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November 2014 | Classroom Commentary
AP Chemistry for All
By Jennifer J. Priddy
AP Chemistry (and all AP classes, for that matter) should be open to any student who meets the bare-minimum prerequisites and is willing to take on a rigorous, challenging course. By minimum prerequisites, I mean having taken and passed Algebra I and maybe an introductory chemistry course. Students should not have to meet “honors” requirements, GPA requirements, or have to beg the teacher in an essay to allow them the privilege of taking AP Chemistry. Educators should vigorously encourage all students to take AP Chemistry, especially those traditionally labeled as middle- or lower-level students.
Many students lack the academic rigor they need to become great thinkers and leaders, and much of the education they have received involves rote memorization or mindless fill-in-the blank work. As a result, students have learned to excel in a system that requires the bare minimum to learn or have abandoned their learning goals because the system fails to keep their interest piqued. If the former applies, then many enter college unprepared for the level of productivity and thought that is required of them to be successful, which results in them having to repeat basic classes or change their major. If the latter applies, they may turn away from education altogether, never go to college, and some won’t even graduate high school.
Advanced Placement courses challenge students to synthesize answers, instead of regurgitate them, and to discern the difference between knowing and understanding. The classes teach students how to analyze problems, construct a solution, and evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of the solution. And most importantly, the courses teach the necessities of planning and time management, skills that far too many freshmen in college lack.
The AP program is the great equalizer for students who may not come from the most socially advantageous backgrounds. It is especially important for schools in impoverished and rural communities to offer their students the opportunity for academic mastery and advancement that AP courses can provide. Often, funds in these schools are committed to programs that are devoted to help raise students to what is considered average, and accelerated students becomes less of a priority. But, it is our job as educators to make sure that all students are given the opportunity to excel. Unrestricted access to opportunities such as AP Chemistry, which promotes high levels of academic understanding, is the first step toward achieving our goals of academic equity in our education system.
I know that many are reading this and thinking that I must be out of my mind to advocate that all students be allowed to take AP Chemistry. I have heard all the arguments against it; the reasons for excluding students from AP classes are endless. But the main reason for inclusion should outweigh all: These classes are the best preparation for college that most students can obtain.
Few students new to AP classes are ever truly ready for the level of work of the class. The class itself, not just the content, is a learning experience in responsibility that is necessary for college success. How are students supposed to learn time management and responsibility if they are denied access to the courses that teach them those necessary skills?
Yes, you will have classes filled with students with varying abilities (have you ever seen a class where every student is equally skilled at everything?). In my AP Chemistry class, I always have students who are ranked first in their class and have high hopes of college success mixed in with students who are ranked in the bottom quarter and are in danger of not graduating. But mostly, I have a lot of students in between the top and bottom. All of my students struggle with the material, but they also all learn from it. The higher-level students adapt to the intensity of the class more quickly and often score higher on the exam, but that does not mean they learn more material or gain more value than the lower-level students. I have been giving a full-length practice pretest at the beginning of the school year for several years, and I give the same test at the end of the school year. No matter how a student scores at the beginning of the year, they all have approximately the same percent gain at the end of the year. In fact, the highest gains are usually among my lowest-level students.
Some AP Chemistry teachers (and some school administrators) say that they would never allow middle- or lower-level students to take AP classes because it would lower the class average scores and passing rate, and they cannot have that because they have/their school or district has the distinction of some of the highest averages around. These people should not be allowed to call themselves educators. Schools are not here for the edification and prestige of the adults who work for them, they are here to give students the best opportunity possible for a successful future. Standardized test scores say nothing about teaching ability; they are a measurement of a student’s preparedness for college. You could be the best teacher ever, and all of your students score 1’s and 2’s. You could be a terrible teacher, and all of your students score 4’s and 5’s. A student’s score is not a measurement of learning, so scores cannot possibly be a measurement of a teacher’s/school’s/district’s teaching ability.
Some teachers or administrators say that they could not allow that many students to take AP Chemistry because the cost of running a lab class is high, and the school cannot afford to put so many students through the program. This is a ridiculous statement made by people who do not want to look for resources but would rather have resources handed to them. You can run a full chemistry lab program for 150 students for a couple hundred dollars in supplies found in the baking, hardware, and pool supply aisles at your local box store. Ask your PTA, your school board, your local stores, and nonprofit organizations for monetary or hard-goods donations. Go online to the thousands of websites such as donorschoose.org or adoptaclassroom.org and apply for a grant. The funding for supplies is there, it just takes a little time and effort to find opportunities.
Every child should be granted equal access to education, and AP Chemistry is no exception. Not every student will succeed by scoring a 5 on the exam, but every student who tries to succeed will gain knowledge and skills that will be invaluable to their future. Denying students the chance to improve themselves is self-serving and says nothing about the students and everything about the educator.
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