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Embracing the Rubric: An Insider's Look at AP Test Grading

“In the last half of the twentieth century, some United States cities experienced decline due to deindustrialization and loss of population due to suburbanization. To counteract the inner city decline, urban planners have embraced New Urbanism and mixed-use development to attract residents back to the city

A. Identify TWO goals of the New Urbanism movement.
B. Explain the difference between mixed-use development and traditional zoning practices.
C. Explain TWO benefits of mixed-use development in promoting urban growth.
D. Explain TWO criticisms of New Urbanism.”
I have been assigned to this question as an Advanced Placement Reader for the 2017 Human Geography Exam. I will be grading this question and this question only, for eight days in the Duke Energy Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. There are hundreds of educators here with me, both high school teachers and college professors. Over the course of the week to come, the fate of thousands of tests will be decided.

“Hey, did you see the dead roach on the way to the bathroom?” my fellow grader to my left whispers.
“The dead roach. Someone even made a little shrine or memorial or whatever next to it.”
“No. What? No.” 
“People gotta find some way to be creative under these circumstances.”
“No, we must increase production. You! Back to your grading! And be quick about it.” 
We both laugh. The grading continues. 
We are arranged at long plastic picnic tables, the foldout kind in that hard white plastic with the slightly uneven surface on top. There are twelve of us to a table, and at each head, a test grading supervisor—the Table Leader. Arranged around the tables are pencils, earplugs, bowls of individually-wrapped candy, test answer booklets, and most importantly, The Rubric. 
“Embrace The Rubric!” has been the mantra of our table leader, and her AP Testing superiors, as they rotate around the room. You see, most of these teachers have taught for many years and so, have their own ideas about things. However, in order to be a successful AP Reader, one must shed away years of experience and teaching intuition. One must grade based solely upon what the College Board has determined to be the very best answers, enumerated on a one-page instruction manual. The Rubric. Embrace it. 
I proceed with a constant, steady rhythm. Hours go by. The Duke Energy Conference Center, Room A, a vast hall of concrete and steel, becomes filled with a mingled menagerie of noises from its occupants. A wrapper is being unwrapped. Crinkle. A metal chair sliding and screeching against the hard floor. An eraser skipping across a paper, making that distinctive vigorous eraser sound, leaving behind pink debris. A teacher stands and stretches, her back making strained popping sounds. A deep sigh. Distant coughs mingle with anonymous sighs, sneezes, and sniffles. It all blends together in a cacophony of echoes.
“Excuse me, Scott?” the Table Leader is standing off to the side of our table, beckoning me over. “See you for a sec?”
“Sure,” I whisper, and walk over. 
“You’re first morning scores just came in. They’re a bit higher than the global average. We need to be a just little stricter. We’ll recalibrate after lunch with another pair-share. Just be certain you’re embracing the rubric.” 
“Ok, no problem.” I say, a bit humbled. 
I walk back to my seat and sit back down, and the teacher to my right whispers, “A bit too high with the average score? Yeah, all you younger teachers do that. Me? I’ve been doing this for years. You’ve gotta drink more of the Kool-Aid, kid,” and he laughs. 
“Ha, yeah.” I say, getting another test book from my stack. After lunch, we all read, grade, and swap the same tests around the table, to see if we are all scoring about the same. We are. Pair-share accomplished. We have successfully recalibrated. 
Teacher to my right again: “You hear about the shrine to the dead roach?”
“No, what?” I ask. 
“It’s gone. I guess the Duke people got rid of it.”
“Aw, that’s a shame.” I say. 
“Yeah. Poor little guy.” 
As grading for the day ends, there is talk of dinner plans. Some colleagues speak well of a chicken wing place down the street called Knockback Nat’s. Based upon the dismal Duke offerings during lunch, it appears many choose to dine away from the convention center. I start off into the Cincinnatian night. 
The main branch of the public library is having a sale. I pop in and buy several books, only stopping when I remind myself that I flew to Cincinnati, and Southwest Airlines might have a problem with me schlepping cases of books back to Tampa. I notice a copy of 1984, with a cover I don’t recognize or currently own. There’s always room for one more. Besides, given my current AP Grader circumstances, I kind of feel a kinship with the main character, Winston. I reluctantly leave several other books behind and head back out into the city. 
The city of Cincinnati is currently undergoing a transformation. As you stroll its streets, you can see obvious evidence of “new urbanism.” Yes, this is exactly the topic I am spending eight hours a day grading. The irony is not lost on me as I come across a completely gentrified section of the city: Over-the-Rhine. Originally, the part of town reserved for German immigrants, the area suffered from the same urban decay that many cities did once suburbanization took hold in post-World War II America. Once the industrial jobs left, the region became infamous for poverty and crime. 
Now, thanks to a partnership between government and private investment, neighborhoods that were just a few short years ago noteworthy for their high crime rate are the most popular places to be in the city. Artisan coffee shops. Artisanal imported cheeses. Apothecaries. Hipsters galore. Unfortunately, the residents who have lived here for generations, through the good times, and more recently the bad ones: they are being priced-out of their own homes. Furthermore, the only affordable grocery store--the very first Kroger in the history of Kroger, closed this fall due to the skyrocketing value of the area’s real estate. The vantage from that now-closed community store? Towering in the backdrop: the corporate headquarters of Kroger. In Human Geography terms, this has created a food desert for the residential poor. The issue of urban renewal invokes a complicated balance with which many cities struggle. 
Crinkle. Chair screech. Sigh.
I’m back in The Duke. The grading routine continues apace. The teachers and professors around me are all looking intensely at their free response questions. Occasionally, we tick-off points. Sometimes, without prompting from our Table Leader, we pair-share to maintain calibration and to get another pair of expert-eyes on a good essay response. 
“Is this a point?” 
“No, they get the concept, but they’re missing the vocabulary explaining the concept.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Look at you, Kool-Aid drinker! Good catch!”
And for me as a teacher, that has been the most valuable part of this experience. Now for my Advanced Placement students, I know exactly how these tests are evaluated. In government parlance, I now know how the sausage is made. For example, to earn full credit, a student must, must use a specific word from a word bank on a given rubric. To know of the concept behind that term? To be able to write intelligently regarding that concept? No. No points for you. Next. 
For this reason, I think this experience will be invaluable to me as an educator. I think these thoughts as I bring my completed stack of tests to the Table Leader. She smiles and hands me the next stack. She leans in and whispers, “By the way, the table’s scores just came in from upstairs. Your grading average is matching perfectly with the global average. Like, exactly on par. Great job!”
“Thanks,” I say. 
I walk back to my chair with a smile on my face. I arrange the tests, take my pencil and begin again. As Winston noted by the end of his story: it was all right, everything was all right. I too had won victory over myself. I embraced the rubric. (from Orwell, George. 1984. London. Secker and Warburg, 1949. Print.)
BELOW: Mr. Saposnik’s students learn the intricacies of the AP testing rubric to better understand how their own tests will be graded in May.