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17 April 2017

Mail Time: Why do released AP Physics 1 exams include only 40 multiple choice?

Reader Aaron Shoolroy asks, in the comment section of a separate post:

The Physics 1 exam description says 50 MC questions, but it seems like all of the secure exams available through the course audit page have 40 questions. Does anyone know how many MC questions will be on the actual exam this year? 

Aaron, I'm sure you're not the only person wondering.  The AP Physics 1 and 2 exams will, as stated in the course description, include 50 multiple choice questions.  The last five of these will be "multiple correct", requiring the student to select both of the correct answers for credit.

So then, why do the released exams only give us 40 multiple choice?  Long answer coming.

During the Physics B dynasty, multiple choice exams were only released every five or so years.  See, a subset of the questions on each test are re-used on future tests in order to provide concordance from one exam to another.  For example, if the student population taking the test does better on these re-used questions, then the overall exam scores should go up -- even if performance on the rest of the test doesn't likewise improve.  That repeated subset of questions serves as an experimental control.

In order to keep a statistically significant bank of these re-usable questions, the College Board carefully hoarded them.  By only releasing exams every five years, it was easily possible to keep a secure set of questions in circulation.

During the development of the AP Physics 1 and 2 courses, one of the major points of pointed feedback to the committees said, please stop with the learning objectives, and give us practice questions.  I know I delivered that message more than once, and I wasn't the only one.  

See, people listened.  The College Board pledged to release the international version of the test nearly in its entirety every year, for the purpose of providing materials for use in class.  That's an enormous wealth of material for teachers, to the extent that we're only three years into the course yet I haven't been able to assign all available questions this year.  

(By the way, most of those released exam items are only available to those with an active AP course audit account.  That's to ensure that these items remain secure enough that it's unlikely students can simply google the solutions to them.)

I know the development committee and the ETS physics people have had to work extra hard the past few years in order to meet the demand for all these test items.  I have told them in person, I'll continue to tell them in person, and I'll say it here -- THANK YOU.  By releasing so much authentic exam material, they've allowed teachers and students to get a real sense of the form, content, and degree of difficulty of the exams.  They've allowed me to assign authentic practice in the lead-up to the exam.  They've provided me with practically unlimited laboratory ideas - virtually every question can be investigated experimentally.

Oh, but you asked me a question, and I rambled.  Why are there only 40 questions on the released exams?  Because the College Board removed the 10 questions that will be re-used in future years for statistical purposes.  Losing those ten questions is more than a fair trade for 40 multiple choice and five free response items, which are more valuable than gold to an AP teacher this time of year.


  1. How specific is the grading when it comes to simplifying derived equations? For example, free response question 2 part b on the 2016 exam, would students gain the point if not reduced all the way as in the example provided?

  2. Generally, you need to show a solution for the correct variable; but the form of the solution doesn't matter. Compound fractions and square roots in the denominator are just fine.