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13 May 2013

Minimize Drama -- set the tone in your reaction to today's AP Physics exams

As I write this, students are making last minute preparations for the AP Physics exams.  They start around noon today, getting out by 4:00.  This means that tomorrow in class you'll hear your students' reactions to the test.

If you've been giving authentic AP-style tests all year, then today's examination should not surprise anyone.  If anyone is truly put off his or her game by the format or general level of the exam, then do more authentic practice starting right at the beginning of next school year. 

But even the best-prepared students will often emerge from the exam just waiting to tattle on those mean AP exam writers.  I mean, how could they ask that question 3 on the free response?  It's way too difficult for Physics B, or it's not a topic that's on the fringes of the course description, or it's not anything like the problems on the last five exams, or it's about an experiment we've never done, or...  

[figurative SLAP]

What's your reaction?  Whether the student has a reasonable point or not, your job should be to minimize drama.

Switch places with the College Board for a moment.  What do you want your students' reaction to your in-class test to be?  Tests should be authentic measurements of a student's ability.  You want your class to accept and learn from the test as an evaluative tool; then you want them to correct their mistakes in anticipation of improved performance on the next test.  You do NOT want people searching for individual questions to nitpick, hoping to improve the grade by one percent.  That's not productive to the ultimate goal of learning physics.

There's a sports analogy here:  when a team loses, it's undignified to kvetch about the officiating.  Whenever a team complains that they were "screwed" by one bad call that cost them the game, they're generally ignoring the fifteen other plays they themselves failed to make that likewise would have won the game.  It's a team's responsibility to play well enough such that one or two bad calls can't possibly have an effect on the game.  Otherwise, you take your chances.

So when your students come back from the College Board's assessment, steer the conversation away from the "OMG, unfair question!" sort of comment.  Ask instead what they did right, what they saw that they expected and could answer well.  Ask what they struggled on; use that information to improve your class for next year, and tell your students now that you will do so.  

But when they complain, even if the complaint is somewhat reasonable, don't engage.  You are setting a tone.  If you don't want students complaining about the tests that YOU administer in class, what kind of example does it set if you complain about the people administering this national exam?  That's the pot calling the kettle black, and don't think your students won't notice.

Trust in the breadth of the examinations.  One part of one question has an insignificant effect on a student's overall grade.  If he did well on the exam as a whole, then there's no point in whining about one poor question.  It only takes about 115 out of 180 points to get a 5 on the AP Physics B exam.  In the highly, highly unlikely event that your student's confusion on one particular question made the difference between a 4 and a 5, then it seems far more rational to look carefully at why he missed the other 65 points.

Good luck today... I'll post my solutions shortly.

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