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Dmcdowell of A History Teacher says he loves his work, but there’s one aspect of it that fills him with dread: Grading. Noting that he just spent at least 25 hours grading 109 essays for his AP world history course, he has some quite reasonable doubts about the old notion that “teachers have it easy”:

I have friends who have said it must be nice to be done with work at 2:30. But, as my wife will attest to, I am always working. I always have a paper to grade, a lesson to work on, a meeting to attend, or a book to read. When I have nothing to do for tomorrow, I think about the next day or even the next school year. Something always needs revising.

To judge by many other teacher blogs (see our blogroll), this kind of schedule and level of dedication are pretty much the norm.

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i saw your blog and saw, also, that there were no comments. your grading problem is so common, i guess no one has much to say. i taught ap language and comp for about 13 years and, of course, i had the usual load of essays to read. some of what i have to say is disheartening but it may help cut your stress, i’m retired now which is why i have any time at all to write.

i found over the years that i was very different as a teacher. i went to a dept. meeting where we were supposed to read essays and compare our scores and grades. i finished my stack of papers well before anyone else in the room, but my scores were nearly identical. my first advice for you is to stop grading your essays and just score them. other teachers were spending an enormous time compiling evidence to support a grading system that was arbitrary to begin with. like me, you must have ample benchmark papers to keep your scoring in line and realistic. just how much time to you figure the actual ap scorers spend per essay? my 40 min. AP essays were usually scored by expert scores in under a minute, so i set tat as my initial goal, it didn’t take long. kids want the bottom line. they want the score. so, give it to them in the same time frame as the exam itself.

but you probably want to use the essays and your scoring to teach them how to improve. okay, but that doesn’t mean you have to annotate every single paper. the benchmark papers are effective teaching aids. the key here is to get lots of info to the kids so that they see the patterns and the scoring rationale. i had a 100 kids (3 sections) and spent about 90 minutes scoring the papers. if you don’t use your scores in your grading system for the course, then you can cut everything except the score itself which you should be able to do in the same amount of time as i did. i know it goes against custom, but there is no reason you have to grade the essays after you have scored them. the kids can see if their writing is passing or not, improving or not if they get lots of practice. i gave one essay per week in class, timed at 40 minutes (using only former ap essay questions) and another essay question for homework each week. that gave me about 200 essays a week—about 3 hours of scoring.

scoring was important to the teaching process and since the only result that really mattered came at the end of the course, why bother to grade essays while they are learning? it isn’t really fair, anyway, to use benchmarks from papers written at the end of course exam to grade papers at the beginning of the course. i found that my district’s average for my course was about 50% A’s. okay, that was fine with me. i made sure that about half got A’s—more if i had a really good class—and the rest got B’s. in an AP class with the bonus GPA that meant that everyone (well, almost everyone) got an A. some got the regular A (a B in my ap course) and some got the bonus A worth 5 grade points by getting an A in the course. the AP exam itself will set its own grading system and everyone will regard it more seriously than your own. a kid who gets an A in your course and doesn’t pass will see your grade only as a consolation, but it won’t mean much to him.

i spent even less time grading than i did scoring. the grades were largely irrelevant and largely indefensible, really. so, i gave three grades—A for those who worked harder, B for those who didn’t, and C’s for those who really didn’t want to take the course and wanted out. i also promised to change any B to an A if the kid passed the ap exam in may. i ended up changing as many as 10 grades the following term. i taught juniors so it was easy enough to do. that wouldn’t work with seniors. i reduced the attention given to grades to an absolute minimum and increased the attention being given to their actual scores on practice exam questions.

for a couple years i would not discuss my grading “system” until after i had given out grades, but finally i relented somewhat and told the class that you could get an A by completing 100% of all work assigned in the course—all readings, all essays, all homework. there was a lot of work in the course, so i felt it was fair enough. i would not explain to them how to work for a B or how i decided to give the few C’s that i gave each semester. there were other ways to get an A, but i never discussed them with the class. in fact, i usually didn't decide how to pick the under-100% A’s until the due date for turning in the report cards. each student kept a portfolio of all their work—all essays, m/c tests, readings— and each filled out a checklist in the front of the portfolio showing which assignments they had completed. i did NOT check every folder to see if they were lying. i spot checked a few and never found anyone cheating, so i rarely checked any of them after the first couple years. i didn’t tell them that, of course. it took me about 10-15 minutes per class to figure grades. i had maybe 5 complaints in all the years i taught the ap courses.

the discomfort of not knowing their grade until the last minute was unfortunate, but if they had simply done all the work, they would not have had that concern. they knew early on my disdain for grading and my reservations about the value of the ap exams themselves. the prestige was undeniable, but the reality was also undeniable. the exams were rigged from the get-go and, like all other ETS exams including the SAT, had a direct correlation with family income. if your ego is tied up in any way to your students’ exam results, well, i feel for you. it was ironic that i was the most outspoken critic of the ap exams and ran the most relentless test-prep program in my district. well, i had to. my school, five miles from the mexican border, was 93% minority. it took an entire course just to get them ready for one three hour exam. the final irony is especially heartbreaking. over the years i found that my students scored at the national average on the three written essays (it’s supposed to be an essay writing course, huh?), but their scores on the one-hour m/c section was always about 20-25 points below the national average. so, only about 20% to 25% ever passed the exam. but any student who could score at the national average on the m/c section could fail all 3 essays and still pass.

now, back to your grading. you can still grade some papers in detail if you find that it helps the kids learn how to organize their essays. the nice thing is that you only have to grade them once and you only have to grade 10 or 15 at most. you grade the benchmarks. they already have the official score, but you can analyze the score, brake it down into components, show how certain essays earned points and how others fell short. your grading efforts are directed away from your students, a good thing.

as you might imagine, there were not a lot of teachers who took my advice to heart. but i taught for over 30 years under conditions that most people who describe as undesirable, and i never burned out. i was always happy teaching, it was schools i didn’t like much. it may have helped that i came from a low-income background myself, and though i looked white, my students knew that i wasn’t quite white—almost white. my first wife’s rich la jolla family knew the same thing.

i hope my comments give some things to think about. please save your energy for planing lessons and teaching. try to limit the administrative functions in your classes to the barest of minimums.

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