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28 February 2009

Teaching AP Physics? Then give AP tests.

People consider the AP physics exam difficult. Of course, “difficult” is a relative term. Difficult compared to what?

Usually students mean that the AP exam is tough compared with the tests they are used to taking in high-level math and science courses. The College Board agrees:

“Since the complete exams are intended to provide the maximum information about differences in student achievement in physics, students may find them more difficult than many classroom exams.” [p. 16, College Board’s AP Physics Course Description.]

A school’s grading scale usually requires a score of 90% or more to earn an A, and 80% or more to get a B. This requirement should not be onerous on tests that require simple recall. However, the AP exam demands so much more than merely recalling physics facts. On-the-spot problem solving is a far more involved skill than memorization is. Thus, on the AP-1 exam, 70% or so of the available points equates to a top score of 5; the average score nationally is below 50%. No wonder students think the exam hard – in their minds, even the very best students barely managed to earn a D.

Now, most physics teachers recognize the need to prepare their students for the rigorous nature of the AP exam. In April, they give their students practice exams. I submit, though, that giving normal, classroom-style tests all year followed by practice AP exams in April is a recipe for failure.

Imagine a college football team who plays a ten game season. The first nine games are against division-3 doormats, and the team goes 9-0. But, the last game of the year is at the university of Florida, a team sending half of its seniors to the NFL.

How should the coach get the team ready for the Florida game? Perhaps he arranges a scrimmage against Ohio State the week before. Is that going to be enough preparation?

Or, are the players going to be so intimidated at the vastly higher level of physical play that they hang their heads and give up the first time something goes wrong, that they begin to expect failure?

I submit that the only possible way this coach might have a prayer of beating Florida in week 10 is to schedule similar teams all year – even if the team’s overall record goes from 9-0 to 5-4. If the goal is to win the big game, the team must prepare for the big game from the start of the season, not just a week or two ahead of time.

Students who go through the school year from August to March getting 95% on their classroom tests have been conditioned as to what to expect on a physics test. Then, when they take an authentic practice AP exam in April, they are thrown for a loop. Even if they are capable of getting the 70% necessary for a top score, they may well hang their heads and give up 30 minutes in when they recognize that they aren’t performing nearly as well as they had on their classroom tests.

The solution, I believe, is to give AP-level tests right from the start of the year. Pick out authentic questions that cover the topics you have studied in class. Make the students work at the pace necessary for the real AP exam – approximately 1:20 per multiple choice question for physics C (1:50 per question physics 1), one minute per point for physics C free response (2 minutes per point for Physics 1). Then, grade the test on the AP scale! Somehow, whether it be through a curve or (as I prefer) by earning back points with test corrections, make sure that 70% or so converts to an A, 55% or so to a B, and so on based on the scoring from a released exam.

[Edit in 2016: Nothing wrong with giving items from the old physics B tests early in the year, and then moving the focus steadily from problem solving to explaining by integrating more and more physics 1 items.  Either way, you're using authentic AP items with available, external rubrics, on which 90% is essentially unattainable.)

Sure, you’ll get complaints before and after that first test. Everyone will come out thinking they failed, thinking they’ve never seen a test that hard. But, when they see their actual grade, when they get a chance to correct their mistakes and earn credit for those corrections, when they recognize that they are NOT going to fail the exam, they’ll relax. About halfway through the year, AP-style testing will become routine.

The proof is in the pudding. I don’t have geniuses in my class by any stretch. Yet, on the AP-style trimester exam consisting entirely of authentic questions from previous APs, 17 of my 25 students earned 5s, and everyone got 3 or above. They’ll do even better in May. I am thoroughly convinced that my class’s success is not as much due to my teaching skill as to the fact that I make them comfortable with the level and style of the exam throughout the year. Try it. It works.


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