Read about Adrian as an Educator of over thirty years, as a Chemistry Tutor with a resume of helping hundreds of private clients over three decades, and as an Author and Writer with an extensive portfolio of work


Read about the the four Core Values that drive all of Adrian’s professional endeavors, and that act as the cornerstones of his work


Check out all of my books


Pretty pictures of my books


Chemistry writing beyond books

10 Ways to Improve the AP Chemistry Exam

May 11, 2011

1. Print the point value of each question (and part question) on the exam paper.

This would act as a helpful guide to both students and teachers when assessing what to write in each response. The argument I have heard against this is that the graders do not want to assign points prior to the reading – why not? The test development committee can meet in advance of the reading and make adjustments on the first day of the reading. All of those adjustments can easily be tailored to maintain the point scores originally assigned.

2. Remove the (apparent) necessity for question #1 to be a K based problem.

I’m not denying the value and importance of equilibrium, but the predictability of this question removes flexibility from the exam that (in my experience) question writers crave. In its current format they are pre-assigning a large portion of the points to one topic area – unnecessary.

3. Return Net Ionic Equation Writing to a problem that is worthy of an ‘Advanced Placement’ examination in Chemistry.

The net ionic equation writing section is a now a shadow of its former self. The moves in 2007 to the requirement for balancing and the follow-up questions were good ones, but they were undone by two things; firstly the general quality of problem has deteriorated to such an extent that it is frankly a joke for an exam of this supposed level, and secondly the clues which are being given (such as flagging oxidizing and reducing agents (2007), telling candidates that a complex ion/coordination complex is being formed (2008, 2011) and flagging decomposition (2009)) are simply compounding the first problem. The argument I have heard in defense of the current question 4 is that actually this problem (even in its current, undeniably, diluted form) IS acting as a ‘good’ question in as much as it is providing scores that discern between “1’s”, “2’s”, “3’s”, “4’s” and “5’s”. If this is indeed the case then I understand that argument, BUT that is a HORRIBLE indictment on the quality of student that is being entered into (what is supposed to be) an elite test of knowledge. (Look forward to another Blog post about who should and should NOT be taking the AP exam!).

4. Add a lab exam component.

If you want to assess lab skills then you have to have a lab exam. Period. No ifs, buts or ands, this is the only way to do this. Frankly, for people like me that do not favor an emphasis on practical work, this would be an enormous pain, but those people that espouse the value of those skills but do NOT want a lab exam are talking out of both sides of their mouth. It’s entirely, logistically possible and has been done for years in other examinations both inside and outside of the US.

5. Remove the ‘standard format’.

There should be no requirement for a six question, ‘K is question 1’, ‘NIE is question 4’, ‘three questions in part A, three questions in part B’, format. Like point #1 above, this change would add a large amount of flexibility for question writers. In addition, point #1 and #5 above, would give remove some of the predictability that so many complain about, and add a perhaps even make those that believe in ‘teaching to the test’, a little uncomfortable ;-)!

6. Introduce a more serious organic component.

Whilst I fully understand that in the American, chemical education system organic chemistry is a separate entity entirely to general chemistry, it seems to me that an elite examination of knowledge at this level should contain a more extensive organic component. Organic has traditionally been restricted a tiny bit of naming, a little isomerism, a minuscule amount of equation writing and some questions that have nothing to do with organic at all (rather they are generally about intermolecular bonding). I’m not calling for the exam to become an organic test, but it seems like it is a reasonable expectation to include a more serious, if somewhat restricted element.

7. Release more multiple-choice exams.

Obviously for the benefit of the students and teachers. There’s just no reason not to do this. Admittedly it means more work in writing questions, but this would help preparation for all involved.

8. Communicate changes comprehensively!

Whenever and whatever significant changes to the exam are invoked, communicate that properly and extensively. This would have avoided many recent examples of hand-wringing (‘mole of reaction’) and give teachers confidence that is currently missing.

9. Remove the astonishing level of scaffolding in the free response question in general.

As in point #3 above, the degree of hand-holding taking place in many questions has reached the point where the academic integrity of the exam is coming into question in my mind. Again, if this has become necessary in order to accommodate the cadre of kids that are taking this exam, then there is a much greater problem in terms of who is taking the exam – that may well be the case.

10. Don’t sacrifice content for process in the name of ‘21st century learning’, ‘problem based learning’, ‘POGIL’ or whatever the flavor of the month (or century) may be!

Really just a personal plea from me, as I see cold hard facts and solid chemistry being eroded in the name of ‘progress’. Not the way forward for an examination of CHEMISTRY.


  1. drshea2

    1. I agree that students sometimes decide the amount of time to spend on a particular question based on its point value although I don’t generally do this with my own students because I like to cut them slack if everyone misses the point of a question that is well-formulated. I guess this is my internal way of curving grades if I make a mistake.

    2. I agree that the first question doesn’t necessarily have to be equilibrium although I liked number 1 this year because it wasn’t as “obvious” as in the recent past.

    3. I like the idea of students writing balanced net ionic equations in question 4, but I agree that for the most part these questions are way too simple and the hints, as mentioned above, drop them below the level of AP students!

    4. I have no particular bias toward adding more organic chemistry. It is a topic I really enjoy. I would love to teach more of it and it seems that my students are very interested in it as well. However, to add a significant amount of organic, something else has to go. There is a nice can of worms for you! When I taught college chemistry, the flavor of the course was very much determined by the faculty teaching – physical chemists vs analytical chemists. We couldn’t agree within a given department what should be emphasized, I can’t imagine trying to satisfy faculty across the country.

    5. I too would love to have more released MC questions!

    6. The scaffolding in the open response questions is too much like hand holding. When I use AP questions on tests or quizzes, I remove all of the scaffolding and parts of the questions. For example, in an equilibrium problem I would expect students to write a balanced equation without being told to do so as well as write the equilibrium expression. Other parts of the problem would be in paragraph form.

    7. Cold hard teaching of science will suffer another blow as the new Massachusetts frameworks are applied. Now math and science teachers are expected to not only teach science, math, etc, but also “literacy” – writing, research skills, etc. Not a happy day when we now have to teach what traditionally was taught in an ELA class!

  2. newk36

    1. I agree that point values should be public, and pre-determined.

    2. Agree also, but I am annoyed by what I see as a trend away from
    calculation-based problems on free response sections 1 to 3.
    They included several non-mathematical sections on them. Since this
    is the only section of the exam on which calculators are permitted,
    (while in college they are permitted on ALL parts)
    it should emphasize mathematical applications.

    3. Yep. I would like them to go back to the old 5 out of 8 format,
    and ask more sophisticated questions. However, in the new format,
    the entire section of three equations and explanations is worth only
    7.5 points out of the 75 points on part 2.

    4. I disagree here. Not only do I NOT want a lab exam component, I
    would like them to stop asking lab based questions! Who actually has
    their high school students diluting concentrated HNO3, for example?
    Very few high schools can actually duplicate the college lab program,
    which allots 3 full hours to each lab. In my opinion, we should not
    even be asked to try. The lab component should be completely
    separate, and optional. If you want there to be a lab performance
    test, that would be OK as long as it is completely separate from the
    rest of the AP exam. In my ideal world, a student would be able to
    get a 5 in the course, and a 2 in lab, and then the university could
    make an intelligent decision as to how to award credit.

    5. Not an issue for me; I don’t care what the format is. But it
    does provide some level of comfort for the students if they know what
    to expect.

    6. The trend seems to be in the opposite direction – leaving out
    organic completely. With the time pressure I am under, I do not
    support adding any more material. I something needs to be cut, let it
    be organic, and nuclear. (so we disagree on this item)

    7. Absolutely.

    8. Yes!! The ETS has dithered and vacillated on changing the
    course. Looks like it will not change officially for at least two
    more years, but they might continue to shift the exam away from the
    quantitative without telling us they are doing so.

    9. No opinion

    10. Agree strongly!!! As I used to teach in my teacher-ed course
    “Reform – verb, meaning ‘to make worse’ “

  3. macgregor

    Point 1 – I agree with this; there is no reason not to do this.
    Point 2 – I think there should be an equilibrium question and it might as well be this one.
    Point 3 – I thought the older 5 out 8 choices were much more interesting than the ones we see now. I also think that having more choices allowed for a greater variety of possible reactions and this gave the students more chances to show what they can do.
    Point 4 – I don’t see the lab component flying. The lab component in the UK A-level exams has been possible due to the fact that these are part of the immense seriousness of those exams both socially and in time devoted to the course and overall exams. While AP’s is on the rise here, they are still not much more than boutique efforts and are not truly high stakes (students will still go to college without them). AP will be supported in schools so long as the courses are quick and cheap to deliver, as they currently are. Labs exams are just too much a commitment to science education.

    Point 5 – The current overall format is OK with me since the material itself allows for enough variety in the questions.
    Point 6 – I completely agree with this. It is just ridiculous that such a vast branch of chemistry is not represented in any serious way on AP. Given that students are going to encounter organic names, structures in biology and AP biology, they should see some of this in Chem (to say nothing of all the product labels, drug info etc). I think one reason, perhaps the major one, that organic is notnincluded as the norm in US high school chemistry is the lack of serious support for lab work in high schools. All chemistry needs technician support to be done safely, but this is particularly true of organic. The College Board could do science teaching a big favor if they finally addressed odd omission in US chemistry.
    Point 7 – I can see that they don’t want to release every paper, so every three years or so is OK, but post on website
    Point 8 – Communication is scant and confused. I think it’s because the CB doesn’t quite to what it wants other than not to seem old fashioned. Certainly, we should not be left to read the runes in the exam itself.

    Point 9 and 10 – Scaffolding. The idea behind this is that the exam should allow the student to think and reason without being burdened facts and the need to recall those facts. It’s the old “skills versus content” false dichotomy – as though meaningful skills develop in a content vacuum. So, yes, I agree – if this is going to be a high level exam, ditch the scaffolding and expect recall of interesting content.

    • Adrian

      I agree with the observations that you make about the cultural significance of exams in the UK, and it certainly raises an excellent and indisputable point of difference, however I’ll say this;

      What REALLY annoys me is the folk that on one hand tell us how important these skills are, and then on the other hand tell us it is not feasible to administer such a thing. If they lab skills are THAT important, shouldn’t they form an integral part of the assessment?

      Like newk36 I have ZERO ‘desire’ for this to become a reality, and I think his idea of having two separate scores is an excellent one, but the hypocrisy of so many drives me nuts!

  4. kevans63

    1. Most of the questions are worth 8, 9, or 10 points. I don’t like putting emphasis on points – do the whole problem for the maximum points.
    2. So much emphasis is placed on equilibrium, it is nice to actually have a problem on equilibrium on the test. There are many options for this problem – as was seen on the test this year – loved that problem – challenged my kids.
    3. Loved the old system of choosing 5 out of 8. Those questions seemed to be more challenging.
    4. I do a lot of lab in my AP Chem class. Not sure how they would accomplish this task of testing with a lab component. It would identify those who do not do labs and those who do. Not something I would worry about because my students get a lot of experience through their Pre-AP and AP Chem classes.
    5. Does not really matter what format they choose. I make sure the students are ready for everything. However, I do make sure they know how to do an equilibrium problem – not matter what topic – because it shows up as question 1 every time.
    6. I do not agree with more Organic. Not much organic is introduced in a college Chem 1 or II course – and this is what the AP exam is allowing students credit. Why add more material that is not covered in a Chem I and II course? If students are given those two college credits, why not teach that material really well and leave topics like organic and nuclear to those specialized courses in college.
    7. Sure wish they would release more MC exams. I use those questions throughout the year and I run out after a while. I like to test my students at the AP level for every test and MC exams become very helpful. However, when I give practice exams, it would be nice to have different questions.
    8. I know there are changes coming. I have attended summer workshops with someone who actually is on that committee and he is not allowed to give us any ideas of what is going on. Why not just tell us now so we can be thinking about our changes that need to be made down the road.
    9. I agree, there is too much scaffolding. But, I guess for grading purposes it helps eliminate problems for the graders.
    10. I wish we ran our AP Chem classes just like a college does. I teach college chemistry at night and it is much different. Labs are pretty much cut and dry. It seems we are getting away from teaching the material in depth and going to “let the kids discover” the information – in which they miss good details because they are not being “taught” the information.

    I guess what is interesting about AP Chemistry is it is harder than a college chem I and II class if taught accordingly. I have students who get a 2 on the AP exam and breeze through college chem I and II. We cover more material than is covered in those college classes – even college professors tell me we do. So if that is all the credit they are earning, and when they do earn the credit they go directly into organic chemistry in college and do fine, why are so many people complaining about how the test is “too easy.” My students who get credit do fine with organic chemistry (not having chem I or II). Obviously they are learning enough chem I and II. Just a thought.

  5. newk36

    About the coming (but delayed!) changes. We were given, at the reading 4 years ago, very clear information about what was going on, and were told that the changes would be in place starting Sept. 2011. The response to many of the changes was rather hostile. As of now, the change has been put off at least another two years, and secrecy has replaced “openness.” There is a document available from ETS though, quite a lengthy one, that lists what they think a chemistry program ought to be beginning down in middle school. I will try to find it, and post a link if I can. You can pretty much figure out where they are headed based on that, and it is pretty much what they told us 4 years ago . (No colligative properties, no combustion analysis, generally less math, plus a lot of edubabble.)


  6. Adrian

    >plus a lot of edubabble.

    Good grief!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *