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...

1 comment:

CJ said...

The rules for grading the FRQ change radically on the different AP tests. Be careful.