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Want #apchem success in 2016? Ironically, see 2013!

November 15, 2015

The College Board/AP Chemistry Test Development Committee (TDC) ‘cheated’ a bit. No, I’m not talking about the debacle of the 2015 scores, nor about my general dislike of many aspects of the new curriculum, but rather this gripe relates to a question that appeared on the 2013 exam, that is a really important one for all future AP chemistry exam takers.

The 2013 exam was the final test to examine the old, ‘legacy’ course. As such, it should have looked largely like all of the previous AP chemistry exams that had examined that course, and on the whole, it did. However, there was one exception to that pattern, and I believe that the exception was a deliberate one, introduced by the TDC in advance of the new course – a bit naughty.

It isn’t that the question I am talking about should not have been asked in terms of content – in that respect it was entirely legitimate – but the way it was asked was, IMO, a deliberate ‘testing of the waters’ by the TDC and it sat outside of the expected parameters at that time. How so you ask? Well, it was written in such a way that it focused specifically on the physical chemistry at the molecular level, and required an answer in those terms. This was a very pointed move away from the what the CB/TDC call ‘algorithmic’ calculations (but that I call super-important, good chemistry), to the role of physics topics like Coulomb’s law etc. (that I call a move away from chemistry) in the new course. My dislike of that general move is not the problem here, rather the problem is that in 2013 the new course had not started. As such, I believe that the CB/TDC ‘cheated’, by road-testing a ‘new’ question on the legacy exam – tsk, tsk!

Anyway, so what question are we talking about, and what’s the point of this post?

The question in question is 2013, 5, shown below. The highlighted text shows how the new curriculum thinking crept into the old, legacy exam, and how that was, IMO, out of order.

2013, 5

As for the point of this post, it’s this. If I had to identify to a single question, to show kids and teachers how they might expect the style of a new question (and hence the required answers for new questions) in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to differ from the legacy question/answer style prior to 2014, then I would point to this one. The irony? This is a legacy question! That makes no sense.


  1. Paul Price

    Ah Adrian, some of us call this kinetic molecular theory….. Hence the question as to what is happening on the molecular level. Stop trying to see ghosts where there are none. Here is a similar example from the deep past:

    1993 D

    Observations about real gases can be explained at the molecular level according to the kinetic molecular theory of gases and ideas about intermolecular forces. Explain how each of the following observations can be interpreted according to these concepts, including how the observation supports the correctness of these theories.

    (a) When a gas-filled balloon is cooled, it shrinks in volume; this occurs no matter what gas is originally placed in the balloon.
    (b) When the balloon described in (a) is cooled further, the volume does not become zero; rather, the gas becomes a liquid or solid.
    (c) When NH3 gas is introduced at one end of a long tube while HCl gas is introduced simultaneously at the other end, a ring of white ammonium chloride is observed to form in the tube after a few minutes. This ring is closer to the HCl end of the tube than the NH3 end.
    (d) A flag waves in the wind.

    Several of us might of course try to engage you in chemical discourse on other outlets. However, it is tough (and sad) to see that the High School Ambassador for AACT has blocked so many other chemistry teachers with whom he does not agree. Is it not the job of the ambassador to promote and discuss chemistry with all teachers, regardless if he does or does not agree with them?

    • Adrian

      Thanks for taking the time to write. Since you raise so many different points, I’ll try to address each of them in turn.

      Funnily enough, when writing the original post I thought of 1993, 9, in particular part (d). That part question has routinely been described by me (and others) as the most bizarre AP chemistry question of all time! IMO (and others), part (d) is a physics question, and since the question is so odd I think makes my point. A question like it is SO ATYPICAL of the questions in the legacy course, but will likely become increasingly typical in the new course that it makes my point. Thanks for pointing it out and helping me to make my point.

      Ghosts? Yeah, there are plenty. Spencer’s influence in getting PES implanted, absence of a Czar, the mysterious ‘fall off the cliff’ results for 2015, the monopoly, the audit, inquiry’s role in AP chemistry, the loss of fundamental Gen Chem 101 topics etc. I have no way of proving it of course, but you’ll never convince me that question 5 from 2013 wasn’t at least a subconscious nod to the new exam (before the new exam), if not a conscious one.

      Given that you have replied to my post here, and I have responded, I don’t understand why you would need another outlet. In any case, how many outlets do you need? I think you’ll find several hundred posts of mine on the College Board Electronic Discussion Group for AP chemistry where you very occasionally post, too! I find Twitter to be a wholly inadequate venue for the discourse that you speak of, and therefore would rather have more meaningful discussions here or on the AP EDG – as you know, we need the Czar to speak up over there far more often. My personal Twitter account is not an official AACT account, so I can choose to engage with who I like, but as for the role of the AACT ambassador you raise an interesting question. The role is not really defined at all, and outside of promoting the AACT and encouraging people to join the organization I don’t think that there is a requirement to agree with all philosophies. In fact, having been elected from a field of 27 educators in what might be called a ‘landslide’, with my profile and philosophies FIRMLY established in the public arena long before the election, one might say that I was ‘what the people wanted’!

      • Paul Price

        Ah. So let’s ask another question. How do you know what you think as super important (such as algorithmic calculations) are now as valued by the higher educational community as a whole at the current time? You have often stated that you do not understand the intracicies of the American university system. Therefore, for someone for whom the exam is EVERYTHING, how are you certain that the newer exam is not a better mechanism for advanced placement? How do you know that higher ed will not favor a type of question that you personally do not like to assess if a student is ready for the advanced course?

        As to your other point, building traffic on your personal site is not the goal of these questions. Neither is the listserv, as a majority of the populace would not find another popular venue (such as the teacher community) as an appropriate location for your soapbox. Open discourse typically needs to happen in an open space such as Twitter where people can decide if they wish to follow one or both of us as opposed to having an email forced down their throat. In addition, I would not be certain when one is elected from 27 people anyone could ever state a landslide occurred – if 2 vote for me an one for each of the other 26, I am not seeing that as a mandate. That aside, mechanisms such as Twitter may be the only way those individuals can interact with you – you may want to consider how your actions are viewed by the larger community as a whole, when you presumably act from a position of some leadership.

        • Adrian

          Did the state universities in Colorado just downgrade the credit awarded to AP chemistry in their system? Does Paul Cohen think that AP chem should no longer be awarded two semesters of credit at the college level? The people I have spoken to think that omission of quantum numbers is an unacceptable step when in comes to comparing AP chemistry to Gen Chem 101. I could go on. If you are talking about edubabble pedagogy, then I am sure there is a ton of (ha, ha) ‘evidence’ and ‘research’ to support whatever you choose to believe.

          As for the AACT election I was personally told that I won by a mile. Having said that, I don’t think that even a unanimous vote gives me any ‘mandate’, simply because I don’t think the position comes with any mandate (regardless of the size of victory)! The position has no ‘power’ and it barely has any responsibilities. Those that it does have, I think I have carried out well.

          I know how some view my actions, and I also know how others view my actions. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but judging by the email that I get on a daily basis in support of my views, I think I’m doing a lot right.

          I know we see to eye to eye on almost nothing Paul, and that’s fine by me. I shall continue to support what I see as a better way for chemistry education, and no doubt you will do the same. I like to sleep at night, and my actions and words allow me to do that – for your sake, I hope that you feel the same way.

          • Paul Price

            Oh I have no problems sleeping at all. However, I don’t know if I can believe your own statement. As you just stated on the Teacher Community : “Frustrated, Tired and Afraid? Yep, me too. Our problems may not be the same, but I have all of the same feelings on a daily basis when it comes to dealing with AP Chemistry in 2015. I suggest getting used to it!” That does not sound like someone who is having a lot of fulfillment teaching chemistry. I know you have stated before that you don’t care to have the depth in certain topics (such as what actually goes on in a circuit or electrochemical cell on a molecular level) as you don’t feel it is important. However, maybe seeing how others see those topics may help you present this information in a way that any of your students can think their way through problems. If you would ever like help developing this chemical content depth in these areas, particularly in conceptual models, feel free to ask.

            In addition, it is always surprises me in the lack of depth you have when it comes to the published external motivations of the redesign, especially considering how you purport to be an expert in the “hidden” details of these changes. None of this is “edubabble”: several publications, including the Journal of Chemical Education have described this process. Such discussion includes why changes were made to intentionally make the AP course NOT be an exact mirror of several Chem 101 courses in terms of assessment. I would be happy to supply you a copy of some of these articles as well so you would at least be able to add some published facts to some of your “discussion”.

            Finally, being a physical chemist myself, I still teach quantum numbers in my course, as I feel this content benefits my students although they will not be assessed on this in May. If you truly believe this is important as an educator, I am still at a loss as to why you wouldn’t use your own feelings as to what your students may need in subsequent courses to add this topic in. Don’t give me the standard “if its not in the exam response”; why not teach it if YOU feel that it is important? Being at an independent school, you have the opportunity to give these students this experience; you are the “czar” of your classroom. Do you not have the confidence to go “off script” in several areas and add some extra content, given your tenure as a chemical educator? Wouldn’t adding some of these things back in to your personal course help quell the feelings of being “frustrated, tired, and afraid”? Just a thought.

          • Adrian

            Why would I want help with something that I don’t value? I know you love circuits etc. since you are really a physics guy at heart, and it explains why there is now so much physics in the AP chem curriculum, but I don’t value that stuff so I’ll leave that to you, thanks.

            I’ve read the JCE articles and I’ve listened to Kristen Cacciatore and Arthur Eisenkraft talk about inquiry based learning in terms of labs. I’ve also heard John Hnatow promote and talk about POGIL, and I disagree with much of what they say. I classify much of that talk as edubabble – you may not.

            When you say, “I am still at a loss as to why you wouldn’t use your own feelings as to what your students may need in subsequent courses to add this topic in”, of course you are! That’s the whole difference in our philosophies. I believe that if you are teaching a course that is entitled AP chemistry, that you are obligated NOT to include topics that are not part of the AP course. That seems entirely logical and reasonable to me. The CB/TDC has deemed quantum numbers to be unimportant by their actions.

            The only thing that’s making me frustrated, tired and afraid is the new AP chemistry curriculum which, I believe, is potentially damaging to chemical education. If I could, I’d drop teaching it tomorrow and offer what I would consider to be a better, advanced high school chemistry course.

  2. Paul Price

    So why not try this, as you sit at an independent school and should have some say in your curricula. Why not teach that “better” course where you have complete control. In all likelihood, such a course would cover more than what the current AP Chem CF would detail. Your students would benefit from your experience and ability to teach them chemistry. Then, if they desired, let them take the exam. You can say to them that since it is not AP Chemistry that there may be a topic or two they may not be as familiar with. But if they have developed the skills of an advanced HS course, then much of what you would cover would overlap and they would still be fine, if they truly understand the chemistry. If not, then why not offer two courses at your school, particularly since your students take this in one year: an AP Chem course and an advanced course that would allow you, as czar, to decide on which topics are “best”. Instead of complaining and taking pot shots from a distance at people who don’t agree with you, why don’t you make some change in an area in which you can have a real effect for what you perceive is best for your students? Of course, if your school is not in agreement with your ideas, there are many other schools that don’t teach AP at all – there are always options.

    Oh and I had nothing to do with the writing of the curriculum framework and thus had nothing to do with any “physics” in the current curriculum. Again, happy to supply you with an article so you can get your facts straight……

    • Adrian

      I have suggested this route, and currently that would appear not to be an option. I shall continue to call things as I see them, which will likely result in much complaining about the inferior, new AP chemistry curriculum and exam. Americans don’t like that much I know, the eternal optimists, they see things in a different way to me. From my perspective, it is my duty to call out what I see to be inferior.

  3. Paul Price

    Again, you could always find an institution that would allow you to do so. With your skills and knowledge, certainly there would be options. Why continue to teach what you do not believe in? Instead of complaining, take some action…..

    • Adrian

      I am taking action by pointing out the inferior. Anyway, you said that my knowledge was lacking.

      • Paul Price

        No, you said your knowledge was lacking in certain areas (I will be happy to pull the discussion on cells for example). Thus, the offer to help. I know I would be very bored if I didn’t continue to learn and expand horizons; it is a hallmark that most would say is critical for both a a scientist and a teacher. It is always a pleasure to help others do the same.

        • Adrian

          My knowledge is lacking when it comes to physics, yes. I know that’s your ‘thing’. I shouldn’t need physics on an AP chemistry exam. That’s (part of) the problem.


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