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AP Statistics - Where We Need to Go From Here

Updated: Aug 29

Roxy is a professor emerita of statistics at Cal Poly. She was a faculty member of the Statistics Department for thirty years, serving for six years as Chair of the Statistics Department and thirteen years as Associate Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. Roxy served from 1999 to 2003 as the Chief Reader for the Advanced Placement Statistics exam. She is a co-author with Chris Olsen and Tom Short of the textbooks Statistics: Learning from Data and Introduction to Statistics and Data Analysis.

Where Did We Come From?

When AP Statistics first came on the scene in 1997, the course was not typical of most college introductory statistics courses. At the time, leaders in the statistics education community were calling for much needed reform, but change was moving at an almost undetectable pace. Fortunately, many of those leaders, including Dick Schaffer who then became the first Chief Reader for AP Statistics, were involved in the development of the original AP Statistics course description and saw an opportunity to provide a model for what the introductory statistics course could be. Emphasizing the importance of communication and the development of conceptual understanding through the use of simulation, AP Statistics was a leader, and colleges slowly followed suit.

But, in my opinion, we can stop patting ourselves on the back! As the college courses changed, AP Statistics became the follower. With focus on trying to maintain complete alignment with whatever the dominant college course looks like, there seems to be a hesitancy to innovate. Sure, some innovation snuck in, but often it was through the use of exam investigative tasks that pushed at the boundaries (like ones that introduced ideas of randomization tests and simulated sampling distributions for statistics other than means or proportions). And while we all know that exam questions influence what happens in the classroom to some extent, I think most would agree that the basic content and focus of the AP Statistics course has not really changed much in the 20+ years since its inception. AP statistics is now a follower.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So where should AP Statistics go from here? My answer is from leader to follower to … partner in change! Like in the 90’s, there is a new call to reimagine the introductory statistics course with more of a focus on multivariable thinking, nontraditional data types (like photos, text, and sounds), data visualization, data management, and ethical use of data. There is the opportunity now for AP Statistics to become a partner with colleges to bring these kinds of changes to our courses.

Teachers of AP Statistics tell me that they have two primary goals: prepare their students for THE EXAM and prepare students for future success—in college, in their future careers, and as informed citizens who are able to analyze and critique data-based arguments and to make data-based decisions. But sometimes I think there is too much focus on the first of these goals at the expense of the second one. Of course teachers still need to assist students in mastering the stuff in the course description (because it might be on the exam), but I think it can be done is a way that also incorporates many of the ideas from new recommendations for K-12 and for the college introductory statistics course from the GAISE reports. Although it requires an institutional change through College Board to implement changes relevant to the first primary goal stated above, individual teachers can implement change now to address the second goal of preparing students for future success.

How Do We Do It?

This will take some work. What steps would I like to see happen? Here are my top 3 genie wishes. Warning: you might consider these controversial! And they require time and thought to implement!

1. Stop spending time on middle school stuff and put that time to better use!

Students learn dotplots, histograms, bar charts, boxplots, and scatterplots in middle school. We don’t need to spend much time on these things in the college or AP Statistics course—just a quick review and then a focus on interpretation. Spend the time on using these methods in the service of developing multivariable thinking. Use data sets with more than two variables and consider how these types of graphical displays can be used to explore relationships between more than two variables. Let students grapple with the kinds of rich data visualizations that they will actually see in the media (even if it won’t be on the exam!).

2. It’s time to get real with technology.

Let’s be honest. Nobody really analyzes data using a graphing calculator, and let’s not even talk about those awful graphs. If I could make only one change in AP Statistics, it would be to move beyond the reliance on the graphing calculator as the sole technology tool. It is not possible to teach a modern data-based course without access to better technology. But since this post is already running long, I will leave that argument for another day!

3. Include discussions that engage students with thinking about ethical issues surrounding data collection, analysis, and communication.

Choose examples based on studies that allow for a discussion of ethical issues. Was there informed consent? Was the data presented in a way that does not mislead (such as in misleading graphical displays)? Did the researchers only report a subset of the study results that support a particular point of view or only analyze part of the data? Don’t let students be misled by statistical significance. Talk about the difference between statistical significance and practical significance in meaningful contexts, not just artificial ones (confession—I need to do a better job of eliminating contrived contexts in these kinds of discussions myself!).

Colleges are currently grappling with these issues and change is again in the air. My hope for where AP Statistics will go from here is that AP Statistics won’t just wait for the colleges and then follow, but rather that AP Statistics will be a full partner in creating a course that is more relevant and that better serves our students. Individual teachers can get started now. Let’s move forward together.

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