Inside the AP Psychology Reading

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A variety of people often ask me, the Chief Reader for AP Psychology, "What really goes on at the AP Reading?"

Sometimes they are in disbelief that any rational academic—whether college or high school teacher—would give up perfectly good, uncommitted summer days to score hundreds (and in some cases, thousands!) of papers after completing a grueling school year. Sometimes they have heard positive descriptions of the Reading—and may even consider applying—but are unconvinced that the experience could be so satisfying that anyone would do it more than once. And sometimes they are just curious about how the Reading unfolds from my distinctive vantage point as the Chief Reader. I thought I would assemble answers to the questions I hear most frequently.

How can I become a Reader?

You have already found a wealth of information through AP Central about the Reading. Zero in on the online Reader application on AP Central and fill it out. We will ask you to send in your intro syllabus, because teaching intro is the entry ticket into the pool. If you are a high school teacher, you will need to have taught AP Psychology for three years.

How long does it take after applying to become a Reader?

Once you have submitted the materials, the review process does not take long. However, we do have a little bit of a waiting list. Typically, if you complete your materials by October and get approved, you will get invited to the Reading scheduled for the following summer or the summer after that.

How many people serve as Readers?

At the 2008 Reading, almost 400 Readers (rather evenly divided between college and high school backgrounds) came together in Kansas City, Missouri. We saw over 136,000 exam booklets! (The 2009 Reading will be again be held in Kansas City.)

What exactly do Readers do during the Reading?

The AP Psychology Exam has two free-response questions along with 100 multiple-choice questions that are scored electronically. Readers are assigned to one of the two free-response questions. The Question Leader, the Rubric Master (the person who designs the scoring guide), and the team of Table Leaders for each question will have arrived a few days before the Reading to develop the scoring criteria for their questions. The first morning of the Reading is devoted to training. We usually get to the stacks of exam booklets near noon of the first day. Once the Reading gets under way, your assigned Table Leader and tablemates will help you stay on course and reading appropriately so we can get the job done on time and in style.

What is the Reading day like?

We usually complete eight hours of exam reading in every day. We start promptly and have morning and afternoon breaks that usually provide substantial caloric distraction. We don't call it the "Read and Feed" for nothing! When the workday is over, it's over! People head out for all kinds of entertainment. We ask only that you don't party so hard that it interferes with your good judgment in scoring the next morning.

Do Readers really score the answers to just one question for the whole Reading week?

Yes, they do. Occasionally we shift very fast Readers to the question that may be reading more slowly so we can have both groups finish at about the same time, but for the most part, most people become experts and read just one question.

Experienced Readers often claim that this is the most fulfilling professional activity they have ever engaged in. How could that be? (It just doesn't sound like it could be fun...)

If you are interested in how students think, you can't help being fascinated by the array of answers you will read to any of the AP questions. They range from magnificent (hard to believe a student could write so brilliantly) to tangential (you are likely to read more than one description of prom activities that substitute for a legitimate answer). You experience a wide range of test-taking strategies, and fortunately, many of the students write delightful answers that will make you laugh out loud. Sometimes the student intends this effect, sometimes not. (For example, one of my favorite early papers began, "Dear Reader: My, you are looking lovely today. Have you lost weight?") The enterprise is one that for the most part makes you feel good about the high-quality work that is going on in high school classes across the country. The network of colleagues that you develop as a result of being a Reader will give you friends all over the country. Those relationships are among the most meaningful I've ever experienced, and that reaction is quite common.

How many test booklets do people read each summer?

We ask that Readers read as fast as they can without making mistakes. That varies widely. The total number of books any Reader can manage depends on question difficulty, time-saving strategies, and ability to concentrate. Our average number of exams read each year keeps increasing such that now the average is in the 500+ range. We also have a resident corps of alien Readers (we think they are from another planet) who routinely surpass the 1,000 mark each summer. With those aliens aboard, we can support Readers who must read more slowly than the average, but we ask that every Reader strive for accuracy and efficiency. We also stage "clinics" where the aliens share their tips for concentration and speed to help everyone improve.

What is the social life like?

We now have so many Readers on board that there is a reference group for almost everyone. There are basketball players who try to gather every day after the Reading, just as there are tennis players who get their workout before breakfast. A large group goes for either a vigorous walk or a run before breakfast, and you can pace yourself to find the speed that suits you. A group always knows where the best karaoke is. And there are plenty of good restaurants in case experimenting with cuisine appeals to you. However, your "board" provides for meals at the convention center. We also schedule some specific activities, including a traditional night out to see a baseball game, and we have an optional evening of teaching demonstrations for those who want to make the most use out of their network of great teaching colleagues. We have a formal professional development night with a speaker whose job is to enhance your ability to teach Psychology. And then there is the closing night show. No short paragraph can do justice to the nonstop humor that transpires at the legendary AP Psychology closing night.

Do we volunteer or get paid?

You get paid reasonably well as a "consultant." In addition, your room, travel, and board are covered for the duration of the Reading.

I would love to read next summer, but I have a conflict (e.g., graduation, marriage) in the middle of the dates. Could I be excused for the day I need to be away?

Nope. Our policy is that Readers must be available for the full Reading. That way the managers of the process don't have the additional responsibilities of keeping track of who might be missing in action. Accept the Reading invitation only when you can commit to concentrating on the Reading for the entire stretch of days.

Is the Reading for everybody?

No. Occasionally there are individuals who find the rigor of the work to be personally challenging. If they cannot concentrate and feel the need to move around or constantly ask for guidance, they can be very distracting to other Readers. In addition, sometimes Readers feel some strain in applying the scoring rubric because it doesn't correspond to the way they would personally score an answer. It helps to recognize that your job is not to score as you would choose to but to think of yourself as a scoring machine with a specific template to follow. When Readers can't "surrender to the rubric," it makes for a very long week for everybody. However, most people easily get in the groove and excel at this quirky job.

When Readers get together, they talk about the Reading almost like it is a cult. Why is that?

The AP Reading is very much like a camp for smart, funny, overgrown kids. The family atmosphere is powerful. The hierarchy is flat—there is no distinction drawn between high school and college teachers. The task draws the very best teachers, so even the informal conversations that take place become very memorable. And like camp, there is the occasional prank or two to keep everyone on his or her toes. I share the impression with others that the value of the activity goes far beyond making decisions about which students get to move ahead in their college curricula. It is a community based on significant commitment to high-quality psychology education. I predict that once you try it out, you'll be hooked, too.

Jane Halonen is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida. The former director of the School of Psychology at James Madison University, she won the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award from the American Psychological Foundation in 2000. She is the author and coauthor of several textbooks and books. Jane served as the Chief Reader for the AP Psychology Exam from 2004-2008.

Authored by

  • Jane S. Halonen
    University of West Florida
    Pensacola, Florida