Takeaways From Grading Exam FRQs for the College Board (2023)

Before I get into my takeaways from this year's read in Cincinnati, let me just put in a plug for applying to be a reader (FRQ grader). In addition to being the single best way to improve the FRQ writing instruction you can offer your students, it is simply a ton of fun. I mean, where else can you meet 200+ other dedicated APES teachers from all over the country and get in a half hour of hacky-sacking every day?

Now for a few writing tips:

Less is sometimes more. This will come to no surprise to any of you, but when students aren't sure they know what they're talking about, they tend to ramble. On FRQs, this is not usually a winning strategy for a couple reasons. First, there's limited time and students are probably better served spending more of it thinking about and crafting specific, yet brief answers to easier prompts in later FRQs rather than adding three superfluous sentences to an already dubious answer. Second, students can lose a point they would have otherwise earned if they contradict themselves or provide factually incorrect information that undermines their answer. Most points can be earned with a maximum of two detailed and precise sentences, so consider even challenging students to answer "explain" and "describe" prompts in April with only two sentences. Or as a colleague at the reading (shoutout to Craig B from Boston) suggested, force students to answer an entire FRQ on both sides of an index card to practice writing less, with more precision and less fluff.

Realistic solutions: when proposing a solution on FRQ #2, students really struggle to provide realistic answers that are specific enough to earn a point. They frequently misunderstand the role of government and cite actions such as "increasing the price" of a product, or "mandating/requiring" something that is unrealistic or near impossible to enforce. Providing students with examples of environmental related government actions from news articles or asking them to think of examples from AP Gov or similar courses can be a helpful strategy to support them in coming up with reasonable answers to these prompts. Or like I tell my students "when in doubt, offer a tax incentive or penalty".

Power phrases: certain vocab terms really punch above their weight class in terms of demonstrating understanding and earning points. A phrase like "invasives outcompete native species" goes so much further toward earning a point than something like "these animals aren't from here and there may be fighting for resources between them and the animals that are already there". The difference may seem subtle, but the phrase "outcompete" clearly indicates an outcome of the competition and invokes a negative ecological consequence for the native species. Of course it needs to be followed with a connection back to the context of the prompt, but students that have a command of phrases like outcompete, incentivize, or trophic cascade are in a better position to earn points efficiently compared to their peers who use phrases like "fight for resources", encourage, or "mess up the food chain". To be clear, readers are not just hunting for buzzwords to award points, but key vocab terms that indicate understanding are frequently among the answer components required to earn a point on any given question. Brainstorming a list of these "power phrases", especially actions or processes, for each unit would be a neat crowdsourced project for this upcoming school year that might helps us elevate the writing of all of our students for next year's exam. More on this to come in the August newsletter!

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