Saturday, May 18, 2013

AP Biology Exam

This post may not have a wide appeal, but I wanted to capture a few thoughts about the AP biology exam, before everything about the class drains out of my head!

The College Board redesigned the exam this year, based on a new curriculum framework that came out last year.  The idea was that instead of focusing on knowing a ton of random esoteric facts about biology (the old-style exam), the students would be more able to think and reason like scientists, within a framework of biological knowledge. 

No one really had any idea what exactly the exam would be like.  I am still praising the Lord for allowing me to get AP approved, so that I could access the practice exam!  But Nathan didn't really think the practice exam questions were all that helpful, other than helping with pacing.  The College Board sent out a second set of a little more than 30 practice problems, which I also sent out to the boys, and Nathan thought those were more helpful.  What was universally agreed that was NOT helpful were any of the test prep books.  We used Barrons, which came out in February, but they were just guessing on the questions like the rest of us, and their questions were still geared more to the old format.  People who used other books felt the same way though.  Hopefully the test prep companies will learn as well and offer better, more helpful books next year.

There were 63 multiple choice questions, and most of them had big, long sections of reading accompanying them, along with graphs or tables.  One big complaint from students on the collegeconfidential website, as well as from AP teachers on the biology discussion board (passing along their students' comments), was that they couldn't finish the multiple choice questions because of all the reading.  Nathan, Isaac, and Eric did not have trouble finishing the questions.  Apparently a lot of students felt like the multiple choice part was "the ACT science section on steroids".  Nathan hasn't taken the ACT yet, so I don't know, but it sounded like a lot of logic/reasoning/problem solving, more than just knowledge of tricky biological concepts.  A lot of students were upset by this, feeling like they could have just taken any honors biology course and done just as well.  Some teachers felt that students who slacked off in the course could potentially have done just as well as students who really studied, as long as the slackers were good test-takers.  Since the boys aren't supposed to discuss the specific questions, I don't know really, but from the sample problems, you did have to know the concepts to be able to make sense of the reading, and to do it in a timely manner.  I don't think someone could have just taken it cold and done well.  None of my boys thought the questions were as hard as they could have been.  Some kids on collegeconfidential thought they were really easy; some thought they were extremely hard.  I am glad that just in general we focus a lot on logic and problem solving around here.  Who knew it would be so helpful in so many different areas?  : )  As some teachers pointed out, we live in an age where we can easily look up random facts.  But being able to analyze data and draw conclusions is a more important skill for scientists.  Interesting to think about. 

In the first section, which was 90 minutes long, there were also 6 "grid-in" questions.  These are questions where you have to solve some sort of math problem, so the answer is a number, and you bubble in the correct number on your answer sheet.  Nathan again felt prepared for these.  There aren't tons of different math problem possibilities out there for biology, so it was pretty obvious to me that for example, one problem would be a Hardy-Weinburg problem.  And it was!  I was glad we hammered that!  The main problem experienced by kids was that at the end of the multiple choice section, there was a message that said "END OF PART A.  DO NOT STOP.  CONTINUE TO PART B."  Somehow, maybe just due to the stress of the test, a lot of kids saw that message, and thought the proctor would tell them when to move on to the grid-in problems.  So time ran out, and they didn't do them!  The good news is that the grid-ins were weighted exactly the same as the multiple choice questions, but still . . . the teachers said a lot of their best students didn't do the questions, which may cut their chances for a 5.  I had told the boys to do the grid-in questions first, since if they were running short on time, then it is at least possible to guess on multiple choice questions, unlike on grid-ins!  There is now a thread on the teachers forum about how to make the directions more clear (take out "STOP" completely?).  It sounds like this is partly a problem due to all the high-stakes standardized testing all these students take all the time--where they are conditioned to stop after each section.  Another advantage of homeschooling!

The last section were the essays or "free response questions".  In the new format, there are 2 long FRQs (which are supposed to take about 20 minutes to write the answers for), as well as 6 shorter one paragraph FRQs that are only supposed to take about 6 minutes each.  The College Board has released all the FRQs for the "Form O" test that most students took.  You can look at them here and ascertain for yourself whether or not you could answer these questions without a college-level biology course!  Nathan thought these questions were easier than he expected, and he wrote something down for each one.  Who knows yet what the scoring rubric will be, though, and if he put in his answers everything the readers were wanting to see!  The general consensus on collegeconfidential also was that the questions were not too difficult.  There has been a lively thread on the AP teachers' forum discussing potential answers to these questions!

So now we wait.  Scores are officially out on July 8, which seems a long ways away! 

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