For those of you (students and teachers) with (relatively) disappointing AP chemistry scores this year, read on, but after you’ve read this post.

The College Board have decided, that up until 2013, about half of the kids that were scoring 5’s on the exam were not really deserving of such accolades. Sure they were reaching the standard that the CB themselves set, BUT suddenly it became apparent that this was not good enough. Insufficient ‘mastery’ and inadequate ‘depth of explanation’ were being exhibited by those children, and it had to stop! In order to correct this horrible lack of chemistry education, the CB decided that a whole new level of literacy, both in terms of the questions and crucially the answers, was required, and that these new standards (on the 2014 and 2015 exams), would guarantee a whole new crop of brilliant people getting 5’s, and the ‘good-but-not-quite-so-brilliant-ex-5’s‘, would become the new 4’s.

Contrary to what you might think, I have no particular issue with this per se (even though I disagree with the thinking behind it – another, different rant). The CB can do what they like, re-align standards and exams how they choose, and buy into whatever 21C edubabble they pay for from the educational ‘researchers’ that don’t teach AP chemistry to children, all day, everyday in schools across the country. After all, it’s their exam and their business. HOWEVER, what I do object to profoundly, is the fact that we, in many cases, have no idea what these new answer requirements look like. Take one example, the Le Châtelier/non-standard cell debacle. In a nutshell, this is where a Le Châtelier argument for explaining non-standard cell voltages used to be acceptable, then without warning it became unacceptable.  The CB has failed miserably in communicating such things properly, and that is why we have seen a catastrophic drop in 5’s at the top end of the grading scale. BTW, please be clear that I am not talking about things that were never acceptable, for example stating trends as reasons, rather I am talking about far more subtle, philosophical changes in answer requirements.

Table leaders and graders agree with me and have been (publicly) extremely critical of the process. My own experience as an (albeit brief) employee of the CB confirms the philosophy, too, and on grader’s observations are given below;

As a reader, I saw a continuation of the practice of being VERY PARTICULAR about what answer would get credit.  In both 2014 and 2015, one discussion section on the overall question that I graded (granted I only graded 3 out of the 14 questions these past 2 years) was interpreted very strictly while the rest were much more broad in acceptable approaches.  On my own tests, I have a “challenge” question or two that helps me differentiate between the top students. I suspect that the strict interpretation of answers on one section per question is to help better differentiate between the 4s and 5s…

..I think it is clear that CB wants to reduce the number of 5s (and 4s?) across the board in AP science and so the standards have been raised much higher than before.

As I have said above, perhaps surprisingly, I have no issue with that per se, but the problem is that we have largely no idea where these new ‘very particular’ answers might be required, or what they might be. I cannot hit a moving (or indeed totally hidden) target.

In one strange way, if you’ve never taught the legacy course (prior to 2014), you have an enormous ADvantage over those of us that used to know what would score a 5.

*This year, I include myself in that ‘disappointed’ category.