To the Editor:
Millions of high school students take Advanced Placement examinations each year. I have been grading the free-response questions on the AP Psychology exam for more than a decade. Over the years, I have come to believe that sometimes students who understand the material do not earn credit, and that sometimes students who might not actually understand the material do receive credit.
I have discussed this problem with colleagues in other disciplines. One of them noted that how the grading rubrics are written means that everyone scores the exams in the same way, but this sometimes fails to give credit to the nuanced or idiosyncratic answers that are also correct.
Put yourself in the shoes of a student who doesn’t earn credit for a good answer—one in which he or she clearly shows understanding of the concept being tested. Or imagine that you (or your son or daughter) answers the question correctly and receives credit, but others who do not show understanding in their answers also receive credit.
To give one example from this year’s exam: A question described the results of a study and asked students to draw a correctly labeled bar graph depicting them. We graders were told that if a student constructed two graphs, we were not to give credit. I came across an answer that had two graphs, both of which were entirely correct. Moreover, this student had explained why it is often good in a study to have two outcome measures, rather than one. I took this essay to my supervisor and tried to explain how this student had correctly answered the question. Without even looking at the specifics of the student’s graphs, the supervisor replied, “Two graphs! NO credit.”
This situation simply doesn’t seem fair or just, and, in my opinion, reduces the accuracy of the scoring.
We at AP need to do better in assuring the validity of our grading.
The author is a retired professor and former chair of the psychology department at Middlebury College, where he also served as the dean of faculty. He has been grading free-response questions on the AP psychology exam since 2002.
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as Rigid AP Grading Rubrics Disregard Some Good Answers