What’s the point in having an AP Chemistry Czar? 5 things to take care of now!

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February 07, 2020

It’s possible that it escaped your notice, but in 2019 the College Board finally took my advice when they created the position of AP Chemistry Czar. You might think that given my agitation clearly had a significant part in creating this job for someone, that I would be pleased, and in theory I am, but the practice is proving to be quite different.

This post runs the risk of turning into a long rant about the shackles that the bureaucracy places upon anyone working for a behemoth organization such as the College Board will inevitably be placed in, but that’s a little too obvious. Suffice to say that in the final analysis, the AP chemistry Czar will unlikely have any real power, will be forced into being a ‘yes man’, and even if that person wanted to be more of a maverick, there’s no way that they would be allowed to have a meaningful impact; one reason (among many), that I would never be interested in fulfilling such a role.

So, if I’m not going to go off on a long-winded, negative tangent, how about I take a more positive position, and I make a list of things that the AP Chemistry Czar SHOULD be doing to help the AP chemistry community that matters, i.e., the teachers and kids? Here’s a list of practical, actionable points that, as a person who SHOULD be serving his customers, SHOULD be implementing.

OK, here’s a top five. For the record I have a list that’s much longer than just five, but in the interest of brevity, and getting the ball rolling, a top five seems like a good place to start.

1. Making formal, definitive statements on grading policy with specific reference to topics.

It’s just not good enough to say, “good, relevant chemistry will always get credit”, and nor is it good enough to fail to make DEFINITIVE, public statements about what will and won’t score points. Although the first statement is fine in isolation, it just doesn’t address the problem of the College Board moving the goalposts without warning.

The classic example that I quote over and over is the sudden removal of acceptance of a Le Châtelier argument being used to explain the voltage of non-standard cells. I’ve told the story many times of how the chief examiner at the time told me himself that an equilibrium explanation would be just fine to address the higher or lower voltages of non-standard cells, only for that argument to suddenly – i.e., with no formal statement on such – become unacceptable. It literally doesn’t matter that the principle should not really be applied in such a situation, what matters was that the chief examiner said it was, there was a precedent of evidence to support that position, and then it became unacceptable with no formal word. This is unacceptable, wrong, misleading, unfair, and should not be tolerated by AP chemistry teachers. Unfortunately, far too many teachers are meek, and unconcerned by such things, and that dreadfully weakens our collective position.

2. All point values should be added to exam questions on the exam paper.

There is NO reason not to do this. We already know that the long FRQ’s will be worth 10 points, and the short FRQ’s will be worth 4 points, so assigning point values to parts (a), (b), (c) etc. is a simple job. The argument that we don’t know what children will write as their answers until the reading is utterly spurious, and whilst true, has no bearing on preventing this simple, helpful measure. There is no connection between deciding on what will score credit at the reading (fair enough), and the total number of points that will be assigned to each part – NONE. Do this immediately.

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3. Remove the inquiry element from the audit.

I don’t care what you think about inquiry as a pedagogy (you could be the world’s number one proponent, or you could be me) that’s not the point. Rather, that by insisting that ANY particular pedagogy should be an integral part of any course, the College Board’s are overstepping their mandate, and teachers should have pushed back far more than they have. It’s the College Board’s job to tell us what can be examined, administer the exam, and report the results – NOTHING else. YOUR classroom is NONE of their business.

4. Change the title of 5.9 in the latest CED.

It’s misleading, unhelpful, ambiguous, and has caused much anxiety among teachers. A mistake by the College Board, why not admit it? The Czar told me himself a few days ago that SSA as an entity will not be examined, so what’s the issue here? I’ll agree that what that follows in the CED is not ambiguous, but here’s the issue; failure to admit to a simple mistake makes undermines credibility. Taking of which …

5. Formally publish grade boundaries each year.

The practice of no longer publishing grade boundaries looks shady at best, and after the very, very odd 2015 results, makes people doubt the integrity of the system. Of course, in 2019 teachers came together to actually work out the grade boundaries by pooling data, but that’s not the point. The fact that information is being withheld is the problem. Like the non-action/admission in #4 above, it looks somehow shifty.

It’s important that we have a watchdog of sorts, a counterweight to a monopoly of shills, and that somebody call the College Board out on AP chemistry matters. For years I’ve unofficially been that person, and I intend to be increasingly vigilant now that we have a person in the position that I helped create. More ideas on how to make AP chemistry better to follow.


  1. Paul Cohen

    I have continued to argue vociferously against the arrogance that allows them to tell us what kinds of labs to do, and what portion of our time they must occupy. More recently, they tell us what we can and cannot use in formulating our grades. They try to pretend that the recent changes in payment and cancellation policies were done to “increase minority access,” rather than to force even more unqualified students to take the exam, and hand in blank papers. You are not alone!

  2. Hilary Bayse

    Why is this stuff hard for AP to figure out. This is my second time teaching AP Chem. I taught it back in 2010 before this year. I have taught IB Chem for the last 4 years and AP is a struggle after IB. IB is well structured and does all the things above. It’s not rocket science! I find myself teaching IB style and adding in the parts AP requires like PES.

    • Adrian

      IB is of course, LIGHT years ahead of AP. The main reason is that there has never been any public exam culture in the USA. The ridiculous/fictitious high school transcript still rules. It’s absolute madness.


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