Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Guest post: whither the AP exam?, by NeHeNTh

[Hello there, it's CJ. This is a guest post on the AP exam by a respected reader of the blog, NeHeNTh.]

The 2015 Advanced Placement Chemistry exam was administered on Monday of last week to approximately 130,000 U.S. students, and on Wednesday afternoon, as is traditional, the free response section* of the exam was made public on the College Board AP Chemistry exam website.

The released portion of the exam reflects the refurbishment of the AP Chemistry curriculum that was introduced for the 2013-2014 school year. The changes are subtle and reflective of a number of controversial tweaks and cuts from the curriculum.  I am curious to read any comments you are willing to make on your perceptions of exam question types that have been obviously overhauled. For instance:
  1. Compare and contrast question 1 (p. 5-6) on the 2015 exam with question 6 (p. 12) on the 2010 exam (the reduction potential table was on p. 3.) Both questions touch on the same learning objectives. Do you detect the shift? Does one type of question demand higher-order comprehension of the material over the other? Have the changes improved or eroded utility of the items for assessment of students’ understanding?
  2. Same questions as above, but this time compare question 3 (p. 9-10; note parts e) and f) on the second page) on the 2015 exam with question 1 (p. 6) on the 2003 exam. 
  3. Want more? All of the free response questions from 1999 to the present are available. In addition, bits and stylistic pieces of questions from the 1980s and 1990s are lingering online if you know where to look.
Did you take a version of this exam in high school? How do you remember it? Do you think (if, as a chemist, you could “unlearn what you have learned”) that the 2015 exam would seem easier, more difficult, or approximately the same compared with previous tests? What about the new omission of reaction prediction questions?  You know, the old “predict the product(s) and write the balanced equation for the reduction of solid iron(III) oxide with solid carbon.” (2009 p. 9)

How would an undergraduate fare on this test after a year of chemistry and, for that matter, can anyone comment on how some of our advanced high school chemistry students would compare to students on a similar level internationally? (Has anyone seen an A Level test from the U.K., for instance?) What repercussions for AP Chemistry would you anticipate as a result of the changes?
By the way, here are the score distributions for 2013 (the last “old” exam) and 2014 (the first “new” exam).

*Sixty multiple choice items make up roughly half of a student’s score, but multiple choice questions are released only rarely. Perhaps quality distractors are just too difficult to write; three wrong answers have to anticipate misconceptions and look “reasonable.”

CJ here again - thanks to NeHeNTh for their interesting post! 

21 comments:

  1. I had a brief look at the 2010 paper that was linked to in the post, and find it on par with the UK AS-level paper I sat a few years prior (2007).

    ReplyDelete
  2. There's a large body of knowledge on how to test higher-level cognitive functions in multiple choice format. A godly portion of this comes from organizations like the AAMC who have a vested interest in better multiple choice tests, as almost all preclinial graduate health science written tests are multiple choice. And for those who think this means that the tests are too easy, I'll glady dig up a copy of a M2 pathology or immunology exam.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The Iron ChemistMay 12, 2015 at 12:46 PM

    AP exam scores decreasingly matter, and many colleges and universities now refuse to accept AP credit. The problem is not the exams but rather the courses that precede them. Many states offer incentives for schools to offer AP courses, but they don't mandate anything with regards to quality control. The result, as you can see in the two graphs for the 2013 and 2014 scores, is that increasing numbers of under-prepared students are taking the exams and doing poorly on them (45-50% fail rate!). As someone who has taught general chemistry, I've seen several students who have taken AP courses, which are allegedly on the level of a course in freshman chemistry, struggle mightily in actual freshman chemistry. You don't solve this problem by playing around with the format of the exam.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Did the university where you taught accept AP scores for freshman credit?

      Delete
    2. In other words, just because your freshmen took it doesn't mean they passed it. There are some stellar AP chem teachers out there who teach incredibly high-quality courses.

      Delete
    3. The Iron ChemistMay 14, 2015 at 10:11 AM

      There are some high quality AP courses; I'm not arguing that that's the case. I'm worried about the poor quality ones, which are rapidly proliferating.

      A single test is necessarily a single point of assessment, and we all know how variable and non-representative small sample sizes can be. Let's say that you have a group of students who take an AP class that's an AP class in name only. Further, let's say they average a 2 as a class (which is happening). Some students in that class will luck out and score a 3. Do you think that they're as prepared as a student from a high quality class who did relatively poorly because he or she showed up to the same test with the flu? A school administrator who is just going to look at the two AP scores will think so and wave both students into the same class.

      These exams were designed to be the culmination of a year-long college-level course. This is increasingly not the case. One thing that I didn't mention is that a large number of students take AP tests without taking an AP class. They cram for a month or so to prepare for a single exam. I saw this when I was in high school and I see it now when I interview students for college admission.

      Delete
    4. I am dumbstruck that a university would offer credit for any AP exam without evidence that the student had taken the course. I suppose they have to if they're going to admit homeschoolers, athletic prodegies and other wunderkinder. Where do you get data on class averages? Is that an advantage of being on an admissions committee?

      Delete
    5. Oh, sorry... didn't read thoroughly. Still never stopped to think that they might be getting past courses altogether simply by sitting for an exam. That seems to point to the exam being too way too easy or the student being pretty industrious (to work for a month to learn enough on their own to pass.)

      Delete
  4. My wife was a high school chemistry teacher for 4 years, teaching AP chem for 3 of those years. She just looked at the AP exam for this year and was appalled at how easy it was compared with previous years. Her assessment of the current AP curriculum is that, because it has moved away from a detailed understanding (with all the math) towards a conceptual understanding, you can now teach the required curriculum in just part of the school year. IF you are a motivated, competent teacher, you can still teach all of the old material and actually prepare your students for college, but because it is not required for the exam, many do not/will not do that. While in grad school, I have actually been a TA for some of my wife's students and can attest that, if taught correctly, AP chem can prepare students very well for college chemistry.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Am I just being dumbly cynical or would schools not be accepting AP credit (or turning it into mostly useless elective credit) because they really don't want to give up the tuition money that would be otherwise paid for those classes? My wife went to a school that, while good, seems to have a strong predilection for soaking cash out of anything that moves, and I would be less than surprised if this were not another example of such. The provost needs a new Panamera, after all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many of the schools that don't give credit for the AP do still give placement for it. That is, they will let students take courses that require general chemistry such as organic, but the student is still on the hook for taking enough credit hours to meet requirements and graduate. It isn't as much of a win for the student, but if it means that the student takes courses that don't require expensive lab sections, it may be a cost-savings for the school. No, I am not cynical in the least.

      Delete
    2. I believe you aren't actually being cynical enough, Hap. I went to a school where they accepted AP credits, then you paid the school for the hours to get them to show on your transcript. Free money. There are ways to cash in on AP credits, never fear.

      Delete
    3. @Hap: Some schools that don't award credit for AP science exams offer internal exams for ungraded credit or exemption from taking entry-level courses. AP and internal exams got me out of a full year of general chemistry and biology. I was more than happy to bypass those weed-out survey courses and enroll in smaller, specialized science seminars. Also, for students who do not pursue science majors, AP credits can fulfill their "breadth" requirements and allow them to focus on their "real" interests.

      Besides, AP science exams are far more useful than those in humanities, e.g., English Composition & Literature. Even getting 5's on them did not exempt me from my college's writing, history, and social studies requirements.

      Delete
    4. Placement tests would mitigate some of the lack of taking APs, and if the AP gets unreasonably easy then it makes sense. I was happy that my school took them so I could take organic 1st semester. My wife might have been better off if she had had some, but then again...

      Undergrad didn't give anything but elective for humanities courses, but we had substantially fewer specific requirements, so I could understand why they did not.

      Delete
    5. I share Hap's cynicism. When I was an undergrad ~15 years ago, around the time the AP thing was getting underway, a good number of my friends got out in 3.5 years as a result. I suspect this may have been cutting into revenue too much, and the assistant vice chancellor of Diversity really needs a new silver tea service in his office.

      In today's era of 7-year PhD's and 33-year-old postdocs, anything that helps people get their lives started a little earlier is a good thing IMO.

      Delete
  6. I never took hs chem but this is a lot less math then I remember from general chemistry

    ReplyDelete
  7. If you think there are fewer overt calculations, you are right. In fact, calculations using the Nernst equation are now considered "algorithmic," and the Nernst is not included on the equation sheet. Consider questions 2010, 6 g and 2015, 1 c, however. Both questions seem to intend to assess students' understanding of how a cell potential is affected under non-standard conditions.

    If I were just learning this stuff, I would much rather take the 2010 exam and plug the values into my calculator than try to correctly justify in a few sentences that "the decrease in O2 pressure increases the reaction quotient (Q). This increases log Q, which is proportional to the decrease in the cell potential." It's the exact same question, but you can't just put it into your calculator to get the credit. You have to explain it correctly like a teacher would. Same with 2015, 1 b 2. I would MUCH rather do a calculation on that one than explain why increasing the concentration of a species increases the time that it takes for the dye to fade to zero. On first glance, a high school student might think "but it's first order, so increasing the concentration increases the rate!"

    I think that there are some sad cuts from the new curriculum (I miss reaction prediction, organic nomenclature, and complex ions, but isn't that what sophomore organic and inorganic are for? And balancing nuclear equations is something my 7-year old could do, so good riddance as far as AP is concerned.) But I think that this exam is not as "dumbed-down" as many seem to believe, at least compared with 2010. Side-by-side with questions from the 1980s and 1990s, though... that's a different story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yeah, and another almost-tragic omission is that of colligative properties. I would hate to have to get all the way to PChem to see those.

      Delete
  8. Thank you for share the information for That, and helping chemists find jobs to the clazwork scholarship essay writing help

    ReplyDelete
  9. I took AP in 1983. Had a great experience (5, placed out) and have leaned on fundamentals from that on through a chem major, Ph.D. and work.

    The current exam is massively easier and different. No complicated calculational problems (equilibrium, stoichiometry, etc.). No descriptive inorganic chemistry.

    I have also TAed general chem (late 90s) in a top 30 research university. Current AP does not match the tests I see the kids getting (which matched my old AP experience).

    AP is cheapening their brand and sees HS as the customer more than college. I don't trust the comments about validating performance versus college. They are driving reform pedagogy. Look at AP calculus with the TI calculator sillines.

    ReplyDelete
  10. One example is they cut out solubility rules. So a very helpful systemic organization of some descriptive chemistry is gone. Colleges haven't had a full majors class in qualitative analysis for 50 years. So kids are basically never going to see solubility rules.

    ReplyDelete