AP Loves Me, AP Loves Me Not

I lapsed in judgement, yet again. I accepted  an AP (Advanced Placement) student  for tutoring after February. Once again I fell for the line, “I just need a bit of help with test taking skills.”

I had to be the person to explain in May, ten days before the exam, how the student lacked the depth of familiarity with the content (Biology) and their writing did not meet the minimum a reader would seek for a college level survey class.  I had to do this so the student and parents could set realistic expectations: (1) Student will get credit for high school science. (2) Student could suddenly have a burst of understanding regarding photosynthesis (light/dark reactions), Krebs Cycle and other known subject areas of the test AND construct short essay answers which would demonstrate understanding, interpreting, prediction and application, if not synthesis of information – although this was highly unlikely.

Based on two tutoring sessions a week apart (after the first one I was pretty sure the student lacked the depth of knowledge), and wishing to give the student the benefit of the doubt, I met for the second session. The first session could have been nerve-wracking by expecting the student to get through at least two to three of the ‘six short free response questions’ pulled from a series of release questions on the College Board website…. At our first meeting, I had to provide the student with sticky tabs to label sections of the book. By the second session, the student could not locate the section of the book with the pancreas, insulin (hormone) and the feedback process. I knew I had to be honest.

Section 1 lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes and contains 63 multiple choice questions and 6 grid-in questions.

Section 2 lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes (plus a 10 minute reading period), and contains 8 questions consisting of 2 long free response questions and 6 short free response questions.

I am not sure who was more sad or relieved. The student and parents clearly had no clear understanding of what an AP class was about or they would have done things much differently during the school year. I was able to ask a few questions and prove this out easily.

The AP exam, for any subject, is not an easy class. AP classes allot a student college credit for the basic  level 101 English, U.S. History, Biology, Psychology, etc.  upon the student demonstrating by exam they have college freshman level skills in the subject. This means the high school course is a ‘survey’ course of content the student should have already had one exposure to and/or it is a subject area they are passionate about (example: student interested in med school will LOVE the content in Biology and/or Chemistry and eat, sleep, dream about these subject areas so the AP course will be pure joy).

AP does not mean intelligence or smarts. The most common misnomer by parents is the one which is something along the lines of, “College prep coursework in high school must be the lowest track. Honors is for smart students. My child is brilliant and going to college so they must take AP courses to demonstrate. beyond a doubt, they are brilliant”.

For whatever reason, no one bothers to ask and read about http://www.totalregistration.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=494&Itemid=118  or https://www.collegeboard.org/releases/2014/class-2013-advanced-placement-results-announced which has the numbers of students who register for the test and the percent of students who pass with a 3, 4 or 5 score (1 and 2 ratings are not applicable for college credit).  No high school counselor managed to have a meeting with families to explain the actual rigors and expectations of an AP course and what the actual outcomes look like, in numeric form.

The reality is, upon reading past the College Board marketing, approximately 50-80% of students PASS the AP exams each year in any given subject area (achieving a 3 or higher). This indicates not all students pass with college credit, even though all students are allowed to register for the class.  20 -50% of students who apply for the exam (Not all students in the class apply for the exam!), take the AP course for the year and show up for the exam(s) do not pass….This is truth in numbers. It depends as much on subject content as study habits as persistence. The numbers tell a story no one pays much attention to regarding what types of classes students should be taking in high school.

Sometimes the student has not had a previous in-depth exposure to the subject area and is surprised by the sheer volume of information involved in a college level course. Sometimes the AP course teacher is not an experienced teacher and neglects to get students WRITING (for the courses which require this portion of the exam) in October so students have time to practice and/or determine if they want to put in the effort necessary to pass the AP exam.  Sometimes peer and parental pressure make the student persist.  Sometimes students actually believe they can handle two or three AP courses and sports and some other activities and work themselves to a frenzy where the spring season is hell in the form of not feeling well, not being rested and definitely not successful at something as something has to ‘give’ in a manner of speaking.

The genuine issues students and parents should think about have more to do with outcome than the numbers demonstrating an ‘increase in students taking the AP exams’. Is your child best suited for the level of rigor required to be successful in an AP class AND can you accept not passing the exam while getting high school credit for the class.

Students who have the ability to pass the AP exams have four significant and important skill sets.

  1. In depth exposure to the content area at least once prior to the AP class. This can mean reading _________ for Dummies in August preceding the AP class and/or a general love of the content area.
  2. An understanding of study skills  including flashcards, Cornell notes, multiple sources of media, study groups and practice.
  3. Obtaining a tutor early on so they can adequately review content and practice writing over a long horizon line.
  4. Specifically deciding the one or two things they can commit to for eight months AND will not flip out if one of these items does not work out exactly as planned.

I have given up trying to think through why parents would expect something from their children so extreme as AP coursework. I believe in some ways it is parental narcissism, in the same way it is important to have a child who applies and is accepted to only Ivy League Universities or similar.  Based on the numbers, my experience with tutoring and talking with a wide variety of parents from all socioeconomic classes across America, AP exams are not for everyone AND they do not save anyone money if you have to hire a tutor/coach (doctor, psychologist, etc.) to help your student through the death march of May.  A good tutor can equal the cost of  a 100 level course at a community college. If saving money is your goal, think again. If proving your child is successful, think about what success means and how it is fulfilled. Personally, I would love to have a student who actually understands the pancreas and insulin as we live in the age of diabetes. The student who understands enough biology to be concerned about their own health, the health of their family and care about the environment is far more practical than passing an AP exam.

When will I use science?


Previously I wrote a blog piece on Algebra as it is the fundamental and critical aspect of education which allows one to most ‘likely’ excel.  Algebra is the quintessential  beginning of abstract thinking with which students move on to a more open, questioning mind.  Math is the language of science…..

With common core standards coming down the pike in the U.S. public education system, it behooves us to think about how one will use science knowledge, which is based on the language of maths. I would like to broadly apply how science benefits us and assists in a life well lived. Above and beyond, I would like to put the kibosh on some of the ardor people find in misconstruing hypothesis for theory for fact and calling it knowledge, an abhorrence to even novice scientists.

Daily I use the most basic concepts of hypothesis vs. theory vs. fact vs. opinion when I listen to the news. I am not so naive to believe there is anything as perfect as flawless journalism and keep my mind open – to reasonable ideas. Some things which come across me in conversation, computer, newspaper, etc. are just ridiculous and make me pause to wonder who amongst people I know or am acquainted with might be a ‘believer’  (see URL above).  I pause as the actual thought in my brain is something along the lines of, “Did you complete Algebra?” and I need to restrain myself from saying what is making me smile.

If we are to actually ‘arrive’ in the 21st Century, we will need to start thinking as though we are in the 21st Century and stop relying on misguided beliefs which brought us The Salem Witch Trials, The Scopes Monkey Trial and the five (or ten or 60 ) second rule which was recently clarified by Jillian Clarke at University of Illinois, Urbana -Champaign.   In each instance, people wished to ‘believe’ something not only on the limited knowledge they had on hand at the time, the bigger issue was the lack of continuing to ASK QUESTIONS, which is what all good/great scientists do.

Those who are unwilling to experiment are not ready to accept science as science RARELY calls something a fact:

Just as in philosophy, the scientific concept of fact sometimes referred to as empirical evidence is central to building scientific theories and fundamental questions regarding the natural phenomena of Naturescientific method, scope and validity of scientific reasoning.

In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.

Various scholars have offered significant refinements to this basic formulation (details below). Also, rigorous scientific use of the term “fact” is careful to distinguish: 1) states of affairs in the external world; from 2) assertions of fact that may be considered relevant in scientific analysis. The term is used in both senses in the philosophy of science.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact#Fact_in_science

Being closed-minded is limiting ones ability to be creative, ask important questions and think through various ideas (Shrodinger’s Cat). Closing off the power to think is the antithesis to what anyone would wish to do if they wanted self efficacy, empowerment and a better world.

Examples where understanding and using scientific knowledge abound. I will select a few to think about and digest so the conversation can not be waylaid into something other than improving science education and scientific thought in the U.S.

There are many people who are hateful of GMO foods. If you ask these people to compare/contrast the technology used to create gene therapies for people with medical conditions, they are in favor of genetic manipulation. When asked to have discussion/dialogue on these two different yet related  concepts, most people are unable to have said conversation as they lack the basic understanding of genetics and epigenetics although they are sure anything with genetic manipulation must be bad…..unless it cures a health condition.  This should then lead into a conversation on ethics which is every part as necessary since the ability to perform a genetic change/alteration is not permission to do so (even though Der Spiegel felt a certain scientist must be running around looking for a womb to implant Neanderthal DNA recently inserted into an ova….).

As health care changes and improves, people should be allowed more and stronger input into their end of life.  In fact, people should be able to select and elect how they wish to die. Being able to understand the choices requires some degree of science knowledge and ones own risk tolerance. An example is when some one has cancer and is given options of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, nothing. Each choice has a set of risks and rewards and contains a certain determination regarding how ones life will end from cancer. Some people choose to do surgery if it is clear the doctor feels they can get the tumor out with good margin, they are young enough that anesthesia will not unduly harm them, the surgery can be life-sustaining for a period of time. Some people choose not  to do something so invasive and opt for chemo or radiation. Some people opt for all three until they can no longer take the side effects. Some people do ‘none of the above’. In each case, each person should get to decide for themselves what they feel is best for their quality of life. This is difficult if some one does not understand how the various factors come into play AND know each choice is equally valid and depends upon the person.  The misconstruction of this conversation, where  a doctor and/or medical team educates a patient so they can advocate for their end of life is known as a death panel in some circles…….

We should all be able to make decisions as to the quality of life we live. In this case, we should get to choose if we would like to be able to live long lives where we are healthy and relatively disease free  OR  would  we like a shorter life with more indulgence or even something in between. In order to make the choices, we do need to know what the various activities we do or choose not to do have to do with actuarial tables (those things insurance companies use for so much of their decision-making on risk).  An example would be nutrition. Since both diabetes and obesity are on the upswing, understanding the underlying genetic propensity AND epigenetic factors would help us to some degree in choosing what we eat as living with diabetes is not pleasant.  If we were to actually know the food groups – protein, fats and carbohydrates, we could do better in evaluating information on food packaging which is listed in this format.  We have spent at least my life time talking about milk, meat, vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, plant, animal, fat……without really ever putting it into a context of what is fat for, what is protein for, simple vs. complex sugars in our diet and how vitamins help us process nutrients. It is difficult to tell some one not to drink soda when they do not understand how the body uses sugar.  Why is this so? Look at a school text-book, which is how most science is taught. You will note sugar (if it is even referred to as carbohydrate) is for energy. This seems logical if you don’t know better and leads to thinking a soda will help a person get through the day, not what the body has to do to process the sugar.

We have created a nation of people taught to read a science book, answer a few questions and move through life. When Harvard University began studying science misconceptions in education, they put together The Private Universe Project. One film was quite telling – it included interviews of Harvard and MIT grads on graduation day in the 1980’s NOT being able to  explain photosynthesis   http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=77      You watch the movie and immediately understand science has to be something more important and less of a ‘special’ activity.  If we are to get past people thinking we can just go out and find a womb to implant a Neanderthal, we might do well just to learn photosynthesis.

We can do better – we have to leave the books and multiple choice testing behind.  If Algebra is a gateway…..science most definitely is the road we need to walk.

2009 Science Data by NAEP… the good, bad, ugly and true.

Many people are amazed when I relate why I left teaching science in the classroom – as if it was the most ridiculous decision I could have made – job security was ‘everything’.   I  try to explain  I was using my feet to cast my vote against what I believe to be vapid.  I left the classroom four years ago after teaching science at a charter school – the final frontier for teaching to the test and only knowing about API and AYP in California.   I knew about and followed NAEP which meant API and AYP were only one piece of a larger and more complex puzzle regarding the process of  education. 

Interestingly, most teachers at any school and a fair amount of  principals are inadequately aware of what NAEP is to even have a quality education reform conversation, at least in California.  Education reform centered around such items as question banks for pre/post assessment and data collection (CST’s).  I can not even remember the last time I heard a teacher state the idea of anecdotal evidence.  Part of me felt overpaid for the job I was doing since I sure was not allowed to teach science in the manner which mattered (NAEP results as of Tuesday are indicative of this feeling http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/26/nations-report-card-science_n_814112.html ). 

At some point that last year in the classroom, it occurred to me I had not gone to graduate school to teach from a text book or kit -as the kind people of Lawrence Hall of Srecience – UC Berkeley (FOSS Kit) were trying to convince me to teach Gr 7 photosynthesis while writing the chemical equation on  paper with paper atoms!    When I discussed the possibilities of using various other hands on methods of exploring the concept of photosynthesis (Elodea in a test tube with indicator fluid – blow in CO2 and cap, allow to photosynthesize in sunlight outside and see the gas on the pond plant leaves and so forth), it was made clear to me ‘this was not what was on the test’ and therefore my students needed to do/study the lessons Lawrence Hall of Science constructed.  I accidentally on purpose cited the infamous Harvard Study (along with The Smithsonian Institution as part of my point of reference), to no avail.  Apparently what was found out all those years ago regarding science misconceptions never quite translated itself from the right coast to the left coast. 

I was caught between a rock and just a place – it was not a hard/difficult place, it was just a place.  Just teach science as you are told and follow the text book.  The rock was my conscience and my better sense of what a quality education could be.  There was nothing compelling about teaching science from a textbook.

The stage for my decision to leave the classroom was set by President Bush as he pushed  NCLB through Congress on an express plane to hell.  NAEP  (National Assessment of Educational Progress) was just beginning to be read/heard and appreciated by a broader group of educators. Although The  National Assessment of Educational Progress has been around since 1969, it seems only professors in the field of education paid attention.  Although NAEP had great data, it could not get traction with an administration which believed evolution was one of the signs of the second coming (NAEP uses scientific methods to obtain data).   It is difficult to refer to the above scenario as few people even understand NAEP.

 Grad schools these days do not discuss NAEP – very few people know what it is when I reference it as its name, the acronym or The Nation’s Report Card.    Apparently the idea of parity across the states is taboo since each state managed to carve out a special meaning for highly qualified teachers.

The NAEP science assessment is not specifically aligned to California’s science content standards. There is no national science curriculum and each state sets its own standards. California’s own science assessment system, as it has for other subjects, shows students making steady progress. – Mr. Torlakson

  This inability to discuss the larger idea of a national curriculum and parity is also part of why the data released 25 January 2011 was so unsettling.  People don’t really know what the data means, so they belittle it.

“As a science teacher, these results are troubling. Despite the enormous efforts being made by educators, we’re seeing the consequences of lagging behind other states in investing in education,” Torlakson said. “This test is a less-than-precise measure of student performance in California, but it is one more signal about where we stand and where we’re headed.  http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr11/yr11rel12.asp

The good part is it is ‘NOT TOO LATE’ for the U.S. to regroup and actually do something about our shoddy education system as it relates to science. The bad is it will be costly since there are many wonderful undereducated and/or poorly educated students laden with misconceptions which must be dealt with.  The ugly is it will be difficult to recruit the people with both the expertise in science/math and the mastery of educational process without the dollars.  Teach for America may have their grant – they are horrible at retention.  The true (truth) is, I left at just the right time – when nothing was happening.  There is hope things will turn around in the not too distant future.  I believe it would be great to teach science again – in a manner which matters.

I’m in a State of Matter State of Mind

In a month and a half I am doing a workshop at RAFT (Resource Area For Teaching) where I used to work.  I was invited to do a two day hands on workshop with Erik Welker (who still works at RAFT) as the two of us are always up to good learning mischief when we work together.  We chose kitchen science, Rube Goldberg and all manner of energy transfers, photosynthesis (extrapolate a good way to teach photosynthesis drawing  on The Harvard Study called Private Universe) and of course, insects.

Part of the inspiration for this workshop is how to actually ‘DO’ science as oppossed to viewing science in a text book or on line or merely writing about reading something without actually doing something.  The class is to be for multiple grade levels (Gr 4 and above) and have teacher appeal as the workshop is for teachers.  One of the greatest joys of RAFT is the ability to do a workshop not based on a specific mapped out, written out, detailed to the nth degree lesson plan. RAFT allows for, expects and endorses  presenting a related  series of concepts which are supported with purposeful rationale (always related to the standards), prevent science misconceptions (to the best of the ability of Eric and myself), and have fun.  Anyone who finds fault with all of that must be affiliated with a textbook company.

As a general rule of thumb, Eric and myself plan out a rough outline and make sure to incorporate Idea Sheets from RAFT. We meet and organize the flow (although it always seems to be over planned and goes well organically, we just have organizational control issues), we meet again to do materials procurement – which, being at RAFT is better than shopping for food, books or things in a hardware store (my personal favorites) and then, in the end, put together useful resources to support what we are presenting.  We organize a HUGE subject specific library of materials, web sites and sources in the hopes that our enthusiasm about what we teach will possibly spill over to others.  It is a fun process and it makes us THINK – something we both enjoy and RAFT also encourages. 

I was in the ‘thinking’ process today which created this blog.   I was just finishing Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (a great fictional work on Isaac Newton, alchemy and the ties which bind scientists together…) when I had to begin the process of listing resources for cooking science and states of matter.  Rebecca’s book goes back to the 17th Century and dwells upon what Newton was doing as he sorted out light, color, gravity, the beginnings of calculus and so on by using scientific method and observation.  What I found interesting was that even with the limited tools, technology and capacity to test out ideas, Newton was far ahead of some things currently in text books and on line about matter, its various states and how misconceptions are handed down.  I started to feel like the alchemists apprentice as I waded through various on line sources and became critical or what I was observing as ‘interactive’.  Newton may have been proud, however, I fear there will be (there always are) some people who think I am a bit nutty for being critical of how science concepts are presented in 2-D.  To my defense, I am a credentialed teacher with a graduate degree so I think I am entitled to voice my opinion on science materials, so here goes:

Are there more states of matter if you are studying science in college?  I ask this as you have a choice when you do a Google search of 3, 4 or 5 states of matter.  I get the three – liquid, solid and gas but really believe in the four, which includes plasma.  I absolutely believe in the possibility of a fifth state.  I can not justify teaching K-3 students three phases of matter and adding – I know it needs to be addressed, if nothing else to remove the doubt that the fourth state of matter is not in your flat screen TV, so to speak.  I hesitate to view websites that only address three states and are aligned to text books. We can talk about the fourth state and simply say, “You will learn more about what it is and how it works as your science ability improves, but there are four states of matter”.  The equivalent would be to merely teach children matter is matter and that there are not many types of matter, which they can tell at a relatively early age are different by color, smell, taste, sound,etc.  My rotten tomatoes list for this category goes out to almost all text books and the following websites: Chem4kids.com, http://www.nyu.edu/pages/mathmol/textbook/statesofmatter.htmlhttp://www2.mcdaniel.edu/Graduate/TI/pages/LEWIS/matterweb.htm, http://www.harcourtschool.com/activity/states_of_matter/, http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.champaignschools.org/science/images/matter.jpg&imgrefurl=https://room34pstext.wikispaces.com/8.3%2BStructure%2Bof%2BMatter&h=465&w=622&sz=13&tbnid=waslwRMvdViDHM:&tbnh=102&tbnw=136&prev=/images%3Fq%3D3%2Bstates%2Bof%2Bmatter&usg=__CmDE7G4gm1kIdNtvj8ufmnb0Eig=&ei=wez6S8KGOZ34MeC3sYQI&sa=X&oi=image_result&resnum=4&ct=image&ved=0CCoQ9QEwAw, http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.chem4kids.com/files/art/matter_3states.gif&imgrefurl=http://smkap-panitiasains.blogspot.com/2009/08/form-1-matter_23.html&h=109&w=298&sz=7&tbnid=q7_6l8xXiesVlM:&tbnh=42&tbnw=116&prev=/images%3Fq%3D3%2Bstates%2Bof%2Bmatter&usg=__rIITRtCXuNoGd1v3BiNq9acmruE=&ei=5-z6S-isNJi8M-fE-YMI&sa=X&oi=image_result&resnum=5&ct=image&ved=0CC4Q9QEwBA, http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=ie7&q=+3+states+of+matter&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&rlz=1I7ACAW_enUS367US367, http://www.scribd.com/doc/9575801/States-of-Matter-Worksheet  and it continues on, I just did not feel I had the space to go past page two of my Google Search.  I am unsure if the people who put together the books or the web sources listed do not themselves know there are four states of matter or they thought it may be humerous for kids to find out the adults were only kidding when they said there were three phases?

Complaint two – you can not learn states of matter from a book or an interactive website – no matter how interactive. A kid actually needs to touch, visualize and observe.  Please, if you are a science teacher, let go of the book, it is bad for your students.  What makes me curious is how some one might believe it is okay to learn science via a book or computer and be competent enough to work for NASA or be a neurosurgeon.  It just does not work that way – people who practice science quite literally do science.

Complaint three – states of matter online – NO matter actually stops its motion and matter has not been observed to stop motion as science does not yet have the ability to view the atoms at this cold level- this is known as a physics thought concept.  Matter moves, it just moves less the closer it gets to its absolute state of frozen-ness.  Even though I don’t have a TV (apparently the height of all knowledge being passed on), I heard this factoid on NPR and followed it up. NPR was correct.  The following websites demonstrate solids having NO motion.   At least NOVA got this correct in a truly fun manner. Kudos to their web development team and the educators supporting them. 

I keep hoping that the same people who voiced concern about what kids were watching on TV and listening to on the radio will voice concern about the content their children are being fed.  In my mind, I see a parent committee that would give out something like Michelin Stars to web sites for the accuracy of the information they are conveying and give a rating for relative level of concept, rather than grade level or age since we all know humans learn at different rates. 

We still have not recovered from the debacle of the American Dairy Association ‘teaching’ us there were four food groups so they could better market their products.  Since we have begun to scrutinize what we eat as we realize it has an effect on our physical and mental well being, we should scrutinize what we teach children so we can break down the barriers.  Misconceptions create difficult situations for students to overcome and slow learning down.

I would like to give a huge shout out to my parents who always encourage me to ask questions and juggle two or more ideas in my head at the same time in order to reach a conclusion.  Another huge shout out to the professors of Teachers College at Columbia University in NYC who made it clear in their own analysis of how and why teachers should critique the books and materials they are asked to use to teach from.