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Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the AP Statistics Exam

2 May 2016 4 Comments
Jessica Utts

Jessica Utts

What do 1,761,116 current and former high-school students have in common? Answer: They have taken an Advanced Placement (AP) Statistics exam sometime during the past 19 years. And on the afternoon of May 12, an estimated 204,000 students will take the 20th annual offering, bringing the total to almost 2 million students. The accompanying figure shows the growth over the 20 years the AP Statistics exam has been offered.

Number of Advanced Placement Statistics Exams, 1997 to 2016

Number of Advanced Placement Statistics Exams, 1997 to 2016

I’ve been involved with the writing and grading of the exam since I joined the committee that develops the exam (appropriately named the Test Development Committee, or TDC) in 1997. I currently serve as the chief reader and, in addition to working with the TDC, I’m responsible for oversight of the grading of the free-response portion of the exam.

In honor of the exam’s 20th anniversary, I provide a behind-the-scenes look at its features, including who writes it, who grades it, and why people keep coming back to grade exams for a full week!

How Do Students Use the AP Exam to Get College Credit for a Statistics Course?

The AP Statistics course is taught in high schools, usually over the full school year, and covers content similar to a standard one-semester introductory statistics college course. In May of each year, a standardized AP Statistics exam is offered, consisting of 40 multiple-choice and six free-response questions. (Not all students who take the course choose to take the exam.) Scores on the exam are a composite of the two question types and range from a low of 1 to a high of 5. Many universities grant credit for the introductory statistics course to students who score 3, 4, or 5. The College Board provides a search facility so students can determine the policy for any particular college. In 2015, the distribution of scores was similar to previous years, with 57.75% of test-takers earning a score of 3 or more, with 13.4%, 19.1%, and 25.2% scoring 5, 4, and 3, respectively.

Who Writes the AP Statistics Exam?

The exam is written and revised by the TDC consisting of three college faculty members (currently from Iowa State, Duke, and Clemson), three experienced AP high-school teachers, and a College Board adviser. These members are joined by the chief reader and two content specialists from Educational Testing Service (ETS). All the free-response questions and most of the multiple choice questions are written by individual members of the TDC, but they go through numerous revisions during discussions with the full committee before they are finalized. Free-response questions are used on only one exam, while some multiple choice questions are used on numerous exams to allow statistical equating of scores across exams and years. Past free-response questions are available online.

In addition to working with the TDC to develop the exam, the chief reader is responsible for the entire scoring process (explained below), including developing scoring rubrics for each free-response question, selecting the individuals who will grade the exams, and overseeing the week-long scoring process. Chief readers serve terms of three to five years, and all my chief reader predecessors have been accomplished members of the statistics education community. The inaugural chief reader was 2001 ASA President Dick Scheaffer, followed by Roxy Peck, Brad Hartlaub, Chris Franklin, and Allan Rossman. In the accompanying photo, ETS content expert Jeff Haberstroh is shown with four of the former chief readers. Jeff was instrumental in getting the AP Statistics Program started and guided it through many years of growth.

Who Grades the AP Statistics Exam, and When and Where Do They Do It?

The multiple choice questions are, of course, computer graded. But with six free-response questions and more than 200,000 exams, there are over 1.2 million questions that must be manually graded! This grading is done by a large group of dedicated college professors and AP Statistics high-school teachers who gather in June and read exams for seven consecutive days. In 2015, there were more than 800 individuals involved in the reading held at the Kansas City Convention Center. In his September 2012 President’s Column, Bob Rodriguez provided an excellent account of what he learned by spending a few days observing the 2012 reading, including quotes from some of the participants.

Educational Testing Service specialist Jeff Haberstroh (center) with former AP Statistics chief  readers (from left) Allan Rossman, Chris Franklin, Roxy Peck, and Dick Scheaffer

Educational Testing Service specialist Jeff Haberstroh (center) with former AP Statistics chief readers (from left) Allan Rossman, Chris Franklin, Roxy Peck, & Dick Scheaffer

For the first 10 years (1997–2006), the reading was held on a college campus (The College of New Jersey in 1997 and the University of Nebraska thereafter), and the readers stayed in dorm rooms and ate in the dorm cafeteria. There were 7,667 exams the first year (1997), graded by 57 readers. But alas, as the number of exams and readers grew, no college campus was available to accommodate the large number of people required to accomplish the task. In 2006—the last year at the University of Nebraska—there were about 89,000 exams and almost 350 readers.

Convention centers are now used, with readers housed in nice hotels and meals served in the convention center. All travel and accommodation expenses are paid, and a modest stipend is provided, but the reason people keep coming back is that the reading provides an enriching personal and professional development experience.

Why Would Anyone Want to Spend a Week Grading AP Exams?

As the old saying goes, “I guess you had to be there.” As much as people try to describe why they keep coming back to grade exams, it’s difficult to understand unless you have had the experience.

First, there is the professional development aspect, which occurs in multiple ways. It’s extremely important that exams are graded consistently, because a student’s score should not depend on who graded the questions. For that reason, a multi-page scoring rubric is provided for each question and readers go through extensive training to learn the subtleties of these rubrics.

Although the rubrics are developed initially by the chief reader, they are refined over the four-day period before the scoring starts. A leadership team is assigned to each question with the task of looking at hundreds of student papers and refining the rubric based on the myriad ways students might answer the question. It’s amazing how many ways students can find to answer some of these questions.

All readers work with a partner at first, and then they can consult with that person anytime they are in a quandary about how to score a question, leading to some fruitful professional discussions.

Additional professional development opportunities are provided through evening events. For instance, one evening program consists of “best practices,” in which participants share ideas that have worked well in their classrooms. Professional Night is held on another evening and usually involves a talk by a distinguished statistician or author of a popular book with a statistics theme.

Why You Should Consider Getting Involved, and How to Do It

The final reason people keep coming back is difficult to describe, but is best illustrated by the many comments I hear about how it feels like a great big family reunion, except you actually like the people at this reunion! The social aspect of the experience is a tremendous draw. But don’t take my word for it! If you are a college professor who teaches the introductory statistics course, consider applying to be a reader. I can’t promise you will have the time of your life, but I can say there is ample data to show you just might! You can apply online here.

If you would like to get involved in the AP Statistics program in other ways, consider visiting a local classroom or mentoring an AP teacher. Many new and experienced AP teachers would welcome mentoring by an experienced statistician. As one of my presidential initiatives, a group of AP teachers and college professors led by ASA Board member Anna Nevius is developing tools to help make the connection between professional statisticians and AP Statistics students and teachers.

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  • Bob Lochel said:

    Participating in the AP Reading has made me a better teacher, as analyzing the many errors and ideas I see from students has caused me to adapt my instruction. Every year I learn a new approach from someone I meet at the reading, and the network of ideas continues through the year as teachers and professors share their resources. It’s an amazing community of sharing, and the most enriching professional development I experience each year. Thanks to Jessica, Ann, and the entire team for facilitating such an inspiring week.

  • Blake Bristol said:

    I have been teaching AP Stats for 5 years now and am anxiously awaiting my invitation to my first AP reading in the future. I hear so many amazing things from those who able to participate that I really feel I can’t wait… but I will.

  • Julie Kindred said:

    I just finished my first year as an AP Stats reader. An amazing experience of learning and sharing. I can’t wait to incorporate my new learning next school year. I’m already looking forward to next year. I would love to partner with an experienced college statistics professor to help deepen my understanding of statistics. Great idea proposed in this blog.