Local teacher joins colleagues in massive grading session

Mary DeLaney, a teacher at Huntington North High School, graded more than 800 essays from the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition Exam for a week in June at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, KY.
Mary DeLaney, a teacher at Huntington North High School, graded more than 800 essays from the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition Exam for a week in June at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, KY. Photo by Matt Murphy.

Originally published July 2, 2009.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of high school students around the country and around the word take what are known as "Advanced Placement" exams.

These exams are usually the culmination of year-long high school courses, and students are eligible to receive college credit for passing the exams, depending on the grade received.

Every exam, except for a small number of art and language courses, consists of a multiple-choice section and a free-response or essay section.

But one question is often in students' minds after the exam: who grades the written responses?

One local teacher has the answer.

Huntington North High School English teacher Mary DeLaney was one of 1,100 high school teachers and college professors who traveled from all over the world to Louisville, KY, to grade the essay portion of the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition Examination during an intense week-long grading period.

This is DeLaney's second year as a "reader," and she was also one of only three high school teachers from Indiana selected to participate.

More than 300,000 students worldwide took the AP English Literature exam, and each exam has three essays which must each be individually read and given a score between one and nine, with nine being the highest.

That adds up to nearly one million essays, which are all read from first word to last word during the week.

DeLaney says that the 1,100 readers are divided into three groups for the entire week - one group for each essay on the exam. Each group of teachers then reads student responses to the same prompt for the entire week.
DeLaney says that individually, she read at least 800 essays.

"I didn't hit a wall until the last day," DeLaney says, referring to the feeling of "burning out" after reading so many essays.

At the conference, "readers" begin their days at 8 a.m. and read until 5 p.m., with breaks during the day for stretching and for lunch. In the evening, professional development workshops are offered to the readers. Many museums in Louisville also stay open late during the week for the benefit of the AP readers.

During the actual reading time, readers are further divided into tables of eight readers each. Each table is headed by a "table leader," who monitors the progress of the readers. Staff known as "ochos" are in charge of monitoring eight tables, and then the person in charge of the entire room is the "room leader," who coordinates breaks and the "norming" of grading.

"Norming" refers to the process by which all readers are checked to make sure that students taking the exam receive fair grades. It includes every fifth essay being read again, or "back-read," by the table leader to make sure readers aren't grading too hard or too easy (first-year reader's essays are all back-read for the first three days). The ochos then back-read the table leader's exams to further ensure fairness. In addition, the room leader will coordinate exercises during the day in which everyone will read the same essay, and then the room leader will ask what the readers think the score should be, and then reveal what the score actually should be.

The toughness of the grading is determined by a number of "anchor papers," which are randomly pulled before the week-long grading period, to see how students responded to each question. If the students answered the question well, grading is made harder. If students did not answer the question well, grading is made easier.

All travel expenses, meals and lodging are reimbursed by the College Board, the organization that officiates the Advanced Placement Exams as well as several other well-known tests, including the SAT and the CLEP exams. Readers also receive a monetary stipend of around $1,600 for their time.

However, DeLaney says that most readers don't grade for the money. Instead, they see the event as an opportunity to develop themselves as teachers and professors, and to bring their experiences back to their students at home.

"It's the best professional development you can ever get for high school," she says.

DeLaney sees benefits to her students in that she is able to tell them what makes for a high-scoring essay, and she can give tips to improve their writing.

DeLaney adds that the money, while helpful, isn't enough to keep the teachers who don't like the experience.

"It's very grueling," she says. "But it's also very intellectually stimulating."

DeLaney notes that the people she has had the opportunity to meet have added to the experience.

"I can't believe I'm sitting at the same table with college professors," she says.

"Dr. Martin Beller, who wrote the book that I use in my AP class, was sitting at my table, and by the end of the week, I was calling him ‘Marty,'" she says, reminiscing on how familiar readers become with each other.

In a previous year, DeLaney also met an adjunct professor from St. Mary's College near South Bend, DeLaney's hometown. That professor had written a book about Notre Dame, which DeLaney has in her personal library.

DeLaney also mentioned that Dr. Todd Martin, an English professor at Huntington University, participated in the reading event. She says that he read some of the international tests in addition to the regular formats. Martin was unavailable for comment.

The entire process for DeLaney's journey to Louisville began two years ago, when she applied to be a reader for the exam. High school and college teachers are invited to read, and in order to qualify, the applicant must either teach the course in a face-to-face classroom setting for three years, if he or she teaches high school, or must have taught an AP-equivalent college course for three years, if he or she teaches college.

Three sets of invitations are sent, one in January, one in April and one in the beginning of May.

DeLaney was invited during the spring invitation last year, and readily accepted.

Once a reader has been invited once, they may be invited automatically again. This re-invite depends on the table leader's recommendations.

And this year, DeLaney was invited back.

Readers can return for up to five years. After that, some are offered table leader positions. However, DeLaney says that she heard of readers that have been at the reading convention for 18 years.

She says that she would gladly read again if she were asked.

"There's something about being in that environment that's invigorating and inspiring," she says.