One million advanced placement tests graded in Kansas City

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 | 12:03 p.m. CDT; updated 12:10 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 16, 2011

KANSAS CITY — One of Bartle Hall's largest events hit full stride this week — but don't expect any Times-Square-on-New-Year's-Eve pandemonium.

Whispers like those ahead of a critical golf putt would be more in order, though even golf applause wouldn't be allowed here.

For more than two weeks, some 2,700 college professors and high school teachers from around the nation and the world are grading the essay portions of 1 million tests.

These are serious exams — ones that will determine whether high school graduates earn early college credits.

So shhhh.

For this event, which boosts the area economy by an estimated $17 million per year, a top priority for convention center staff is making sure escalators don't squeak.

"This is the anti-trade show," said Dennis Cross, more accustomed to making sure sound systems are rocking and light shows blazing.

No fanfare, he said. But lots of security.

Teams from New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service began arriving May 27 to prepare to manage and grade nearly one-third of the 3.4 million advanced placement tests issued through the College Board this year.

Students in college-level advanced placement courses in high school took the exams in hopes that the universities awaiting them this fall will allow them to skip entry-level courses.

So pardon the test-reading crowd if — at least between the grading hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. — they seem a bit schoolmarmish.

"Your son or daughter spent the whole year taking physics," said Lou Hatfield, a director of Educational Testing Service's performance assessment scoring. "And now they're being evaluated."

The purity of the grading process, she said, "is paramount."

This year's batch of Kansas City-bound exams filled more than four semi-trailers, Cross said. Every bar-coded test was tracked in bar-coded folders and boxes.

Convention center staff is emptying trash cans — at night after the test readers have cleared — but none of it will be taken out until the testing service assures that every exam is accounted for. Night crews are cleaning floors, Cross said, "but they don't touch anything."

Kansas City, which is hosting the test readers for the fourth straight year, is one of the largest of five sites Educational Testing Service is using across the country.

Last week, educators at Bartle Hall assessed every advanced placement test taken this year in art history, European history, Latin and physics — a total of 263,000 exams.

This week, new sets of readers are grading every test taken in calculus, comparative government and politics, psychology, biology, Chinese language and culture and Japanese language and culture — 744,000 total.

Teams in other cities are assessing tests in other subjects.

Teams start by reading through a few thousand responses to each question, establishing rubrics to guide scoring. A system of group leaders and chief readers check the monstrous flow of work that graders turn in. Some 400 clerks organize the files.

Another obstacle in the process, one would think, would be finding several thousand top teachers and professors simply willing to spend one or two full weeks grading tests.

Not only have most of them just finished plowing through the work of their own students, some are even finishing that work in their hotel rooms at night, Hatfield said.

Stephen Kokoska, a professor of mathematics at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, has been in the test-reading business for 22 years.

It's not because of the undisclosed, though "modest," stipend the teachers earn.

Nor is it the airfare, hotel accommodations and catered meals — though those things certainly don't hurt.

The reason, he said, is "it's strangely rewarding."

College professors and college prep high school teachers relish the opportunity to work alongside each other, he said. They enjoy the chances outside of the grading sessions to share syllabi, talk teaching strategies and simply hang out with people dedicated to the same field.

"It is tiring," he said. "(But) I take back teaching tips. I've learned new ways to teach. You learn about common errors."

Jean Robinson, a professor of political science at Indiana University, said she has been turned on to Internet resources and other tech ideas during the 18 years she has worked for the testing service.

"High school teachers often do a much better job at that than us," she said.

The testing service also sets up some professional development opportunities. This year, more than 150 teachers joined in a seminar on new classroom technology. The comparative government and politics teachers will be hearing an expert on Russia's democracy. And author Jennifer Homans last week talked with European history teachers about her book on the history of ballet.

The graders are spending their evenings touring the city, checking out the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the World War I Museum and other Kansas City attractions, Cross said.

They are coming from every state in the union plus some two dozen countries, putting Kansas City to a test of its own.

"The face-to-face time we give them here has the potential to bring them back for vacations," Cross said.

They'd have more time to get rowdy then.

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