When Paul Price speaks about AP Chemistry, you’d better listen. Why? Because he is the co-chair of the AP Chemistry Test Development Committee (TDC), and as such, his words carry more weight in this matter than just about anybody on the planet. He’s the closet thing that we have to the AP Chemistry Czar that we so desperately need.

Last night, Paul gave his third (what I am calling) ‘AP Chemistry State of The Union’ address (my words, not his!), in the form of a webinar organized by the AACT (BTW, you should JOIN the AACT). Some might say that the annual debrief of the previous May’s AP exam that comes from the TDC at the various chemistry education summer meetings is more important, and I can understand that view, but those addresses are ostensibly about one, single exam. When Paul addresses teachers in this (now I believe third) AP session with AACT, there is more latitude to talk about more general ideas, so I think these sessions have the potential to be even more important.

AP Chemistry State of the Union - April 2016

Paul addressed approx. half-a-dozen topics that apparently teachers had raised questions and concerns about, ranging from Buffers to Sig Fig’s to the role of organic chemistry in the curriculum, and then answered questions – the whole meeting lasted about 90 mins. Honestly – and this is no knock on Paul – if one is an AP chemistry teacher who pays attention to the AP forum and is generally ‘connected’, then he said almost nothing that might be considered ‘news’. If you are an AP chemistry teacher who is not quite so plugged-in on a daily basis, then he may have provided a very useful service. As the former rather than the latter, I don’t have a huge amount to say about the webinar in total, but there were a few nuggets that I wanted to pick up on. Here they are. If, in paraphrasing Paul, I misquote him or somehow misrepresent something that he said, I apologize in advance and would ask to be corrected ASAP. It is my intention to report with a high level of accuracy – but of course op-ed is op-ed!

On significant figures we learned that on any given year the Sig Fig. point could require complete accuracy, OR may continue to allow +/-1 leeway. This is the first time we have had an ‘official’ word on this. However, it still means that we remain in the dark as to where Sig Figs might be assessed, and to what standard we are being held. Paul’s advice that we should tell students to get the Sig Figs. right (since this would alleviate the whole issue) was stunningly obvious to me and something I have always told the kids, but apparently came as a revelation to some! My solution: Drop the Sig Fig point from the exam, it’s math not chemistry, and with so few points to play with it needs to die.

On Explain versus Justify verbiage we learned that in FRQ questions, that ‘Justify’ would be used in conjunction with a student prediction, and that ‘Explain’ would be used in conjunction with a stated observation. Fine, but the heart of this matter remains unanswered! I could work out for myself where the two terms are used in questions, what is still not clear to me is how ANSWERS might need to be parsed and phrased in order to satisfy either word. The ‘Justiplain’ document that the CB released in an attempt to clear this up, did not help at all. My solution: A definitive statement from the CB saying that justify and explain are sufficiently similar words as to NOT require any differentiation in answers.

On Le Châtelier/Nernst we learned nothing – at least I didn’t. Paul explained that Le Châtelier should only be applied to a system already at equilibrium and therefore was not applicable in the non-standard cell situation. I have always understood and agreed with that position – ALWAYS – but when I wrote to John Gelder (ex-Chief Examiner) stating that very understanding, and asked him if it was still OK to use a Le Châtelier argument in such situations, his answer was ‘yes’. Even though the exam has changed, the chemistry hasn’t, and the question remains, how are we supposed to know that previously accepted answers have suddenly become unacceptable? THAT’S the matter at hand here, not the rights and wrongs of applying Le Châtelier arguments to non-standard cells. My Solution: Re-introduce the Nernst Equation to the Equations & Constants sheet. (BTW – some people had hoped that it would be re-introduced, but Paul squashed that idea).

On advice offered by readers after the reading, Paul repeated something that those of us who have been monitoring such things know only too well about the new exam i.e., that reading, writing and English comprehension skills are now more important than ever before on the AP Chemistry exam. Coincidentally, Peter Moskaluk recently highlighted this with some empirical data of his own. Peter offered this observation;

“The average word length for a AP MC question and answers used to be 44 words. Now the average length is 71 words. A 75 question MC test required reading a little over 3,300 words. The 60 questions in the present form of the test are over 4,300 words. I don’t think those 1,000 extra words really are about more chemistry.”

I’m not sure where Peter got those data, but it certainly ‘feels’ as though it’s true, and if I had to bet, I would say that it is based in fact. My Solution: Let’s get back sensible questions so as to not penalize really good chemistry students for their lack of ability to interpret questions that are now the very definition of verbose.

On buffers Paul said something like (and I am paraphrasing slightly here), “We haven’t seen a ton of buffers on the new exam”. Is this a harbinger? He went on to make several other minor points that confirmed things that I already knew including confirming that my interpretation of Serena Magrogan’s definition of Prior Knowledge was correct, that complex ions could easily be used in an equilibrium context, that WBC (Wrong But Consequential) – my own acronym for errors that can be carried forward consistently for subsequent credit – points would be applied, and that students could ‘make up’ an numerical answer for use in subsequent parts of a question. However, I am sure that these comments proved useful for some other AP teachers.