June 14, 2007

Icy, bleak New Jersey

I'm currently about mid-week at the AP CS reading, currently at The College of New Jersey in Trenton. Despite it being mid-June, it's absolutely freezing out here, with today's high being something like 65. Gah.

The grading itself is much like last year, although the logistics are a little bumpier (since all the aides are new) and the rubric is easier (partially because there aren't any really creative ways to get my problem—A4—wrong). Being on the A instead of AB has meant that I'm in a room with more people (25 including leaders) and that there are a lot more exams with heartbreaking notes written to the readers to the effect that, e.g., their good teacher was fired mid-year and replaced with someone who didn't know Java but would "learn together", and their school made them take the AP anyway to boost their No Child Left Behind numbers (some of which take into account only numbers of AP exams, not grades thereon). Seriously, I can't tell you how many booklets I go through where not just my problem but all four are either totally blank or filled with artwork and poetry of incredibly bored students who are stuck in a room for 105 minutes with nothing to do but doodle in the book and write notes to the readers. When you read about the recent surge in AP exam administrations, the perverse incentives of high-stakes testing have a lot to do with it.

The main topic of discussion among the readers is just how many of us won't be coming back next year. Although we'd been told last year that we'd be at TCNJ for a few years at least, we found out on arrival that the College Board had changed their mind and put us at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, at a different time. Not only had they done this without asking our opinions, they hadn't asked or even mentioned this to the top leadership of the AP CS community—the chief reader and development committee didn't find out until just two or three days before the rest of us (despite the fact that this is printed in booklets and has obviously been planned for months at least).

If it were just the site change, I don't think there'd be more than a little grumbling. The time change is also a big deal, though, as with a start date of 5 June, they lock out a huge number of their veteran readers, especially from high school but even from college. Especially when you consider that the leaders for the reading have to show up two to five days early. The College Board representative who came to talk to us Tuesday night for an "open forum" assured us that the utmost consideration was given to the new dates, but he was either lying or deeply incompetent, as he was quite surprised to learn that this would lock out teachers from several states, who by law need to be there through the end of classes. And as mentioned, nobody at all among the AP CS community was actually consulted on this.

Among the other readers, one of the biggest grumbles is about the fact that we will be required to have roommates in the hotels. As someone who stays in youth hostels while travelling, I'm not deeply concerned at having an unknown roommate, but it's certainly a fair complaint. Up to 25% of the attendees will be allowed to request single rooms, but they'll have to pay for (half of) them themselves, which will probably run around $400. Which means that although staying in singles may have been a "perk" before, it has a specific monetary value: thanks for the pay cut, College Board. (Speaking of monetary value, we're also going to have to pay if we want internet access—another pay cut.)

And then there's the convention centre itself. I've heard from someone grading the Calc exam right now in the other Louisville site (Kentucky International Convention Center) that all grading—800 readers—is out on the convention floor. He said it wasn't as loud as he expected, but this is going to be a huge productivity hit for the readers, when it's now not just chatter in your room that can distract, but chatter at any table in the entire reading. Another thing that the College Board seems not to have thought of in their careful deliberations.

Yet another way in which this move is problematic is that the social space we've been allocated is either in the hotel or the convention centre (not clear from the FAQ), and they've forbidden us from actually bringing any food or drink in—we have to get it from them. What that means is that there will be a lot of people going to individual hotel rooms, and it'll be very hard for the newbies to integrate, and it'll get all cliquey. The College Board doesn't seem to realise that the social stuff is how they pay us to do their dirty work, and it sounds like they're just throwing away all the community-building work that so many people have done, in CS at least.

An awful lot of the readers I've talked to have said they're not coming next year, not as a result of just one thing, but the whole situation. Interestingly, this is much more common among the college professors, despite the fact that the CB keeps claiming they're trying to increase the college/HS ratio at readings. It makes sense, though: HS teachers are doing this to get an angle on the exam they're (on some level) teaching their students to pass, in addition to the social aspects of it; college profs are here more out of a sense of service to the discipline, plus social aspects. (Nobody does it for the money.) If the CB tells us that we're nothing more than cogs in a machine, we're a lot more likely to just leave.

Since it happens that I'll be on junior leave next spring term, and thus not teaching, I'll be able to come if I skip graduation. I haven't decided yet whether I will—absent all the changes, there'd be no question, and I would love to be more involved in leading the groups eventually—but if they're going to keep the earlier time slot, then any long-term time investment in this is wasted on my part.

I just can't fathom what is going on in the heads of the College Board folks. I know it's a business, but is this just really all about the money? (And convention centres are not cheap to rent out!) Even if it is, are they so short-sighted that they don't see the problem with pissing off all their readers and the people that function as their ambassadors to HSs and colleges?

"Ok, is there any reason this shouldn't work?" --Matt
"Well, Murphy's Law, but..." --Yvonne

Posted by blahedo at 10:26pm on 14 Jun 2007
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