Here’s my take on the 2016 AP Chemistry Scores. Actually, it’s more a repetition of what I have said about the re-distribution of scores that we have seen on new exam, and a re-examination of the 2015 scores. Bear with me!

Something just doesn’t make sense about the AP chemistry scores on the new exam. A few facts.

  1. Honestly, I’m not a conspiracy theorist.
  2. I’m pretty sure that I understand the process that leads to the production of AP chemistry scores, at least to the extent that it is possible given what the College Board allows us to know – it’s hardly a transparent process despite the de-briefs that happen at the summer gatherings of the AP national conference, ChemEd or BCCE.

In order to comment on 2016 AP chemistry scores, we really need to go back to 2013, and the first examination of the re-designed AP biology course.

AP biology was re-designed one year prior to AP chemistry, and as a result we had a new exam in 2013. When those scores were published in July of 2013, a shockwave went through the AP biology community. In a nutshell, the %’s of kids receiving 5’s went from what I might characterize as a ‘traditional number’ of just under 20%, to 5%. In addition, the ‘traditional’ % of 1’s awarded shrank from around 35% in 2011 and 2012, to 7% in 2013. Wow! Essentially 5’s and 1’s were DRAMATICALLY squeezed. In AP biology a very similar pattern was then repeated in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

2016 AP Chemistry Scores

Obviously this dramatic change raises some serious questions. The one answer that the CB has given is actually completely valid! They say that given that this is an entirely new exam, there can be no valid comparison made between the legacy exam and the new exam. Fair enough, the CB has clearly (in the case of chemistry) decided that they wanted to move significantly away from what I call ‘hardcore chemistry content’, and toward making the AP chemistry exam an examination of language skills and reading comprehension. It would appear that something similar may have happened in AP biology.

Of course, this lurch makes perfect sense when you consider the general wind of edubabble change, driven by schools of education and ‘gurus’, that is a self-serving industry and unrelated to the subject content of biology, chemistry or indeed, any other subject. Such a shift in emphasis is misguided and dangerous in my opinion, BUT having said that it is absolutely the prerogative of the CB to run their exam, in whatever way they see fit. If ‘we’ don’t like it, we have to campaign to abandon the AP test, and replace it with something that is better and by the way, that is already available.

Now let’s analyze the re-designed AP chemistry exam in a similar way to the new AP biology exam. Prior to the first examination of the re-designed course, one could expect ‘traditional’ %’s to be in the mid to high teen range for 5’s, and in the high 20’s for 1’s. In 2014 (the first examination of the new course), we saw a very similar – if not quite so dramatic – change in the the numbers as AP biology, with 10.1% now awarded 5’s, and 21.8% awarded 1’s. This was no surprise given what we had learned the year before in biology, and is largely inline with the new philosophy of the CB. 2015 produced a further fall of 5’s to 8.4%, and the number of 1’s changing to 22.8%. 2016 has the numbers at 9.7% and 22.4% respectively. Again, if the CB create a new exam and want to go in a different direction in terms of what they assess, that’s their business.

So, aside from what I consider to be the dismantling of emphasis on solid, chemical content (calculations, Lewis acids/bases, colligative properties, phases diagrams etc.), and given the acknowledgement that the CB can do whatever they chose with their own exam, what’s the problem?

For me, there are three issues.

  1. The damage occurring to chemical education. That’s not a rant for this post, but its outlined in part above in terms of the de-emphasis of certain aspects within the course, and the increasing emphasis on others. Such a huge new emphasis on reading, writing and comprehension skiills is, I believe, to the detriment of chemistry.
  2. One question remains wholly unanswered for me. If the chemistry – the actual nuts and bolts of stuff reacting with stuff – has not changed, and the kids have not changed, then why do we now declare that the %’s of kids receiving 5’s needs to be axed in half? Suddenly these kids don’t understand chemistry as well as they did previously? I don’t think so, rather I believe it’s that the emphasis on the exam has dramatically changed, and that teachers are perhaps not caught-up. Alternatively, it could be that teachers ARE caught-up, but are refusing to swallow the CB’s new emphasis, are continuing to teach what they believe to be a solid, advanced high school chemistry course, and as a result, kids receive what teachers believe to be a great grounding in college 101 chemistry, but that does not dovetail with the new exam very well. (Now, there could be a bunch of other answers to the question, one of which is that colleges want less people testing out of college 101 courses for financial reasons, but as I said above, I’m not really a conspiracy theorist. BTW – not being a conspiracy theorist does not mean that I don’t suggest that you follow the money when you observe things that look odd!)
  3. What happened in 2015? Something really odd occurred in 2015 IMO. The number of 5’s dropped to its lowest level ever, 8.4%, but take a look at the data from the kids that I teach.

There are a lot of data there, but here’s the piece that I want to focus on. From 2002 to 2013, the old (legacy) exam, I see an average of 76.22% of my kids getting 5’s. Then take a look at years 2014 and 2016 of the new exam (ignoring 2015 for a moment), and you’ll see an average % of 5’s equal to 75.48%. I believe that illustrates the fact that I (despite my better chemical judgment which would have me ignoring all of the Big Ideas, Enduring Understanding, Essential knowledge and Learning Objective nonsense), have been able to adjust my AP chemistry course to pretty much make a perfectly seamless transition from the old to the new course in terms of exam preparation.

Now consider 2015. With the same ability kids, in the same school, with the same teacher, delivering the same course, with the same attitude (and you should note, with very similar 5%’s nationally from 2014-16), we see the %’s of 5’s drop from an average of 76.22% on the legacy exam over 12 years, and 75.48 over the 2 other years, to 38.33%! This makes NO sense at all, and as a result I believe that something went awry with the setting of grade boundaries in 2015.

Honestly, I was expecting my 2016 scores to be similar to the the 2015 numbers, as what I thought might be a new norm was established, i.e., significantly lower %’s of 5’s amongst my own population. However, the violent swing back toward legacy %’s of 5’s for my kids in 2016, has only served me to re-open my questioning of the 2015 grade boundary setting, that I wrote about last year here, and here.


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