I received an email this afternoon that I think is important to address on the eve of the first ever AP Physics 1 exam, and into the second year of teaching AP Physics 1. In sum, is AP Physics 1 "too difficult?" We've known that the exam would be deeper and tougher, but is it too deep and too tough?
After some very kind words about 5 Steps to a 5: AP Physics 1, which I appreciate, the note asked:
[The] question has to do with the released AP Physics 1 exam free response section. I have been teaching physics for 20 years and I have never seen my students so frustrated after attempting those FRQs. I'm usually the last person to say something is too difficult, but has the AP board gone over the top this time? Just for a reaction I gave this test to my AP Physics C students and they said many of these questions would have been too difficult for them to answer last year. What are some of the other opinions you have heard from other AP Physics teachers out there? What is your opinion of this released exam?
My response: The exam is not over the top -- I think it's actually quite wonderful. The College Board is doing exactly what they said they were going to do: create a physics test that goes well beyond mere calculation and into deep understanding. We knew from the beginning that students who think of physics as crunching numbers, doing algebra, and obtaining a right answer would be in trouble. Such students could always manage a 3 on the AP B exam, but will not likely earn a 1 on the new exam.
It's been a tough year for me teaching AP 1, primarily because I didn't have an established "physics culture" to help my students through the difficult times: see the next few April 2015 blog posts.
That said, my upperclassmen are now doing a great job explaining their calculations, describing what they know, etc. I am not going to have the same ~70% earning 5s as I used to on AP Physics B, but we will do just fine. It takes months for the students to adapt to expressing physics understanding in words, and to adapt to dealing with difficult problems that don't have a few gimme calculations in them.
The good news is, you've given your students a real test in the style of the AP -- they can complain all they want, but the exam ain't changing. Let them get the complaints out of their system, and they'll know what to expect on May 6.
Then, next year, you can think about preparing your students for this level of question a bit earlier on. Try giving some of the released questions on the January semester exam, or on a major February test. They're going to have to come to terms with the more difficult nature of the new course; it's going to be a learning process for all of us as to how best to do that. I know I haven't figured it out yet.
Good luck -- to you, and to your students next week. :-)