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The AP Statistics Exam is Doing it Right

After spending over 50 hours this past summer grading the 2016 AP Statistics Exam, I have some new thoughts about standardized testing. I know that standardized testing has recently come under fire in the media for the negative effects of testing students too much and the risks of using these tests as an accountability measure for teachers and schools. While I acknowledge these valid points, I would like to argue that the AP Statistics Exam is doing it right. But before I discuss my reasons, let’s back up and think about what we want our AP Statistics students to be able to do by the end of our course.

Here are the academic goals I have for my students:

  1. To understand statistical concepts and be able to apply them in multiple contexts.  Notice I didn’t say to memorize formulas and do calculations.

  2. To be able to critically analyze data as might be presented in their lives.

  3. To have them be challenged, supported in their struggle, and ultimately find success.

Now for my argument that the AP Statistics Exam is doing it right, which you will notice aligns quite nicely with my academic goals for students.

The AP Statistics Exam has a focus on statistical thinking, reasoning, and understanding

For example, free response question #1 gives students a histogram of the 60 tips that Robin received in a day of serving tables at a restaurant.

Part (b) asked students to consider the possibility that one of the $8 tips in the histogram was actually an $18, and to decide how this would affect the mean and the median (with justification). Clearly students must think, reason, understand, and communicate in order to do well here.

Maybe what is more notable here is the question that wasn’t asked:

Here is a list of the 60 tips. The $8 tip was actually an $18 tip. Calculate the new mean and median.

I like the actual question significantly more than the question that wasn’t asked. The actual question asked students to interpret a histogram, to compare (original mean versus new mean), and to provide a reason as to why this might happen. It is also notable that the calculation of the actual mean and median was not required (or even possible). This question perfectly aligns with academic goal #1 (to understand statistical concepts and be able to apply them in multiple contexts).

The AP Statistics Exam uses context for every single Free Response question

Robin’s tips, Choco Zuties, smoking and Alzheimer’s, rocket launching, economic growth or environment, and starting salaries for different college majors. Every single question has a reasonable context that is similar to something that students might see in real life. I want them to go through life with a critical eye towards advertising (Choco Zuties), polling data (economic growth), and newspaper reports (salaries and majors). The contexts chosen for this year’s exam are a brilliant representation of situations where advanced statistical thinkers will arrive at a different understanding than those who are untrained in statistics. Notice the clear connection to academic goal #2 (to be able to critically analyze statistics as might be presented in their lives).

The AP Statistics Exam is hard, but with clear expectations

The averages on each free response question are typically a bit less than 2 (out of 4 points), so clearly the exam is hard (more accurately the rubrics are tough). And after spending many hours with these rubrics this week, it is clear to me that students must really understand the content and be able to clearly communicate their understanding in order to get good scores. The rubrics can be very picky (singular vs. plural, past tense vs. present) but always with the intention of separating those students who truly understand and those that don’t. But I believe the Exam questions to all be very fair. College Board provides a detailed topic outline in their Course Description.   They also provide the free response questions, rubrics, and examples of student work for every exam since 2003. We know the expectations of the exam as they are been quite consistent over the years. With the resources from the College Board, students can achieve academic goal #3 (to have them be challenged, supported in their struggle, and ultimately find success).

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