2024 AP Environmental Science FRQ Scoring Reflections

After my 5th year of grading FRQs for the College Board, here are a few of my key takeaways:

Less is more: This year, the student responses I read were, on average, longer than in any of my previous years scoring exams. However, I really didn’t see a correlation between length of response and points earned. It was clear that many students rambled on, hoping to stumble into a correct answer at some point in their writing. This is a poor strategy for a number of reasons. The first is that, when presented with a list of potential answers, readers only consider the first answer. When students ramble, they risk burying a correct answer behind an incorrect or too-vague attempt at an answer. The second is that this costs them time that could be used elsewhere providing concise, detailed responses to questions that they really have the content knowledge to successfully answer. The third is that the rubric requirements for earning a point, even on explain prompts, almost never require more than 2 or 3 specific layers of detail. In other words, specificity and accuracy are so much more important than length. In the past I’ve advocated for 2-3 sentence answers to explain prompts, but I would go as far as to say that almost every single FRQ point could be earned with a single, long, detail-rich sentence. 

Solution: have students underling the layers of detail in their answer. I saw a few students who actually underlined the key components of their answer, the way some teachers do when scoring and providing feedback on FRQs. On a describe prompt, they would underling the basic answer, such as the fact that wind energy doesn’t release CO2 and then they would underling their second layer of detail, such as the fact that less CO2 released when generating electricity lessened global warming. These underlined FRQs were not only easy to score, but were consistently full of well-organized writing and well-articulated content knowledge.


No points for restating the stem: While we’ve all probably taught our students what task verbs are (identify, describe, explain) and what they require in an answer, I know I, for one, haven’t been as explicit in teaching my students that they won’t earn any points for repackaging information provided in the questions stem or the stimulus in the question background. This was something that a lot of students attempted to do on the question I scored this year. It’s tricky because the question stem or background has relevant information that needs to be understood as context for a correct student answer, it just can’t be a key detail of the answer.

Solution: underlining layers of detail (again): This is where underlining layers of answer detail can yield more benefits. If students build this habit of underlining the distinct, specific layers of detail in their answer, they’re more likely to notice if one of those layers is simply a repackaging of information supplied in the stem or background.


Vocab, vocab, vocab: One of the biggest differentiators between students who scored well on FRQs and those who scored poorly was vocabulary use. In order for students to construct concise, detail-rich responses, they really need to have a grasp on the key course vocabulary terms. Stating that “trees absorb carbon” is simply not as scientific a statement as “trees sequester atmospheric carbon.” Absorb means to take in or soak up. Sequester means to isolate or hide away, which implies that the carbon won’t be returning to the atmosphere and thus, the action of sequestration that the trees perform will lessen atmospheric CO2 levels rather than momentarily lower them, as “take in or soak up” implies. 

Solution: word of the day and a word wall: While I’ve been using a word wall for years, I added a word of the day routine to class last year that I felt really supported students’ vocabulary development. Check out my unit 9 word of the day slides here. Another strategy I’m considering this year is leaving our word wall up during FRQ Fridays during the first semester (I’ll erase it for test and exam FRQs) and requiring that students underline at least one vocabulary term from the unit in every non-experimental design/graph/calculation FRQ answer. I would also reinforce this habit during our daily mini-FRQs.

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