What’s Involved in Scoring an AP Exam?


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This guest post comes from Jason Rohloff, vice president of government relations at The College Board. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

Since 1956, Advanced Placement has offered students the chance to enroll in higher-level courses, build college skills, stand out in college admissions and earn college credits. Today, colleges and universities continue to turn to AP to help them identify and reward students who have succeeded in mastering challenging college-level content and skills.

The College Board is committed to expanding access, especially for underrepresented student populations, to these high-quality, AP courses. Many states, districts and schools have adopted strategies to increase access to AP for students from low-income backgrounds, leading to substantial growth in the number of students participating. In 2003, 95,065 low-income students took an AP exam. By 2018, that number had increased to 608,707 — a 540% jump.

These students reap benefits once they arrive on a college campus. For example, research shows that students who receive a score of 3 or higher on AP exams typically experience greater academic success in college and have higher graduation rates than their non-AP peers. Most colleges and universities nationwide offer college credit, advanced placement or both for qualifying scores, which means students can fulfill graduation requirements early and potentially skip introductory or required general education courses.

While many policymakers may understand the benefits of AP, what they might not know is the amount of care that goes into how exams are scored each year at what is known as the AP Reading. Scores rely on the dedication and skill of AP teachers, college professors, College Board staff and runners. Over two weeks, more than 25 million free-response questions move through the intricate process of AP scoring, and it happens almost entirely by hand.

“Behind every one of these test booklets is a real student,” David Miller, chief reader for AP Literature, tells me. “Every single essay represents somebody’s child, and we’re always thinking about that.”

Miller is a widely respected professor of English at Mississippi College. But for two weeks during the summer, Miller and his fellow chief readers preside over one of the largest grading operations in American education. More than 2.8 million students took more than 5.1 million AP exams this year, and each was reviewed by a combination of experienced AP teachers and college faculty.

“It’s valuable professional development, and that has a ripple effect for those who come to the readings,” Miller says. “It’s a way of giving all of us in the AP community a common language. And it reminds us that what we do really matters for students, that this is meaningful and good work.”

At AP Readings, teachers gain an in-depth understanding of the exam so they can better assess their own students’ work. In a survey, more than 97% of returning scorers said that they made changes to the way they teach or score work because of their experience at the AP Reading.

The rigorous process behind scoring gives universities across the country the confidence to award credit for passing scores, usually defined as 3 or higher on the AP scale of 1-5. More than 75% of AP test takers now live in states with an AP credit policy (31 states, up from 14 a few years ago) — meaning they can count on college credit if they demonstrate mastery on the exam — and these policies continue to expand.

AP Readings are some of the largest events in the country, where college faculty and K-12 teachers regularly gather, and both sides relish the exchange. “It’s a gathering of people who really care about how their discipline is taught, and you come away from here with a clear impression that teaching matters,” Timothy Champion, chair of the Natural Sciences and Math Department at Johnson C. Smith College and a veteran of the AP Chemistry Reading, tells me. “People in the AP world get that.”

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