The New Rubrics: Test Prep vs. College Prep | Sherpa Learning

The New Rubrics: Test Prep vs. College Prep

The recipe for a high-scoring essay? It's missing something.

The New Rubrics: Test Prep vs. College Prep

The newly-revised writing rubrics for the Long Essay Questions (LEQs) and the Document-Based Questions (DBQs) have raised many concerns and caused not a small amount of anxiety among AP U.S. History teachers these last few months. Every teacher aims for the best for his or her students and wants to instruct them in a way that will maximize their performance on the new 2015 exam. With this as motivation, instructors have expressed deep concern around how to help their students earn the synthesis point in their essays.

At this time, I don't feel comfortable weighing in on this particular aspect of the scoring process because it would be pure conjecture. Until we have actual sample essays from the May 2015 exam, there will be many opinions about what constitutes synthesis and where to include it, but until then, they will be exactly that—opinions.

I would, however, like to comment on another issue regarding the potential grading of the essays and the new rubrics. There is an element missing in the discussion over the new rubrics and it's an especially troubling one. I am distressed that no points are to be awarded for an essay that is “well-organized and well-written.” Many AP teachers will recognize this element as part of the holistic rubric that the APUSH community has used for many, many years. The new rote-like, mechanical checklist contained in the new rubrics does not offer any points for a well-constructed argument. By trying to break essays down into discreet pieces, the new rubrics run a grave risk of making writing as formulaic as a cookbook recipe: add one part thesis, two parts historical thinking skills, two parts support material, one part synthesis, stir in some punctuation and you have yourself a high-scoring essay.

My fear is that teachers are so focused on the discrete elements that make up the new rubrics (certainly a natural reaction!), that they may easily lose track of the most fundamental and important reason a student needs to be able to write an effective essay. We should not forget what the AP program is all about—a college-level course taught at the high school level. Instruction is to approximate the skills and knowledge that students would be expected to demonstrate in their freshman history course. From both my community college teaching experience and my conversations with many other college-teaching colleagues, no one has their students write in the fashion now being proposed in the new rubrics. College teachers are looking for student papers that answer the question, demonstrate a point of view, and develop a position supported by substantial evidence. In short, they want a coherent, well-written, well-organized argument!

Of course, every APUSH teacher wants to see their students score high on the exam in May, and ignoring the new requirements would be impractical and unfair to students. But I hope that teachers will remind themselves daily of the larger, ultimate goal of Advanced Placement, and that they will still emphasize the basic requirements of a well-organized and well-written essay—even as they grapple with the new rubrics and other changes in the AP United States History course this year.

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