Friday, February 14, 2014

Doing AP science wrong

I've taught AP Physics B since 1986. The course I taught was always intended to be an excellent advanced high school physics course that would compare as favorably as possible to an introductory college physics course. Engaging demonstrations and robust lab work was always important. But in the end, students needed to be prepared for the College Board's Advanced Placement Physics B Examination, administered each May.

From 1986 to 1997, we ran it as a first year course. But it was supposed to be a second year course, and in 1998, we brought our course into alignment with College Board expectations.

In recent years, sign-ups for AP Physics B dwindled at my school. Not so for AP Biology. Nor for AP Chemistry (which is a harder test than AP Physics B, as far as I'm concerned). Last year we introduced AP Environmental Science. It blossomed from one section last year to two this year. Impressive growth. While AP Bio and AP Chem held there ground, AP Physics bit the proverbial dust. Enrollment for 2014 did not merit a single section.

It was hard to observe the demise without concluding that the instructor of the course (that would be me) was doing something wrong. Data provided by the school's administration today sheds light on the subject.

In 2013, I had 25 students in AP Physics B. Only 21 sat for the exam, an unusually low test rate for me. Still though, while 16 of my students earned an A or B in my class, 16 also earned a 5 or a 4 on the exam. Six of the 21 AP Physics B examinees earned 5s. All my examinees passed with a 3 or better. I am rightfully very proud of all of them.

What I didn't know until today was that my raw number of 16 4s and 5s represented better top-tier performance than was had in any other AP science course at my school (including one with over double my enrollment). Or that my six 5s outnumbered the 5s from all our other AP sciences combined.

I also didn't know that my rate of classroom grades of A and B (64%) was—by far—the lowest rate, as was my A rate (under 50%).

AP and honors courses enjoy weighted grading in my district, so an A gets you a grade point of 5, a B a 4, and a C a 3. Where I grew up, a GPA of 4.0 was the mark of academic perfection. My students routinely have GPAs well above 4.2. Students hoping for admission to elite post-secondary institutions are keen to fly their GPAs into the stratosphere. Such students try to enroll in as many APs as possible. But with so many demands on their time (and many are in our nationally-recognized band program), meeting the academic rigor of an AP science course can be challenging.

The story of my AP Physics B's demise can be found in the data that follows. To me, the tale jumps right off the page. If it doesn't to you, interpret that as me overreacting; making a mountain out of a molehill.

The diminishing enrollment in my course amid the flourishing enrollments of my colleague's courses does suggest that someone is doing AP science wrong.

Here's the data:


In AP Physics B, there were 11 As and 6 5s. There was insufficient enrollment to run the course in 2014.

In non-physics AP sciences, there were 82 As and 3 5s. Enrollments in these courses increased in 2014.

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma? I think not.

UPDATE: Is it important that course grades given by high school teachers be accurate and valid? Very much so. Colleges are increasingly valuing classroom grades over SAT/ACT scores.


maxutils said...

Why yes ... that certainly does jump. When I was doing AP econ, my test results tended to be better than my grades... so you aren't alone. I reglary had 95% pass rates (3+4+5, and virtually everyone took the test) There was a similar situation in our calculus classes ...

SrevieRay said...

It shows that your course grades are consistent with AP test scores. The other classes? Not so much 1 though probably reduces parental ire.

Bob Wells said...

Dean - you are doing it the right way, as the data suggests. I teach next door to our AP Calculus teacher, and he produces extremely impressive results on the AP Test, not too dissimilar to your students' scores. Although the numbers are much larger (we have a very large school, and he will typically have roughly 50-60 students take the AP CALC AB and 20-30 take the AP Calc BC), the percentages of 4's and 5's are equally impressive.

Also similar to your situation is the fact that very few of his students earn A's in his class. We, too, have a weighted system for our Honors and AP Classes. Earning a B in Calc is an accomplishment that students are proud of, and the vast majority of those students who earn a B or better end up scoring a 5 on the AP Test. In fact, it is not unusual at all for him to have students on the verge of dropping his class, then hanging in there and struggling through to earn a C, and then turn around and score a 5 at the end of their arduous journey. This is true success to be celebrated, C or not on the report card!
It is sad to see grade inflation from so many teachers these days. In the end, it is counter-productive. It is even sadder to see so many students and their parents being obsessed with GPA, which they believe will get them Into the college of their choice, when they would be better served by focusing on honing the skills necessary to actually perform well when they do get to college.
I hope the best for you and your program. You are the one doing it the right way! Keep teachin' them up!

John Cason said...

It is sad to read that AP Physics has been discontinued.

Bill Bradley said...

When I was teaching AP Calculus, I explained that the +1 on the GPA was so that when you got a "B" it did not hurt your overall GPA. I had similar results, 80-90% receiving college credit for Calculus, and most students I talked to telling me that they were well prepared or that Calc 2 was "easy" after my course. I am no longer teaching AP Calculus since some influential parents did not like that their children were "B" or "C" students in my course (and I'll bet had the same grades in College).
It will be interesting to see how the new Physics 1 AP plays out...

maxutils said...

If everyone gets trophies, then we might as well not bother. Bill, I love your strategy ... but it only matters if everyone adheres to it ... when you need a 4.0 just to get in to a second tier UC, you can't blame the students for making optimal decisions ... you can absolutely fault the teachers who facilitate it

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting it out there. I see the same thing, where an "A" in AP is ranked as a 7.0 (vs 4.0) and AP science is also worth more credits (7 as opposed to 5). Our school has a 7 point grade scale (93-100, 85-92, etc.) so 70 is the D/F border. Many AP teachers have changed to a 10 point scale because "that's what they do in college"...but colleges don't boost an "A" to a 7.0. So, get a 60% in AP, and it's a 4.0 on your weighted class rank. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So, students who don't do much work in my class might still eke out a 70% (D) because they are bright, but then they insist that I change it to a "C", "like the other AP teachers do". I reply that if they did their HW and studied, they'd have a B or higher, and we wouldn't be having this conversation at all.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

But, students are guided by what colleges want, or what they think colleges want -- class rank -- and nothing bumps it up like an AP science class, or taking AP classes in 10th grade. If colleges were to send a different message to students, the behavior would change. Imagine if colleges said that they want to see students take on the challenge of taking a Physics course. Enrollment would skyrocket!

RNaujok said...

We also see students dropping non-AP courses such as music and art because getting an A in those classes HURTS their GPA. I'm sure you found the explanation for your enrollment problem. Is taking an AP class supposed to be like grad school, where you have to do something really terrible to earn anything less than a B? You were doing the right thing, as was evidenced by the AP test results.

Kurt Zeppetello said...

Dean, I would love to have results like you have with your AP Physics classes. DON’T CHANGE. I am actually in the process of making my AP Chem Class harder or grading them tougher this year in order to be more reflective of what they get on the AP Exam. Our high school (in CT) is considered small-medium at ~700 students (grades 9-12). We run AP Chem every other year (alternating with AP Environmental) as it does not muster enough students, although AP Environmental gets over 20 students. AP Bio runs every year and has enrollments near 20 students (sometimes more). We have never had AP Physics.

I have asked our higher achieving students which AP courses they take, pretty much every one of them listed AP Psych, APUSH, and some other courses that you can guess (both AP Psych and APUSH have excellent instructors at our school). I asked these students who were not heading into science and none listed an AP Bio or AP Chem (a few listed AP Environmental). I asked the students who were planning on a career in science and all of them listed AP Psych, APUSH, and others.

Students are given options and they take an easier path especially (like most people do). AP course selections have increased in most schools which makes it very difficult to run inherently difficult courses like AP Physics (or Chem). Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Incentives matter. In order to assist in achieving diversity targets, without explicitly targeting race, the University of California as well as other elite universities increased the relative weight of grades and class ranking and decreased the relative importance of test scores. Your AP Physics class may do an admirable job of preparing kids for the AP Test, but because the university admission process weighs the kids high school grades more than there AP scores, the kids are probably right to drop your AP physics your class for another AP class where its easier to actually get higher high school weighted GPA's.

The kids in Rio high school are smart. They are gaming the system exactly like they need to. The question is do you want to keep offering and teaching AP Physics at Rio? Option 1 If you adopt the John Hawck grading system. If the kids pass the AP exam, retroactively up their grade in the class to an A. Option 2 switch schools. You have been teaching at Rio almost 30 years, maybe its time to switch to another school, that doesn't offer so many AP science classes (should kids at Encina or El Camino benefit from have a highly experience veteran teacher like yourself? Option 3, stop teaching AP physics and try your hand at something new and interesting for you. In the past you were the advisor for Mirada, I suspect that you might have fun trying to teach some other type of class, maybe a prep class for the academic decathlon, like what Folsom High is doing, maybe something else.

Anonymous said...

What caused the demand for AP Physics to drop among this generation of students, compared to past generations of students? Or is it that the demand for other AP Classes increased, competing for enrollment in AP Physics?

Dean Baird said...

In Rio's AP Bio, Chem, and ES, grades appear to be highly inflated. In Rio's AP Physics, grades accurately reflect performance.

Which circumstances do more students find appealing? AP Physics B was not offered this year due to lack of enrollment.

Anonymous said...

I hope that does not signify a decrease in the work ethic of this generation of students then, because the students who choose for a higher GPA at lower effort instead of earned mastery will be in for a rude awakening when they do get to college and have to develop that work ethic in an environment where the stakes are higher.