. We should all be in review mode pretty soon. We have had the year (or for many of you only this semester) to impart knowledge, now it is time to prepare the students for the exam and review those areas most covered by the test. We all have a busy two weeks ahead!! The picture this week is the convention center in Daytona Beach where 600 or so Readers will begin the grading process in the first week of June. If you happen to be there this year look me up. I will be doing a daily blog keeping you posted on what is happening at the reading with pictures and interviews from Readers, Table Leaders, Question Leaders, and hopefully the Chief Reader. Until then...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Writing the Free Response Questions

Some Tips from a Reader

I feel it is important that your students really understand the construction and style of the AP Exam. As we all know, there are two parts to the Exam; part one is the sixty multiple choice questions that need to be answered in a 45 minute time span. Sample questions can be found on-line in the so-called Acorn Book. Part two is the Free Response portion with four mandatory questions that need to be answered in 100 minutes. This is the part I would like to discuss this week.

First off, if you are unaware, the last 10 years or so of AP Free Response Questions are available on-line at AP Central. This is a site you should go to with your kids and really go over very carefully. First, they list the questions from the previous year. It is important that your students understand the way the questions are written and what is expected of them. As an AP Reader I am amazed every year how many students do poorly on a question simply because they have not taken the time to read and understand AP expectations. This is very avoidable!

Each question will begin with a factual statement concerning the topic. For example, question number one in 2008 started with: Congressional reapportionment and redistricting are conducted every ten years. When redistricting is conducted politicians often engage in gerrymandering. This should clue your student into the subject including: reapportionment, redistricting, and gerrymandering. I have my students underline or highlight the important key words in this opening statement of the question. On the side of the page I also tell them to make notes on any other word, phrases, Court Case, or current event that might come to their mind. So in this case in the margin of the test booklet they might note: census, Baker v. Carr, one man one vote, losing or gaining Congressional seats, moving district boundaries, and party interests.

These are all things we discussed in class when we did the unit on reapportionment (Hippocampus unit) . The key teaching point for your students right here is don't ignore this factual statement....use it! Too often as an AP Reader I see where a student starts to answer the questions without taking a moment to read this opening statement resulting in a total misunderstanding of what the topic is about.

The next portion is a series of short questions labeled (a) through (d). Have the students look at Student Performance Questions and Answers. This will explain the purpose of the questions and what the question writers were looking for in the answer. If you look at the Scoring Guide, you can see the actual rubric Readers used in evaluating the responses. A few years ago I was on the question writing committee at the AP Grading. I learned a great deal about the writing of these questions. You too can understand this process by reading these descriptions in the Student Performance Question and Answers. (Incidentally, my proposed question appeared on the 2006 Exam)

There is something important to notice about questions (a) through (d). They start fairly easy with question (a) which asks for a simple definition and a simple explanation. The definition will be worth one point and the explanation is worth one point. Most students should be able to gain these two points. Question (b) again is a definition, but a bit more difficult. AP expects most students to be able to understand redistricting, however it is a bit more complex than reapportionment. Part (b) is worth one point. At this point, most students should be able to have gained three points on the question (Q #1 is a 7 pointer).

Now, the threshold for difficulty increases. Question (c) asks not only what gerrymandering is , but the question seeks to determine if the students know the goals of the state legislatures when they attempt to gerrymander. Question (d) is extremely difficult asking the students to know and understand two limits the Supreme Court has placed on the states during reapportionment and redistricting. AP understands that part (c) is getting to a place where students need a fairly sophisticated understanding of the issue.

Notice that while part (c) is pretty tough, it is worth two points and student might be able to gain one of the two. The same with part (d). While this is a hard question, if you have covered the idea of one-man-one-vote, Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims, and discussed the concept of fairness in redistricting, even an average student may gain one point.

Part (d) is just down right difficult. AP knows that. It also understands that only a select few students will be capable of answering the question correctly and completely. These are the "5" students who make up a small percent (about 12%) of the nation that year. This scaffolding is intentional and you will notice it on all Free Response Questions.

So, how did the nation do on this question? The Student Performance Question and Answer will give the students some clues and the Scoring Statistics show that national mean score was 2.68 with a standard deviation of 1.77. Very roughly translated, a student who could get 3 points on Question One would be about average in the nation. A student with 5 points on this question might be in line for a total score of 4 on the Exam, and a student who could get 6 or 7 points might be on schedule for a 5!

Here is the point I make to my students: maximize your points! Look at the question carefully. Try to estimate how much each part is worth (it isn't exactly rocket science) and then answer as as full as possible trying to be sure you get the point for each question segment. I also emphasis this...there are no points deducted for incorrect or false statements. False statements in the Free Response are simply overlooked by the Reader. So if your student said, "gerrymanding was named after Jerry Mander, a famous map maker" I would laugh, but I would not deduct points. My point: tell the kids to write as much as possible on each part of the question and don't worry if you give a detail or two incorrect. Also, try to include any current events or historical events that would back up your answer. You can not write too much!

A final point is formatting the answer. As an AP Reader I will read several hundred answers in a day. I will be back-checked by my Table Leader and even double checked by the Question Leader, but ultimately, I will be responsible for the grade on your student's paper. Students need to format their answer in a concise, organized manner that is easy for me to read. You will notice on the example the students did not write actual essays. If you are having your students write essays on the Exam, you might actually be hurting their chances for the best grade. Here is what I tell my students.
  • Write an introduction demonstrating you understand the concept in the factual statement and including some of the additional information you noted next to it on your test booklet.
  • Answer each question segment and include the letter to show what you are answering (a), (b), etc. Do these in order as they appear on the Exam. (As seen on the samples on-line)
  • Include examples from history, current events, Court cases and so on when ever possible to supplement your answer. This can help me as a Reader understand your answer better.
  • Write a short conclusion summing up your ideas and the concepts you remember from the question.
The introduction and conclusion are not necessary; however, I can not tell you how many times students have an additional point awarded for information in these two paragraphs. Readers actually have a term for these "out of place" points...we call them backing into a point. Often students will say something just a bit different and add just the right terms or words in the introduction or conclusion to allow us to give them the point from one of the questions.

The above picture is 1/2 of the AP Reading facility in Daytona Beech. In the first week of June me and 600 of my friends will be there, busily reading your student's Free Response answers. The room will be dead quiet as we use the pre-determined rubrics to assess how much you have successfully taught this year. We will be reading over 125,000 tests...over 500,000 Free Response answers. It is an daunting job, but in six days we will finish the task. Consider joining us next year. AP is always looking for new Readers. It is hard, but rewarding work and the week in Daytona Beech is a blast. Until then...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Last of the Bill of Rights

A Quick look at the 8th, 9th, and 10th Amendments

This is the last week I will dedicate to the Bill of Rights. Mainly this week I will discuss the 8th Amendment and in particular the cases dealing with cruel and unusual punishment. A quick couple of comments on the 9th and 10th Amendments and we are done!!!

The students should know the entire Bill of Rights! However, it would be accurate to say that parts of the Bill of Rights are somewhat ignored by the AP Exam. For instance (and concerning the 8th Amendment), I know of no time in recent years when a question on bail has been asked. Nor has the excessive fines clause been a topic of much concern. Teach this stuff, but don't over teach it.

Cruel and unusual punishment, however, has received some notice. This of course concerns the death penalty. I would not be surprised to see (in the next few years) a Free Response Question concerning some aspect of this. The death penalty has been in the news and in the Court a great deal in the last few years and could be on the minds of those constructing potential questions for the Exam. I try to avoid guessing what College Board is asking, but it doesn't hurt to try to think like test makers and cover your bases.

Those bases as far as Court cases are concerned are fairly limited. I think it is essential to cover Furman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court basically ended the death penalty due to the capricious nature of sentencing in Georgia and other states. Most states responded by enacting a bifurcated trial system. This was tested in Gregg v. Georgia and the Court responded by saying that while the death penalty was extreme, the two trial system ended the arbitrary nature of sentencing and thus the punishment could be carried out with Court approval. At least part of the Court's approval.

Since this time, many states have allowed the death penalty to be a part of their punishment for murder and rape. My home state passed a death penalty in 1994, but has yet to carry out the punishment. We have a fairly large number of persons on death row, and within the last couple of weeks we added two more. The state is considering ending the death penalty however due to cost which amount to about 70% more than non-death penalty cases that are similar. Obviously this is a controversial topic and one AP might pick up on.

As far as the 9th Amendment is concerned, the issue of Privacy is the most important. Of course the two major cases are Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade. You need to run the kids through these and they should understand the Court's logic. It is always possible to see a privacy question on the Exam, but I wonder if AP doesn't stay away from Roe due to the explosive nature of the topic. Is there a more knee jerking issue in America today?

The 10th Amendment needs to be covered and explained, but we should have covered this fairly well in the Federalism Unit. I always revisit the 10th and really emphasis how the central issue in many incorporation cases became a battle between the 10th and the 14th Amendments.

My deepest apologies to my faithful readers if this long discussion has killed your interest in this blog. I promise this is the last time that I subject us to such a tedious discussion over so many weeks. I did it to help the newest of the AP teachers who are wondering what to cover and what they can pass over. I hope for the new teachers, this was a helpful instrument.

Next week my discussion is on the actual writing of the Free Response answers. From a Readers view point, what are the do's and don'ts for the students. I will share with you things that the Readers really love to see, and the things that will hurt your student's chances of getting maximum points on their answers. Until then...