The danger of failing to interpret and contextualize the CED

September 19, 2023

The AP Chemistry Course & Exam Description (CED) is the document that tells teachers the content can be examined on the AP Chemistry exam in May of each year. As an AP Chemistry teacher, the CED is the single most important guide to the teaching of the course, so when questions arise about what content is in – and just as importantly what content is out – is it just as simple as searching the CED to find the relevant phrase? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

I often see AP Chemistry teachers ask questions such as, “Should I teach combustion analysis” followed by, “I searched the CED and couldn’t find it”. Well, be careful! There’s a real danger in searching that document and drawing the conclusion that if a particular phrase is not present then that means a topic is not examinable. The simple explanation of the disconnect lies in interpretation and context.

Let’s take combustion analysis as an example. The better question to ask about teaching it is, “Would teaching combustion analysis involve the calculation of moles, the application of stoichiometry, and the possible calculation of empirical and/or molecular formula?” Well, I think we all know the answer to those questions, and hence combustion analysis’s potential relevance to an AP chemistry course.

A similar (but different) example is the question of teaching paramagentism and diamagnetism. I have dealt with that question here. In this instance the conversation revolves around the way that LOs connected with electronic configuration might be interpreted beyond the literal. I have a simple test for this. I ask myself, “If a question about [blank] came up on the exam, would I feel it “unfair”?”  With paramagnetism I would not, so it’s “in” for me. It should be noted that teaching something like paramagnetism is such a low impact topic in terms of time and deviation from what I have to teach about electronic configuration anyway, that it’s almost a nothing-burger, and perhaps time might make a difference in other examples.

Finally I deal with balancing REDOX in acid and base here. This treatment is similar to that related to paramagnetism in as much as it involves an interpretation of LOs rather than their literal reading, but also goes further. I feel there is just too much value in teaching balancing REDOX in acid and base for other areas of the course for it to be ignored.

It’s still true that the literal reading of the CED is vital, but so are these other ways to consume it. In the first instance combustion is essentially just another name for a bunch of things that are explicitly listed in the CED; the second example is a “safety first” approach, where a wider interpretation of the application of LOs means that I teach something that I feel feasibly could be examined; and thirdly there’s an example of a topic that I don’t think will be examined literally, but offers way too much value across other areas of the examinable curriculum for it to be omitted. Each of these is subtlety different, but each offers a window into the CED that goes beyond just “Ctrl+F”.



  1. Rick Russo

    Just a quick question – totally agree with the above, but – for brand new AP Chem teachers, should they in fact stick close to the CED and add as needed?

    • Adrian

      Obviously, yes. The only point I’m making is that if you search for a word in the CED and don’t find it, don’t assume that it’s outside of the scope. Interpretation is everything.


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