U.S. science education. Revisions to AP courses expected to have domino effect.


Last month, Jeffrey Lamb began teaching Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry for the f irst time at Woodmont International Baccalaureate High School in Piedmont, South Carolina. The public school’s decision to offer the course reflects the explosive growth of the AP program, a suite of 38 courses intended to mirror an introductory college course. Last year, 442,000 students—up from 66,000 in 1989—took one of the six AP science offerings (in addition to chemistry, there are three physics courses and one each in biology and environmental science) as school districts around the country increasingly use them as a marker for a quality education. But that growth has unwittingly compounded what a slew of reports have found to be a flawed approach to teaching science: too much emphasis on facts and memorization and too little attention to the underlying concepts and how science is actually practiced. Because students can receive college credit if they pass the AP exam in a particular subject, colleges have insisted that the AP course include everything covered in those introductory courses. The result has been a pedagogical nightmare. “AP teachers have had to resort to memorization and factual recall as a way to cover everything that could be on the exam, although that was never our intention,” admits Trevor Packer of the College Board, the New York City–based nonprofit association that operates the program. But that is changing. In July, the College Board unveiled the f irst piece of a major revision of the AP syllabi for science. The new courses will emphasize conceptual knowledge, updated regularly and learned by doing, along with teaching how scientists ask and answer important questions. And this week, the board released a related document, called Standards for College Success, that suggests how science should be taught throughout secondary (middle and high) school (professionals.collegeboard.com/k-12/standards). Lamb doesn’t need convincing. Instead of drilling students on how to apply a particular algorithm, he says, “I’d much rather that students are able to explain the underlying concept to me, in English, and show me they understand something about how nature builds the stuff around us.” Lamb spent the summer whittling down the massive AP chemistry syllabus to fit into a manageable 1-year course. As department chair, he also tweaked the school’s other science courses so that students would be better prepared to handle the AP material. Biology is the f irst of the AP science courses being revised, and there’s a consensus that it’s also the course most in need of drastic changes. “We’ve learned so much since I began teaching in the 1980s, and it all gets added to the curriculum. But nothing gets dropped,” says Julie Zedalis of The Bishop’s School in San Diego, California, a private school whose students historically lead the nation on the AP biology exam. Zedalis co-chaired the board’s most recent commission to revise AP biology. “Everybody has their favorite domain. But people are going to have to be willing to give up something for the good of the program,” she says. Robert Dennison, an award-winning AP biology teacher at Lee High School in Houston, Texas, and another member of the commission, says he heard “a big sigh of relief ” from teachers after they read the commission’s report and realized a slimmer curriculum would give them the opportunity “to share their passion for science.” Restructuring the course will also require the College Board to revise its highstakes final exam. “Students will need to be given options, the chance to demonstrate their knowledge through examples that draw on what topics they have covered,” says Dennison. Zedalis thinks that won’t be a problem if teachers understand that the goal is for students to understand a particular topic well enough to be able to apply those principles to novel situations. “If you’re teaching osmosis and diffusion, you can talk about the movement of gases from the lungs to the capillaries, or the walls of the intestine, or how plants transport water,” she explains. “You don’t need to do all of them.” The revised course, she adds, eliminates the need to teach “the organ of the day” in a mad dash to cover every human system. The College Board hopes to announce in December a timetable for revising all the science courses. A tentative implementation date of 2012 for AP biology, says Packer, hinges on training enough teachers in the new course and preparing a new exam. Although in theory the changes in the AP syllabi may eventually f ilter down to Revisions to AP Courses Expected to Have Domino Effect U.S. SCIENCE EDUCATION

DOI: 10.1126/science.325_1488

Cite this paper

@article{Mervis2009USSE, title={U.S. science education. Revisions to AP courses expected to have domino effect.}, author={Jeffrey D Mervis}, journal={Science}, year={2009}, volume={325 5947}, pages={1488-9} }