The Future of AP Sciences

By | February 6, 2011

Big changes are coming soon in the AP biology curriculum.
Wordle: AP BIO Revised Curriculum Framework

As my first and only experience teaching an actual AP course was AP biology, I’ve been following the revision process closely.

The goal of this major revision is to move the course away from rote memorization and towards a more conceptual understanding of science.  The new AP Biology curriculum is expected to roll out in 2012-2013, with the remaining AP sciences (hopefully) following within 5-10 years.

The Changes

The current AP Biology curriculum is focused on 8 “unifying themes of biology.” The “framework” is essentially a broad outline of topics, generally covering a typical 1200-page college text. As there was no clear communication about what exactly would be covered on the exam, the best preparation has always been a broad, superficial survey of all major topics. It isn’t uncommon for schools to require students to self-study an entire unit over the summer before the school year begins, and memorize the kingdoms and “diversity of life” over winter break.

The new, revised framework is a significant improvement.

Big Ideas

The revised AP Biology curriculum is driven by four “Big Ideas:”

  1. The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.
  2. Biological systems utilize energy and molecular building blocks to grow, reproduce, and maintain homeostasis.
  3. Living systems retrieve, transmit, and respond to information essential to life processes.
  4. Biological systems interact, and these interactions possess complex properties.

Enduring Understandings

Each of the “Big Ideas” is divided into Enduring Understandings and supporting Essential Knowledge (Example from The College Board)

While the 95-page framework still seems exhaustive, the major benefit lies in the freedom of illustrative examples. Because the scope of the exam is limited to the framework, there is flexibility in what examples can be used to illustrate those concepts. This will allow teachers to go into more depth, and give students an opportunity to truly understand the concepts.

Scientific Practices

The biggest change to the AP Biology curriculum is the emphasis on scientific inquiry and process skills. Specifically, the revised AP science courses will “focus on seven, overarching scientific practices:”

  1. The student can use representations and models to communicate scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems.
  2. The student can use mathematics appropriately.
  3. The student can engage in scientific questioning to extend thinking or to guide investigations within the context of the AP course.
  4. The student can plan and implement data collection strategies in relation to a particular scientific question
  5. The student can perform data analysis and evaluation of evidence.
  6. The student can work with scientific explanations and theories
  7. The student is able to connect and relate knowledge across various scales, concepts and domains.

These scientific practices are very similar to the scientific abilities shared by Frank Noschese. Overall, they’re consistent with good science learning, and will hopefully become a foundation of all science courses,  not just the “elite” APs.

To allow students to develop these scientific practices, the lab curriculum has shifted away from the 12 cookbook labs and towards student-designed, inquiry-based laboratory investigations. The College Board has already made available a supplement with suggestions to incorporate more inquiry into its traditional labs, but I think that there is an even greater opportunity to utilize project-based experiments to accomplish the same goals.

Learning Objectives

The exam will be based on various learning objectives, which are a combination of content (Big Ideas – Enduring Understandings – Essential Knowledge) and process (Scientific Practices). Some examples of learning objectives are:

  • The student can create representations and models to describe immune responses
  • The student is able to use a graph or diagram to analyze situations or solve problems (quantitatively or qualitatively) that involve timing and coordination of events necessary for normal development in an organism
  • The student is able to design a plan for collecting data to support the scientific claim that the timing and coordination of physiological events involve regulation

The structure of the exam, therefore, has necessarily shifted. There is more data, more analysis, more interpretation, and more critical thinking required.

While I had the opportunity to get a “sneak peek” at the revised AP Chemistry curriculum last spring at NSTA, it wasn’t nearly as well-developed as the AP Biology curriculum currently is. I’m hoping there will be more this year.

The Challenges

Any top-down revision of curriculum is going to come with some challenges. While I think that many of the changes are appropriate, ultimately, the changes in pedagogy and teaching should be a result of conversations between teachers, students, parents, and faculty about whether these courses in particular serve their students well.  Many schools have had this conversation in the past, and as a result eliminated the AP courses. Some colleges have had the same conversation and stopped accepting AP scores for credit or placement. Some practical concerns about this curriculum shift:


To teach more than rote memorization, teachers have to understand more than rote memorization. This isn’t merely a elimination of excess material. The curriculum framework requires a complete change in pedagogical approach for a large number of teachers.

Class Sizes

While research and common sense continue to conclude that smaller class sizes has a direct correlation to improved gains in scientific understanding, stressed state and local budgets continue to force class sizes to grow.


In addition to the effect of budgets on class sizes, the shift to a more student-centered course experience will require substantial professional development. While technology can certainly help bridge the access gap to some extent, real hands-on training will be needed for this transition in the AP sciences.


At the end of the day, a student’s understanding of biology (or chemistry, or physics) will be reduced to a single-digit number after a three-hour exam.  I cringe to think of what the large-scale, standardized reading process will be like.

The Bottom Line

Without a parallel shift in undergraduate intro courses, it is unlikely that the revised curriculum will necessarily fulfill the original goal of the program (to provide college credit). However, I am not convinced that this goal is still relevant in the 21st century.  I do believe that, if properly executed, the revised courses will provide the foundation needed for the next generation of critical thinkers and problem solvers. It is certainly a move in the right direction.

Next stop: introductory college courses.

AP Biology Curriculum Framework (pdf)
Scientific Abilities Project (Rutgers)
Sample Questions (AP Biology)
John Burk’s How to get rid of AP ( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )


Robert Ryshke on February 7, 2011 at 12:35 am.

This was an excellent overview of the changes in AP Biology. You did a very nice job of summarizing all the important changes and the impact of them. A
So, like the way you handled the other issues that will determine the ultimate success of the College Board’s changes-class size, economics, teachers changing pedagogy, professional development, etc. Good job on this! It adds greatly to the thinking. Let’s hope the changes are more than window dressing and that the College Board entered the 21st C with a bang. See my posts on the AP and achieving deeper understanding in our teaching at:


Bob Ryshke
Center for Teaching


Robert Ryshke on February 7, 2011 at 12:40 am.

Really enjoyed reading your post! You covered the topic thoroughly. Hope the CB changes are really 21st C changes that result in more engaged learners who enjoy doing science not just memorizing it. See my posts on AP and deeper understanding through our teaching at:


Bob Ryshke
center for Teaching


Ms. Bethea on February 7, 2011 at 7:39 am.

Thanks for your comment, and for sharing your blog. I hope the fact that the major test-prep companies haven’t targeted the IB program yet means that these “scientific practices” and conceptual understanding can’t be easily reduce to 10 easy steps, or cram sheets.


gasstationwithoutpumps on February 7, 2011 at 8:57 pm.

IB has not been targeted only because the market is still too small. There is nothing intrinsic to the IB test that prevents test-prep companies from selling their snake-oil there.

My comments on the new AP bio curriculum are at

My real interest in AP Bio is outlined at


Ms. Bethea on February 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm.

Bioinformatics would be a great tool for learning in AP bio!



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