Tuesday, July 18, 2017

I have stopped recommending the AP1 and AP2 exams—when will you?

I expressed my misgivings about the AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 exams in a previous post. Once again, this is a rant. If you're not into rants, kindly scroll to the next post.

The purpose of this post is simply to show the global exam score distributions, three years into the redesign. I used the numbers posted by Total Registration.

First up: the final three years of the AP Physics B exam scores. Fives were earned by 15% of students, fours were earned by 19%, threes by 27%, twos by 17%, and ones by 22%. (Approximately one third succeeded with 4s and 5s.)

Next up: the first years of the AP Physics 1 exam. Fives were earned by 4% of students, fours were earned by 14%, threes by 21%, twos by 30%, and ones by 31%. (Approximately one fifth of candidates succeeded.)

Try not to judge too harshly those who have lost enthusiasm for algebra-based AP Physics.

To complete the Algebra-based exams, consider the AP Physics 2 exam. Fives were earned by 9% of students, fours were earned by 15%, threes by 34%, twos by 32%, and ones by 9%.

The College Board hastens to offer explanations for the precipitous plummet, especially in regard to AP1. The AP2 scores actually match the legacy APB results reasonably well. There's reason to speculate that many (if not most) AP2 examinees are successful veterans of the AP1 exam.

1. Teachers aren't teaching the new course correctly. They haven't undergone enough in-service retraining. (This is part of the admission that the AP1 and AP2 exams aren't really about physics anymore, but about Big Ideas. Physics topics are merely the canvas upon which the Big Ideas are painted.)

2. Too many students are taking the AP1 exam. This is where I'm trying to help. And you can, too. I assure my students that I will do my best to prepare them for the exams as they are. But I encourage them to not submit to the exam. This reverses a position I held for 25 years. If we work together, we can help to reduce the glut of AP1 examinees.

The Physics team at the College Board has replaced the muscular Camaro that was AP Physics B with shiny Lamborghinis called AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. Emulating the college course that examinees could test out of is now a long-abandoned goal. The new courses hope to be the richest, most immersive physics courses that could be imagined.

I don't find the course syllabi to be particularly practical for high school students. The courses go well beyond virtually all introductory college and university courses. The AP Physics B exam was more demanding than those administered at the college level. And the AP1 and AP2 exams amplify that disparity to 11.

Surely this escalation of difficulty of the AP1 and AP2 exams must have resulted in a global advancement of the way colleges and universities accept and interpret passing scores. If it has, I am unaware of it. In the old days of AP Physics B, college acceptance of passing scores was a crazy patchwork. To the best of my knowledge, the crazy patchwork remains unchanged even with the more stringent AP1 and AP2 exams.

You might wonder why AP Physics C instructors remain enthusiastic about their course and exam. They were unaffected by the AP Physics B redesign. Let's bring them into the mix.

While the AP1 and AP2 scores plummeted, the un-redesigned AP C Mechanics exam scores continued to flourish. Over the past three years, fives were earned by 31% of students, fours were earned by 28%, threes by 18%, twos by 13%, and ones by 10%. (Nearly 60% success rate.)

The score of 5 (highly qualified) now represents the mode.

The un-redesigned AP C Electricity and Magnetism exam scores did well, too. Over the past three years, fives were earned by 30% of students, fours were earned by 24%, threes by 14%, twos by 19%, and ones by 13%. (More than half succeed.)

The score of 5 (highly qualified) continues to represent the mode.

AP Physics C continues to be a physics content-based exam. That is, its blueprint refers to topics in physics instead of the more philosophical Big Ideas that form the core objectives of AP1 and AP2. This may well be a key to the continuing success enjoyed AP C examinees.

Of course there's more to this discussion. I'm obviously ventilating a bit here because this continues to be a source of frustration. AP Physics C is not a viable option at my school due primarily to its prerequisites. Intra- and inter- district competition for school enrollment prevents me from simply abandoning AP1 and AP2. If not for that, I would.

With haste.


Steven DeSanto said...

I don't disagree with you often. But this time I have some comments.

I have spent over a decade grading AP Physics exams at the AP reading and talking to AP Physics teachers. I am convinced that there is no purpose comparing the AP B results to the AP 1 results. Why? In my opinion, the AP B test was past its useful lifespan.

Having graded thousands upon thousands of AP B exams, my first-hand anecdotal experience tells me that the majority of students taking that test really understood very little physics. And yet the passing rate for AP B was pretty good. There was a big disconnect between my observations versus the results.

The reason, in my opinion, is that a lot of teachers had learned to "game" the test. In the four decades of the test's existence, they had learned exactly what problems to assign, exactly which questions to stress, etc. to get the results on the AP B exam. Kids learned which equations to use, but not what they meant. Thus, teachers were teaching students how to pass the test, not necessarily to understand physics.

I'm sure you weren't doing this, but teachers like you are not representative of high school physics teachers as a whole.

Remember - the AP B course was supposed to be a 2nd-year physics class. the College Board said that some 60% of all students taking AP B had no previous physics exposure. And yet we didn't question the validity of their successful results. We just patted ourselves on the back. Well, colleges questioned it, and the amount of credit being awarded for passing the exam was diminishing by the year.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way. This test cannot be gamed. The only way to prepare students for the test is to actually get them to understand physics.

I'll be the first to admit that it may be too extreme right now, and that expectations were set too high - especially to get a 5 on the test. I also recognize that the AP course in no way resembles any current first-year college courses. I hope that this will temper itself over the years as the test committee evolves. The general consensus is that this year's AP 1 exam looked much more approachable than last year's, for example.

However, I also claim that, at least in my class, the students in my AP 1 course that don't pass the AP exam have still learned physics far, far more thoroughly than the students in our honors or regular physics classes. That has to be worth something.

Steve DeSanto
Lake Mary High School, Lake Mary FL

Dean Baird said...

Hello Steve. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

I have no doubt there are a variety of perspectives in the field regarding the redesign.

There seems to be a strongly held belief that the high school students in our AP courses need to master physics to a depth discernibly deeper than what is expected of university students in their first-year physics course (many of whom may be sophomores by the time they're allowed to take physics at the university).

Perhaps my misgivings about the redesign stem from the fact that I do not subscribe to this belief. Why do our young, developing sigh school students need deeper mastery than what is provided for students in the first-year courses they're ostensively testing out of? What is the societal value of these 17-year old masters of introductory physics?

In attending five classes each day, high school students usually carry a more diverse academic load than what is required of them at colleges and universities. And they are more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities (prized by parents and admissions officers, alike). Yet we expect them to immerse in an highly robust course that demands mastery at a level few college courses even approach? Why?

The syllabus requirements paint the picture of a course that needs to be the central focus of a student's life. In reality, we will see these students for nearly five hours each week if we're lucky. They likely play a sport. Many of mine are very passionate about their participation in the school's nationally-recognized, award-winning band program. They might have a part-time job. Worst of all, they may have other academically rigorous classes (AP English, AP Calculus, etc.).

The syllabus and the exam suggest that such distractions need to be eliminated if candidates are to demonstrate the necessary commitment to the multiple dimensions of the sprawling AP Physics experience.

The exam scores will likely increase over time. They haven't really done so yet, but it's likely they will. The single most important factor in this will be the release of more and more operational exam questions: free-response, multiple choice, and multi-select.

The expansive published vision statements provide little guidance for exam preparation. But ten years of published multiple choice, multi-select, and free-response questions would provide an excellent sense of what the vision is.

You might worry that the publication of too many exam items will allow students (and teachers) to game the exam. I'm not sure what gaming the exam even means. (Being prepared for items based on previous experience with similar items? That seems like just being ready, and cannot be done without an operational knowledge of the content.)

What—if anything—do you make of the results of the AP C exams, where the most common score for each is a 5? (Five is the least common score in the AP1 distribution.)

Thanks again for the thoughtful comment. This is a blog, so all are welcome to opine here! And I am not averse to positions that disagree my own.

Steven DeSanto said...

I completely agree that the level of expectation of the AP 1 course is significantly higher than it needs to be for high school students. I recall being absolutely shocked when the first sample exam was released a few years ago. If this were a 2nd-year course, like AP Physics C, then such expectation could possibly be justified. AP 1 asks far too much from students.

Gaming the test is different than just preparation.The AP C exam is a good example. No matter how many different problems I assign to my AP C students, the questions on the exam are often novel and unique. Rarely do students look at a question on the C Mechanics exam and think, "I did that exact problem in the exam review". Also, the equation sheet provided on the AP C exam, while useful, is not of itself the solution to the problems.

On the AP B test, students were often able to solve a large portion of the problems by either choosing the right equation from the equation sheet or by regurgitating the solution to a homework problem they recalled from class. Neither of these demonstrated a real knowledge of physics. That's how the test was gamed - by teachers knowing which types of questions to drill. The curriculum was so rushed (the old mile wide - inch deep argument) that the questions had to be pretty straightforward.

There must be some middle ground between what AP B was and what AP 1 is now.

On the AP Chinese exam over 60% of scores are 5s. This is because a large population of test-takers are actually native speakers. That's what I make of the AP Physics C and AP Calculus exam scores. These courses are taken only by students that have previously demonstrated mastery, aptitude, or interest in the subject. They are "native speakers" in math or physics, skewing the results.

AP 1 in comparison suffers from being a first-year course. A lot of kids in there don't really know what they are getting into. I would estimate that nearly 1/4 of my AP 1 students have buyer's remorse by the end of the first grading period, and if they could get a do-over they would not take AP 1.

I've been able to improve my AP 1 results in part by refining my teaching methods, but in larger part by giving strong advice to students before they register for the class. This helps the students make an informed choice. My school still offers Physics Honors as an alternative for those who aren't ready for AP. Many schools don't do that.

I don't begrudge you your rant. I have plenty of days when the course frustrates me. I have had to work harder these past three years than I have ever worked before. I have created all new tests, homework assignments, and labs from scratch to try and drag the kids through the course. I find myself asking if it is worth it. For the moment, I feel that it is.

Thanks for continuing to provide interesting physics reading for the education community.