College Board Official Explains AP Chemistry, Biology Changes

A College Board executive talks about changes to AP science courses.

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Yesterday, the College Board announced that a redesigned Advanced Placement chemistry course would enter American high schools starting in 2013. The AP biology course has also undergone a facelift and will enter classrooms next fall. I talked with Trevor Packer, the College Board’s senior vice president for the Advanced Placement program and college readiness, about the new curricula, what students can expect, and why the whole process took so long.

How long has the College Board been planning on redesigning AP science courses?

They've been in the works for a significant amount of time, it was triggered by a report in 2002 by the National Research Council [Learning and Understanding] that was critical of American STEM programs, and that report was triggered by the 3rd international math and science study by Boston College that found American students ranked near the bottom in STEM.

AP math and science students were at the top of the comparison, but it triggered an overall investigation into American science education. A report looked at the AP and IB [International Baccalaureate] programs and said these programs should not be so invested in mimicking exactly how college is taught, but that they should set an example for curricula that foster in-depth learning of science and students' ability to apply that knowledge. It emphasized depth over breadth.

That was the guiding light for the AP redesign—we agree AP can be helpful in fostering not just what students know about science, but what they should be able to do with science. It's a fundamental shift of the way science curricula are designed in the U.S.

In the past, AP curricula looked like tables of contents in a textbook, long lists of what students should learn. Now, it's not just a list of topics, but it consists of a series of learning objectives that pair a piece of content with a science practice.

[Learn about potential new AP STEM courses.]

Obviously a big part of AP is the exam at the end of the year—having students perform lab experiments during the exam isn't practical. How did you assess that knowledge on the exam?

The questions on the AP [chemistry] exam remain heavily focused on open-ended questions and in this redesign, the multiple choice questions are pared down even further. The lab questions are all in the open-ended section of the exam. [Students will be tasked with] identifying within a particular lab procedure why results are different from what is expected. We'll ask students to analyze that process, and explain why it yielded something that is unexpected.

You said work for the redesign started in 2002—why has it taken so long? 

We have the same sort of reaction—why would this need to take so long? Why can't we just cut stuff out of the curriculum? It started in earnest in 2002 and so then we went and applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to validate that report and learn to apply it to AP. We in essence started work in 2004 and asked: Do these findings from the report apply to AP? The NSF panel we convened worked on it for year and they stood behind all the findings in the initial report, so our work of redesigning AP biology and chemistry didn't begin until 2006. It will show light of day in fall 2012 [for AP biology]. It's longer than we'd hoped it would take, but it was tremendously challenging to gain consensus across higher education boards on how to reduce breadth.

We needed to gain consensus on what skills students needed to develop ... once all of that work was done, we began working on the test, and we can only pretest at colleges and universities at the end of the year, after they've already learned the material. It gives us a small window [to pilot the test]. We've only got May. Anything that doesn't work well, we have to wait until the following May to try it.

So biology will be new next year, and chemistry in 2013—are you working on any other science courses? 

Physics is well underway—in physics we're at the stage of having higher education boards convene, we'll see physics in 2014. We're launching courses three years back to back. We did that deliberately because it's a challenge for schools to make changes to all three of their major science classes in the same year. Physics B is the one changing, not the Physics C program because it already has a very narrow focus, less breadth, and much greater depth.

If possible, should current high schoolers wait to take the redesigned courses? Are they missing out if they take the old ones? 

What colleges have told us is that the current course is safe from a college credit-perspective because it covers more content. But certainly if the student can wait, the redesigned course will be better in that it will be focused on hands-on application of their knowledge that will really prepare them for a major in that discipline in college.

So the courses are shifting to a more hands-on focus—does that mean there will be more lab experiments in the course? Different labs?

For biology, the lab specifications are done. The lab manual is still being done for chemistry.

In the old course, a lot of lab experiments were focused on having a list of steps to follow and see what happens—the labs were principally a way of illustrating something. No longer are they used to illustrate something, but they're used to develop science inquiry skills.

It's much more like what real scientists do. High school students aren't real scientists yet and resources are limited, but students will have to form a hypothesis and then design an experiment around that. We've given teachers ability to help students move toward that experience, but it's different from cookbook labs. Now students are required to be active participants in the design of what they are doing.

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