Just when I wanted to hate ... Biology

A refreshing change of topic – to the Biology AP exam.

Charles Nesbitt / Birmingham News / AP / File
Tenth-graders Aubrie Collins (l.) and Lindsay Moore (r.) check their samples as they study acid and base solutions at the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School in Irondale, Ala., in this 2005 file photo. The AP Biology exam is facing a major overhaul. What does that mean for biology instruction in high school, middle school, and even elementary school?

[Editor's Note: Guest blogger Tim Kane first wrote this post on January 11.]

The horrifying and sad news of the killing spree by a deranged gunman, I believe his name is Loughner, who targeted an impressive young Congresswoman, a judge, a little girl, and many others, has flooded the news. I've read a fair amount, but after a dozen articles, the mind reels. Surely, other news merits our attention as well. That's hard to find.

Today, it seems the dominant storyline is about the appropriateness of blaming political rhetoric, map targets, reading lists, talk radio, with the ever reliable Paul Krugman being tripped up by the ever reliable Greg Mankiw (I'll leave it to you to assess in which way these economics bloggers are reliable).

I'll avoid any discussion of the now three-named killer. I'll skip "alleged" by the way, given that I live in reality where eyewitness accounts of one person causing the death of another need not be preceded by "alleged." Suspension of disbelief resides comfortably in 21st century overlegalized courtrooms and fantasy movies, but not here. But I digreess. This post is not about the killer, the killing, or the blame game, but about the difficult quest for a news safe haven. I'll note just for fun that the reliably interesting SLATE has multiple commentaries on the blame game, taking all sides. (I'd link to them normally, but that would counter my intentions in this post).

I wondered if even the New York Times would be overrun with the Tucson tragedy, took a gander online today, and was delighted. You have to admit, no matter what else you might say about the old gray lady, she is deep. She is a safe haven, with a vegetarian side menu in a world of red meat. I could say the same about the WSJ, but I read that so regularly that I didn't appreciate it today the way I appreciated the Times.

So, did you know that AP Biology is about to be radically reformed? Neither did I. Nor does my son yet know, though he will be fascinated and furious to learn as he is taking (suffering through) AP Bio this year. Thanks, NYT. Great article.

Next month, the board, the nonprofit organization that owns the A.P. exams as well as the SAT, will release a wholesale revamping of A.P. biology as well as United States history — with 387,000 test-takers the most popular A.P. subject. A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking. In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists.

The changes, which are to take effect in the 2012-13 school year, are part of a sweeping redesign of the entire A.P. program. Instead of just providing teachers with a list of points that need to be covered for the exams, the College Board will create these detailed standards for each subject and create new exams to match.

... The new approach is important because critical thinking skills are considered essential for advanced college courses and jobs in today’s information-based economy. College administrators and veteran A.P. teachers familiar with the new biology curriculum believe the changes could have significant reverberations for how science is taught in introductory college classes and even elementary school classrooms, and might bring some of the excitement back to science learning.

... College Board officials say the new labs should help students learn how to frame scientific questions and assemble data, and the exam will measure how well they can apply those skills. When the new test is unveiled in 2013, biology students will need, for the first time, to use calculators, just as A.P. chemistry and physics students do. The board plans to cut the number of multiple-choice questions nearly in half on the new test, to 55. It will add five questions based on math calculations, and it will more than double the number of free-response questions, to nine.

“There won’t be any more questions like: here is a plant, and what is this tissue?” says Professor Uno of the University of Oklahoma, who is helping to decide what will be asked. Instead, early samples show that the multiple-choice questions will be more complex. They will require students to read short passages, or look at graphs, and pick the answers that explain why something happened or that predict what will occur next.

One sample essay question provides a chart with the heights of plants growing in either sunlight or shade and a graph that misinterprets the results. Students must decipher what went wrong, re-plot the data and design a better experiment to determine which grew faster.

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