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ChemEd 2023 and the 2023 AP Chemistry released FRQ de-brief

August 03, 2023

When the College Board deliver their annual propaganda relating to the latest AP Chemistry exam and released FRQs, I like to be there in person to hear the information from the horse’s mouth. That particular horse came in the form of three people this year, only one of whom is a permanent CB employee.

The official CB presentation and the de-brief of the 2023 exam was split into three parts at ChemEd23 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada last month. A quick presentation about labs in AP chemistry, an update about AP Classroom and the lowering of standards on the AP exam, and finally the line by line de-brief of the 2023 released FRQs. Let’s have a look at each of those in more detail.

First up was Paul Price with his presentation, Creative Ways to Maximize the Lab Experience in AP Chemistry. Paul is a former co-chair of the TDC and renowned College Board apologist. He is often found espousing the CB philosophy regarding lab work, that I’m confident that I’ve shown to be largely without merit. Different philosophies related to lab work are fine, but the persistent false narrative that labs are central to AP score success is not – it’s an absolute falsehood.

Paul is an important person in AP Chemistry circles for a number of reasons. He’s very knowledgable and he’s “on the inside”. He has the ear of Jamie Benigna (AP Chemistry Czar), and several others in the CB inner circle. When he speaks I listen, mostly because I’m smart enough to know that I need to stay in the loop. Paul and I are diametrically opposed on most things AP Chemistry, and I’m not a fan of ANYTHING Texas either, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t listen – it’s the smart thing to do.

Paul highlighted the importance of “technique”, and of “technical writing” as skills that he valued for his students, both in an AP Chemistry context and beyond. Put simply, I don’t. I don’t consider them part of my job because they each have zero influence on the AP exam score. That’s where we differ.

Paul’s brief talk was followed by Jamie Benigna presenting what was billed as, Q&A, Updates and College Board Resources for AP Chemistry. There were a few updates about the AP classroom resource, but the bulk of interest was centered around the lowering of standards sanctioned by the College Board. This is really interesting to me, and I think it signals the general descent into hell that much of education is undergoing.

First a brief note about AP Classroom. Since I don’t use it much (if at all) I didn’t pay that close attention, but my take aways were that the question bank still contains questions that are irrelevant to the current CED, that you can now tag items with labels, and that you cannot (easily at least) download the most recent practice MCQ released exams as single entities. This is a disaster for AP Chemistry teachers, and why the CB has decided to effectively remove a resource for teachers is beyond me. I implore the College Board to bring this back, and if Jamie were a real advocate for teachers that’s EXACTLY what would happen. How about it Jamie?

Now to the really interesting stuff. Benigna explained that in his field (testing), every few years (I think he said 7-9) it is best practice to do a review of the assessment and its grade boundaries. We were then subjected to a whole of host of statistics that essentially boiled down to this. Since kids who were getting a score of 2 on the AP exam were still passing and doing OK in college, and since kids with 3s were also doing really well in various college classes, it was time to turn a bunch of “old” 2s into 3s, and a bunch of “old” 3s into 4s. In effect, the bar has been lowered in terms of grade boundaries, and as a result the number of kids failing the AP exam (prior to 2023 typically close to 50%) was essentially cut in half overnight! Look at these kids getting so much smarter!

I will absolutely concede one thing to Benigna and the College Board. The AP Chemistry exam is supposed to reflect the college 101 General Chemistry experience, so if standards are plummeting in college (and my anecdotal experience of tutoring a ton of college kids suggests JUST that), then it is their remit to follow the colleges on that catastrophic journey to chemistry educational hell. So in one way the CB is doing the ‘right’ thing, BUT (and it’s a BIG BUT) …

I had better NEVER, EVER, EVER hear the CB talk about them raising standards or even upholding them, because they demonstrably are being party to EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE. Who WILL hold up standards of elite chemistry education in high school? They have specifically demonstrated they they will not. 

I don’t doubt that any of the stats that Benigna presented are true, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to challenge any of the methodology that the number crunchers spew out, but what I will say is this. It is tremendously convenient that the College Board has effectively decided to offer the possibility of AP College Credit to an expanding cadre of kids that would have never earned it in the past, at the precise moment that dual-enrollment is expanding exponentially and is eroding the CB’s grip on this section of the market. It’s a wise financial move on their part, and of course that’s what the CB excel at, finances!

We then moved on to the 2023 released FRQ de-brief with chief examiner Kyle Beran. Over the years this has become decreasingly interesting since the questions themselves have become decreasingly interesting and decreasingly challenging. The numbers were as follows.

  • Q1 – Average score 5.39
  • Q2 – Average score 5.22
  • Q3 – Average score 4.51
  • Q4 – Average score 1.66
  • Q5 – Average score 2.55
  • Q6 – Average score 1.95
  • Q7 – Average score 2.24

My original thoughts on the exam and my draft answers can be found here, and I wanted to follow-up with Kyle on a few of those items.

In question 1 I still hate the idea of asking for the “complete” electronic configuration and then accepting a noble gas core as an answer. Benigna justified this in two ways, one of which made at least some sense, one of which didn’t. He seemed to suggest that if the word “complete” was omitted, that the CB would be forced into a situation where they would have to accept 4s2 3d5 as an answer, since it was part of a correct configuration. That made ZERO sense to me, so I don’t really know what he was saying, and maybe I misunderstood. The second reason makes a little more sense. If the question is worth only 1 point, it’s reasonable to award that point for the correct noble gas configuration since it shows good, relevant chemistry knowledge. That at least makes some sense, BUT one could argue that the exam is also an exercise in reading the questions properly, and that good (but irrelevant) chemistry will not score points elsewhere. The question then boils down to, do you think that giving a noble gas core configuration is “good and relevant chemistry” to a question that asks for the complete electronic configuration? This is a bit of cul-de-sac TBH so I didn’t bother asking more, but I still think there is ambiguity about the wording here which sits poorly with me.

In relation to question 5 I asked Kyle directly about the use of the ideal gas equation in a situation where the gas was significantly polar, and was under a pressure of around 7.5 atm, both situations that would move us away from ideal behavior! His answer didn’t make much sense to me when he said something like, I suppose we could have adjusted the number of moles. I don’t understand what he was saying, and I’m quite surprised that this question survived the multiple reviews that routinely take place before it appears on the final exam.

In 2c(ii) in my original notes I was wondering if the CB would be seeking something more complex than just the position on the x and y axis of the trough. Of course they were not – I should know better than to expect anything other than the simplest thing these days.

In 7(c), as I said originally, I would prefer a calculation, but the thinking here is that a prose explanation may be more challenging. I tend to agree with that, but it does seriously hamper those for whom English is not a first language when they really do know the chemistry. So much for the CB’s lip-service to equality!

The de-brief passed without real incident as far as I was concerned, and off we all went on our merry way.

After the meeting I met up with my friend and former colleague and we went to a bar for a beer. We sat at the end of the bar, in two stools that took up the whole space, adjacent to the 90 degree angle where the main length of the bar began. We were sat there for 10 mins, and other than us the place was 100% empty … until a man walked in and sat in the stool on the main part of the bar closest to us. He ordered a beer, and looked up, and I thought I recognized him. Yes, it was Kyle Beran the chief examiner himself!

Kyle called me, ‘Mr. Difficult Questions’ (?) before I introduced myself properly. The three of us sat there for 30-45 mins, chatting amicably and I learned a lot, some of it off the record! He was affable and approachable, and surprisingly frank about a few things relating to AP Chemistry and the CB, and in that respect our chat was all rather refreshing. I the end I kinda wished I had paid for his beer!


  1. Peter Moskaluk

    As to question 5 with the a = 3.67 atm L^2/mol^2 and b =3.67 L/mol but the polarity and molecular volume effects cancel almost another out . Using the van der Waals equation the mol calc in

    (a) comes out to 1.91 mol van der Waals vs the ideal 1.84 mol so the polarity does win out slightly.

    (b) has 6.79 atm vs the 6.82 ideal.

    I used the TI solver for the calc.

    Interestingly the Chatbot got the question wrong using the ideal equation getting 18.5 mol for (a) and it messed the van der Waals solution up too.

    • Adrian

      Thanks for taking the time Peter. I guess my point is rather, why have these somewhat “extreme” situations at all, why not use something that is ‘obviously’ ideal?

  2. Peter Moskaluk

    I agree AP has been pushing its questions beyond what AP Chem can honestly explain.

  3. Peter Moskaluk

    They could have redeemed (a) with a follow up question stating that the actual number of moles of HCl was greater than the amount predicted based on an ideal gas and have the students provide a justification for the difference.

  4. Vic

    Re: “complete” electronic configuration

    I’m Australian and new to AP. We’d accept a noble gas core as “complete” as it shows understanding of what it represents. To exclude a noble gas contraction, maybe “unabbreviated” would be a better cue.

    I was of the understanding that AP was first year college level. Based on the last exam, it’s basically matriculation exam standard. My school sends kids to Oxford, NUS, University of Melbourne and other decent tertiary institutions. I’m going to keep teaching at the international standards so these kids don’t get embarrassed when they turn up at Zurich etc, and pretend to be surprised when kids who should be a “1” get a “3”.

    • Adrian

      I like “abbreviated” as a better word.

      The AP exam has gone downhill over the course of many years, becoming increasingly unchallenging and the latest re-alignment is entirely consistent with falling standards. It really is that simple. In one way it’s nice to have the empirical proof.


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