The man with the answers: Professor creates questions for AP exam

December 4 2006

There are about 320,000 high school students who would very much like to know what Professor Christopher Olsen is writing in his notebooks these days.

Olsen, chair and associate professor of Indiana State University’s history department, serves on the Advanced Placement U.S. History Development Committee — the committee that actually writes the exam students take in May.

When being interviewed about his committee work, Olsen’s words are guarded.

“We sign a pledge not to discuss the content of the exam,” Olsen said. “There’s no secrecy in the sense of who is on the committee, or the process of putting the exam together, only in terms of the exam content itself.”

The U.S. History exam is the largest AP exam, with more than 300,000 students taking it on the same primary exam day across the country.

“There’s a lot on the line,” Olsen said, “so the College Board and Educational Testing Service are very concerned with security and making sure questions don’t get out ahead of time.”

Olsen is one of only four university-level professors from throughout the country who serve on the committee, along with four high school AP U.S. History teachers.

Twice a year — in October at the College Board offices in New York, and in February at the Educational Testing Service headquarters in Princeton, N.J. — the eight members escape from departmental budget meetings and clamorous corridors to talk about what the Tet offensive of 1968 demonstrated during the Vietnam War, and what Alexander Hamilton’s economic program was designed primarily to do.

“Over three to four days we get to sit in a room for about eight hours each day and talk about U.S. history,” he said. “As a department chair, a lot of my time is spent in meetings, so it’s a very neat thing to enter into the deep complexities and multiple layers of U.S. history with my fellow teachers.”

Coming up with exam questions is more like bringing your favorite foods to a pot-luck than it is showing up to a catered meal prepared by a single chef.

“When we’re not meeting, we’re working on our ‘homework assignments,’ writing questions in the areas that we chose, and communicating via conference calls and sending mail back and forth,” Olsen said. “But we also have questions submitted to us from people all over country, such as university faculty and AP high school teachers. The College Board keeps a bank of hundreds of questions that have been sent in by people over the years and have never been used before. When we get together at our next meeting, we already have a lot of stuff to work with.”

But just like mom’s almost impossible to re-create meat loaf, with its perfect balance of moistness and firmness, questions can’t be just thrown together.

To construct the 80 multiple-choice and five essay questions for the exam, Olsen says the committee must put together questions that can be scored fairly by 1,200 different people, can be interpreted in a consistent manner by the majority of students, are unique in that the exact focus of the question has never been used before, and reflect current college-level scholarship as well as AP high school textbooks.

Having an equal number of university professors and high school teachers on the committee ensures a balance between current scholarship and classroom actuality.

“It’s important to have people who teach this course every day,” Olsen said. “When we’re coming up with questions, we’ll turn to them and ask, ‘Do you talk about this in class? Do you think the majority of AP teachers teach this?’”

The Development Committee not only creates the exam, but helps oversee the AP U.S. History course.

“AP courses need to replicate what’s being taught at the nation’s universities,” Olsen said. “In essence, an AP U.S. History high school course and an introductory U.S. history survey course taught on a college campus are one in the same. That’s why, if you take and pass the AP exam, you get college credit.”

Students who don’t score a perfect 5 on the AP exam can take heart — even the test-makers have been there.

“On the AP European History exam I took my junior year in high school, I got a 5,” Olsen said. “But my senior year, when I took AP U.S. History, which is what I have my Ph.D. in now, I only got a 4. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. All I can say is that maybe I had senioritis.”

That’s OK, Dr. Olsen, it happens to the best of us.

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PHOTO: A publication-quality, high-resolution photo is available at:
Dr. Christopher Olsen

CUTLINE: Christopher Olsen reads through a U.S. History textbook in his office in Stalker Hall, making notes which may later end up as questions on the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam. Olsen, chair and associate professor of Indiana State University’s history department, serves on the AP U.S. History Development Committee which writes the exam that 320,000 high school students take each May. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

CONTACT: Christopher Olsen, chair and associate professor of history, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2710, colsen@isugw.indstate.edu

WRITER: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or kspanuello@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Christopher Olsen, chair and associate professor of Indiana State University’s history department, serves on the Advanced Placement U.S. History Development Committee — the committee that actually writes the exam students take in May.

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