Fall 2011

A woman of many words

Who reads all those AP essay questions? Susan Strehle knows


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JONATHAN COHEN
Distinguished Service Professor Susan Strehle says that while the number of students taking AP classes has risen dramatically, the percentage of those who excel has stayed about the same.

When it comes to scoring more than 1 million essays on the Advanced Placement English Literature exams, Susan Strehle has the final word.

That’s because Strehle, distinguished service professor of English, general literature and rhetoric, is the chief reader of the test. Not only does she help develop the standards by which the essays will be scored, she chooses the thousand-plus people who will do the scoring.

In the hierarchy of the people hired by the College Board to score the exams, she is at the top of the organizational chart. She has an assistant, 6 question leaders, 134 table leaders, 1,231 readers and a week to score the approximately 360,000 exams that were taken this year by high school students. With three essays per exam, that adds up to about 1,077,000 essays to be read.

“There’s an enormous emphasis on trying to standardize the grading among all the people reading it,” Strehle says.

To do that, Strehle and her team establish rubrics with 9 score points for each essay. They start by culling both good and not-so-good writing samples before the actual scoring starts.

“What you want is a sample that is either good in writing and good in thinking, or weak in both. You’re looking for samples that will help everybody get a quick, clear sense of scores at each of the 9 points,” she says.

All of the readers are either AP English teachers in high school or teach at the college level. About half belong to each category.

Thomas Jordan, MA ’07, PhD ’11, traveled to Louisville in June for his first — but probably not last — stint as a reader. Jordan is an adjunct lecturer at Binghamton; for the record, he took AP math, not English, in high school.

“I was surprised that I had a lot of fun,” Jordan says of the grueling hours of grading. “I was expecting it to be fairly difficult to read 7 days straight for 7½ hours.”

He also was surprised by the scale of the effort. In addition to 1,000-plus English literature readers, there was an army of English language test readers. They work out of a convention center, where enormous rooms are partitioned off into smaller rooms — one for each essay topic.

“It was done seamlessly, from what I could see,” Jordan says.

Readers are guided by table leaders. Table leaders can turn to question leaders for clarifications and guidance. Question leaders answer to Strehle.
“The table leader and question leader try to keep the whole room in sync. Which, of course, is impossible,” she laughs.

Strehle started scoring tests as a reader in 1982 and moved up through the ranks. In 2012 she will serve her fourth and final year as chief reader.
As the number of students who take AP courses continues to grow — 3.2 million tests were taken in 2010, up from 1.2 million in 2000 — the demands of scoring the tests also have grown.

“When I started, there were probably 50 people in a room. Now there are 350 in a room,” she says. “We use headphones now so it’s not bedlam,” Strehle adds.

And did she mention that the essays are handwritten?

“We don’t take off for bad grammar, bad spelling or bad handwriting. However, a student who has a lot to say can sometimes write so fast that his handwriting is hard to read.”

“It’s a huge amount of fun,” she says, describing readers as conscientious and committed to the AP program. While the readers are paid for their work, they also enjoy the networking and exposure to other ideas in their field. She’s never wanted for new applicants, she says.

“Susan Strehle sets a tone of professionalism,” Jordan says. “Nobody there was slacking. Everyone was genuinely motivated and committed to being fair to the students.”

In the nearly 30 years that Strehle has been involved in scoring AP exams, she says the percentage of students who earn a 5, the highest score, has remained about 8 percent. There are more students at the other end of the scoring spectrum, getting 2’s or 1’s.

“That’s both a good thing and a bad thing,” she says. Scores below a 3 won’t be accepted for credit by colleges. But Strehle says no matter what score a student receives on an exam, that student has been exposed to a higher standard of learning.

“We think they get something really good out of being in the AP classroom and having a challenging approach to reading and analyzing literature and writing.”

LEARN MORE

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