Experts Brief Congress on New AP Curricula

AP official sees “widespread fear” as teachers prepare for new STEM curricula.

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Next year, instructors of Advanced Placement biology courses will teach an entirely new curriculum—one that emphasizes deeper thought and experimentation, not memorization of facts.

"What I'm [seeing] from teachers as they get ready to teach this course is widespread fear," Trevor Packer, vice president of Advanced Placement at the College Board, which develops the courses, told a subcommittee of Congress Monday. 

Speaking of newly-designed lab experiments he said: "You have to stand back and let your students fail. That's scary for a lot of teachers who are used to having a lot of control over their classrooms."

Packer and a group of science educators, researchers, and business leaders met yesterday to brief Congress about the upcoming changes to Advanced Placement (AP) science programs, which will be rolled out over the next three years. The new AP biology course will hit high school classrooms next fall, followed by chemistry and physics. You can learn more about the changes by reading my interview with Packer.

Here's the quick version: The new courses will cover less material overall, but will require students to gain a deeper understanding of the scientific method, something that the College Board says will help in college. The number of multiple choice questions on the end-of-year exam has been reduced to 55, and the free-response section has been expanded. Instead of being able to name different genetic diseases, for example, students will learn how genetic diseases are passed on and might study a specific disease in detail. Hopefully, students will be able to apply what they learned to other examples.

"There's no one standard course in biology at the undergraduate level," Tom Rudin, College Board's senior vice president for advocacy, government relations, and development, said. "The previous method [of designing an AP course] was to take every undergraduate book, put it on the table, and staple it together figuratively."

The changes came partly in response to a 2002 report by the National Research Council that said American STEM classes focused too much on memorization. Jay Labov, senior advisor for education and communication at the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council, says that the new AP courses have the potential to be a "major game changer."

"There are major changes coming to the scientific community if the AP programs are successful," he said.

The new classes will focus on more scientific experimentation—students will be tasked with designing their own experiments, rather than focusing on "cookbook" labs with easy-to-follow directions and predictable outcomes.

John Hnatow, an AP chemistry teacher at Emmaus High School in Pennsylvania, says such labs "gets [students] through the period, but does not give them deep understanding. We're moving away from this formulaic approach to doing things."

Michelle Shearer, an AP chemistry teacher in Frederick, Md., and the 2011 National Teacher of the Year, says the new curricula will hopefully engage a broader base of students. Her classes saw a huge jump in enrollment each year once more students realized they could successfully complete AP classes.

"We have to make a decision: Will we be inclusive or will we be exclusive?," she said. "First, you open the doors and make sure that everybody understands there's a place for them in the classroom. Students need to realize that they can be part of [an AP] environment."

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