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AP Chemistry State of the Union – April 2016

April 07, 2016

When Paul Price speaks about AP Chemistry, you’d better listen. Why? Because he is the co-chair of the AP Chemistry Test Development Committee (TDC), and as such, his words carry more weight in this matter than just about anybody on the planet. He’s the closet thing that we have to the AP Chemistry Czar that we so desperately need.

Last night, Paul gave his third (what I am calling) ‘AP Chemistry State of The Union’ address (my words, not his!), in the form of a webinar organized by the AACT (BTW, you should JOIN the AACT). Some might say that the annual debrief of the previous May’s AP exam that comes from the TDC at the various chemistry education summer meetings is more important, and I can understand that view, but those addresses are ostensibly about one, single exam. When Paul addresses teachers in this (now I believe third) AP session with AACT, there is more latitude to talk about more general ideas, so I think these sessions have the potential to be even more important.

AP Chemistry State of the Union - April 2016

Paul addressed approx. half-a-dozen topics that apparently teachers had raised questions and concerns about, ranging from Buffers to Sig Fig’s to the role of organic chemistry in the curriculum, and then answered questions – the whole meeting lasted about 90 mins. Honestly – and this is no knock on Paul – if one is an AP chemistry teacher who pays attention to the AP forum and is generally ‘connected’, then he said almost nothing that might be considered ‘news’. If you are an AP chemistry teacher who is not quite so plugged-in on a daily basis, then he may have provided a very useful service. As the former rather than the latter, I don’t have a huge amount to say about the webinar in total, but there were a few nuggets that I wanted to pick up on. Here they are. If, in paraphrasing Paul, I misquote him or somehow misrepresent something that he said, I apologize in advance and would ask to be corrected ASAP. It is my intention to report with a high level of accuracy – but of course op-ed is op-ed!

On significant figures we learned that on any given year the Sig Fig. point could require complete accuracy, OR may continue to allow +/-1 leeway. This is the first time we have had an ‘official’ word on this. However, it still means that we remain in the dark as to where Sig Figs might be assessed, and to what standard we are being held. Paul’s advice that we should tell students to get the Sig Figs. right (since this would alleviate the whole issue) was stunningly obvious to me and something I have always told the kids, but apparently came as a revelation to some! My solution: Drop the Sig Fig point from the exam, it’s math not chemistry, and with so few points to play with it needs to die.

On Explain versus Justify verbiage we learned that in FRQ questions, that ‘Justify’ would be used in conjunction with a student prediction, and that ‘Explain’ would be used in conjunction with a stated observation. Fine, but the heart of this matter remains unanswered! I could work out for myself where the two terms are used in questions, what is still not clear to me is how ANSWERS might need to be parsed and phrased in order to satisfy either word. The ‘Justiplain’ document that the CB released in an attempt to clear this up, did not help at all. My solution: A definitive statement from the CB saying that justify and explain are sufficiently similar words as to NOT require any differentiation in answers.

On Le Châtelier/Nernst we learned nothing – at least I didn’t. Paul explained that Le Châtelier should only be applied to a system already at equilibrium and therefore was not applicable in the non-standard cell situation. I have always understood and agreed with that position – ALWAYS – but when I wrote to John Gelder (ex-Chief Examiner) stating that very understanding, and asked him if it was still OK to use a Le Châtelier argument in such situations, his answer was ‘yes’. Even though the exam has changed, the chemistry hasn’t, and the question remains, how are we supposed to know that previously accepted answers have suddenly become unacceptable? THAT’S the matter at hand here, not the rights and wrongs of applying Le Châtelier arguments to non-standard cells. My Solution: Re-introduce the Nernst Equation to the Equations & Constants sheet. (BTW – some people had hoped that it would be re-introduced, but Paul squashed that idea).

On advice offered by readers after the reading, Paul repeated something that those of us who have been monitoring such things know only too well about the new exam i.e., that reading, writing and English comprehension skills are now more important than ever before on the AP Chemistry exam. Coincidentally, Peter Moskaluk recently highlighted this with some empirical data of his own. Peter offered this observation;

“The average word length for a AP MC question and answers used to be 44 words. Now the average length is 71 words. A 75 question MC test required reading a little over 3,300 words. The 60 questions in the present form of the test are over 4,300 words. I don’t think those 1,000 extra words really are about more chemistry.”

I’m not sure where Peter got those data, but it certainly ‘feels’ as though it’s true, and if I had to bet, I would say that it is based in fact. My Solution: Let’s get back sensible questions so as to not penalize really good chemistry students for their lack of ability to interpret questions that are now the very definition of verbose.

On buffers Paul said something like (and I am paraphrasing slightly here), “We haven’t seen a ton of buffers on the new exam”. Is this a harbinger? He went on to make several other minor points that confirmed things that I already knew including confirming that my interpretation of Serena Magrogan’s definition of Prior Knowledge was correct, that complex ions could easily be used in an equilibrium context, that WBC (Wrong But Consequential) – my own acronym for errors that can be carried forward consistently for subsequent credit – points would be applied, and that students could ‘make up’ an numerical answer for use in subsequent parts of a question. However, I am sure that these comments proved useful for some other AP teachers.








  1. surfer

    Looks like they watered down the course and added reform pedagogy stuff. Doesn’t make sense for ETS to be changing to NSF desires rather than trying to match college chem content.

    Took the AP in 83 and thought it was great. Little sad that they have messed with it.

  2. surfer

    Direct reactions from students to revised chem:

    1. “Hahaha “the six big ideas” yeah in bio we had the four big ideas. Don’t worry you’ll probably just have to look at a bunch of graphs of chemical reactions or something and analyze&interpret them.

    Basically, they killed AP Bio and they’re probably gonna kill AP Chem. “:

    2. “LOL what the heck?
    From the course description:

    Language of reducing agent and oxidizing agent is beyond the scope of this course
    and the AP Exam.

    Calculations of molality, percent by mass, and percent by volume are beyond the
    scope of this course and the AP Exam.

    Wow, they really did kill AP Chemistry. ”


    I’m still in shock. I guess the world changes. But this whole thing seems all edu-babble driven. Not resulting from experienced teachers of AP chem wanting the change. Not resulting from colleges asking for the change. Seems like this will make it less likely that credit is given for AP scores. I hope teachers in HS continue to cover content of a normal college chem course. Can always do a few exam prep sessions to gear people up for ETS. But if basic content is omitted, than students don’t get it. I wonder what ACS thinks of this?

  3. surfer


    Totally disagree with this whole mindset. Seems like you are a good guy but you are deep (deep!) in this 30 years later world of AP (from me) with a whole emphasis on prep books and the like. Teachers should teach a college course equivalent, full stop. Then do a few prep sessions for the ETS/AP gaming near the exam time.

    Take the long view and emphasize content, not exam gamesmanship. If you rise above the immediate bustle of HS student rat race, the key thing is to really push advanced students (those who are taking an AP class). They need some hardening up when they go on to STEM undergrads or even postgrad. Or work as professionals.

    [This applies even more for calculus. Which kind of kid is going to do better in his ODE course or a Kreyszig Engineering Mathematics course that covers PDEs and the like: the kid who has learned all kinds of tricky integrals and techniques with a lot of algebra? Or the kid who plays on his TI-89 (something that people don’t even use in the real world)? Similarly for any kids that take majors in math, chemistry, physics or any engineering: ability to hang in there with medium complexity algebra is KEY to following discussions of thermodynamics, fluids, etc.]

    Simple crystal shapes are an easy lab to run and a great concept to explore, with relevance to matsci. Probably the only matsci I would bother covering. Toothpicks, Styrofoam, etc. And then some lab questions afterwards that let them do a little math on density. Boom…concept covered.

    No freezing point depression? That is insane.

  4. surfer


    This sounds like they are grading harder, but with less content covered and with less traditional algebraic problems. Sounds like a very bad formula for discriminating chemistry mastery. I mean the SAT is noteworthy for being able to separate students with tricky questions and time pressure even though the content covered is much less than an advanced student finishes his time with. This seems like an ETS mindset affecting them. I mean you could take a typical HS chemistry test and still write a ballbuster exam (with tricks, verbose questions, or just time pressure) that reduces number of As.

    If they want to up the standards of AP chem for colleges, the easiest thing would be to add some content. For instance require a very simple survey of organic chemistry: alkanes, functional groups, isomers. This is useful for physicists or engineers who will never see another chemistry class–when they are reading about natural gas liquids in the Marcellus, they have some clue what the simple fractions are. For the kids who go on to organic chem, it’s no big deal that they have a little review later on–look at calculus and DiffEQs where some material is covered again. For that matter, obviously AP or college chem is a review of the earlier HS chem course. But instead, they cut a lot of content from the course. [The topical additions of bio/matsci stuff are just fluff to be relevant and don’t have a good place in a chem course…and I say this as someone with advanced ug expeience in bio and grad experience in matsci.]

  5. surfer


    I agree that labs were not important to AP back when I took it in 1983. Actually I would go even further and say that labs are overdramatized as a key component. We had lots of good labs (probably a step up over the norm). Yeah, there was a one hour limit, but we were before lunch period and also some labs were splittable over 2 days. Also, you’re humping it to get it done, but that’s probably good too. Our lab book was something from the 60s or 70s. Labs are a nice enrichment, sure, but I would take the kid who knows tricky algebra stoichiometry/equilibrium questions (who had no access to labs) over the one who has lab experience (but is bad on algebra).

    I say this as someone who did an experimental chemistry grad degree. I think more key light bulbs come on from doing the harder end of chapter questions in the homework, late at night, than from recording data from the Spec-20 UV-Vis.

    • Adrian

      but I would take the kid who knows tricky algebra stoichiometry/equilibrium questions (who had no access to labs) over the one who has lab experience (but is bad on algebra)


    • Adrian

      I think more key light bulbs come on from doing the harder end of chapter questions in the homework, late at night, than from recording data


  6. surfer

    (Forgot the link, but it is one of your earlier posts on the new curriculum, you made the point that you weren’t great at math, but that the best AP chem students are.)

    I actually think the strong algebra content in word problems from stoichiometry, equilibrium (Ke, Ksp, acid-base, rates, thermo) is one of the best things in chemistry. For one thing stoichiometry is something I have seen grad students mess up their Ph.D. for a year on. Also, all of this stuff is applicable to doctors or nurses giving medicine. It’s also very useful general problem solving for engineers. I even think their is a lot of carryover as a top level finance type consultant, I-banker type. Let’s say you forget the specifics of sp2, that won’t kill you if you aren’t doing chemistry later. But being good at dimensional analysis, getting ratios right side up, etc. is a very powerful skill.

  7. surfer

    Add on to the above:

    Very good training for mechEs who have to describe parts of energy cycles (Rankine, Otto, etc.) Note that a lot of mechEs struggle because they are guys who liked their cars, but then have a hard time with the Mollier chart and the abstractions of entropy.

    Similar for navy nukes (reactivity, temperature coefficient of the moderator, and the steam cycle as above for mechEs, plus of course primary and secondary water chemistry.)

    Same in spades for chemEs or anyone working in a refinery. Note that I’m not saying course should cover plates for separation or the like. Just that the training in mass balances is very useful. Probably heart of freshman chem calculation problems applies more the chemEs than it does to chemistry majors or graduate students

    [I think I’m done now.]

  8. Melanie Dianda

    I know this is horrible, but with the changes over the past several years, and after reading this blog, and all of these comments, I find I am losing the desire to continue to teach AP Chemistry. I don’t want to give it up. I love the students I get, but so tired of all of this. Please just let us teach the chemistry, and then test the students fairly over the chemistry!

  9. surfer

    I’m sorry Melanie. I hope my comments did not drag you down. I have this view of the subject from 30 years ago and am also reading things and maybe focusing on the negative.

    P.s. You can always just teach the same course. Ignore the aspect that some subjects are not tested by the AP exam and teach the kids what they should learn. Prior to the AP, do a few prep sessions and tell them what is on/off the exam.

    • Adrian

      I would switch to IB or A Level chemistry in a heartbeat if I could.

    • Adrian

      I would never teach an AP course like that. I believe that IF ‘AP’ is advertised in the course catalog and by the school, then you have a specific obligation to teach in a manner that maximizes test scores and focuses on the test. I see it as a moral imperative. Now, I think you certainly CAN teach a ‘better’ course without concentrating on the content of the new course, but that’s an entirely different issue!

      • surfer

        Pffft. Teach freshman college chemistry.

        Horsing up students to pass an exam and have worse knowledge when they enter colleges is nothing to feel obligated to.

        Jaime Escalante would routinely blow off, weasel around, or evade rules that he felt were getting in the way of helping his kids learn more math. He loved AP Calc in the 80s because it served his needs and was a top notch test/course. But horse, cart. Right order.

        My AP chem teacher in the 80s covered some stuff that was not in the AP curriculum.

      • Melanie Dianda

        I teach to the test/curriculum, that is it. I feel that is my job, and students appreciate it and tell me they wish all their teachers would focus on the information they need to know for the test. I’m just tired of the chemistry getting pushed aside for the latest trend in education.

        • Kathleen Pugh

          I am in my second year of teaching AP Chemistry and I am stunned at how awful it has become. I took it in 1981, passed with flying colors, went on to get a doctorate in Organic chemistry and worked in research labs for several years. I decided to teach high school chemistry a few years back, and I can’t get over what a complete mess the AP Chem exam is. It has become a twisted, ridiculous game. I have shown friends who teach gen chem at the college level some of the current required content and they can’t believe it. Let me just say, for the record, NO high school student trying to get college credit for a general chemistry course, needs to know PES. Nor do they need ANY organic chemistry content. Only 8% of the testing students scored a 5 last year? Is there something wrong with the students or something wrong with this test? I’d say it’s the test. What the college professors I’ve spoken to say is, “Please just teach them stoichiometry!” I am, going forward, going to offer what I consider a good college-level general chemistry course. Period. Pass the AP, don’t pass the AP, at least you will know what you are doing in chemistry when you get to college.


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