AP Released Exams, Score Predictions, & the Final Exam “Curve”

One way to prepare students for the AP exam is to have them take released exams either as practice or as a final exam before the AP Exam.

My students do both.  For practice tests, I have them fill in diagnostic worksheets based off of my textbook.  Then, for the final exam, they review the Zipgrade printout and reference this spreadsheet to see how close they are to the score they want.  They can also see my curve–the % I put in for their final exam.  The spreadsheet is based off of the most recent released exams which are curved harder than older exams.

My students practice with the multiple choice only.  My students do not need more FRQ practice  at this time–they need to memorize information and use it in complex, higher-order thinking questions.  But, your students may need more FRQ practice.  If your students take both the MC and FRQs use the Scoring Worksheets provided by the College Board with the released exams for score predictions.

Since I give my final a few days before the AP Exam, students can use those days to cram and get a higher score.   I have a good number of kids who bring themselves from a 2 to a 3  each year in the final days. And, many students who are at a 4 cram more to get that 5.  Encourage students that they can do it too!

# Correct on MC % on Final Exam Also need: avg per FRQ AP Score
99 100 6/10 5
98 100 6/10 5
97 100 6/10 5
96 100 6/10 5
95 99 6/10 5
94 99 6/10 5
93 99 6/10 5
92 98 6/10 5
91 98 6/10 5
90 97 6/10 5
89 97 6/10 5
88 96 6/10 5
87 96 6/10 5
86 95 6/10 5
85 95 6/10 5
84 94 6/10 5
83 94 6/10 5
82 93 6/10 5
81 93 5/10 4
80 92 5/10 4
# Correct on MC % on Final Exam Also need: avg per FRQ AP Score
79 92 5/10 4
78 91 5/10 4
77 91 5/10 4
76 90 5/10 4
75 90 5/10 4
74 89 5/10 4
73 89 5/10 4
72 88 5/10 4
71 88 5/10 4
70 87 4/10 3
69 86 4/10 3
68 85 4/10 3
67 84 4/10 3
66 83 4/10 3
65 82 4/10 3
64 81 4/10 3
63 80 4/10 3
62 80 4/10 3
61 79 3/10 2
60 78 3/10 2
# Correct on MC % on Final Exam Also need: avg per FRQ AP Score
59 77 3/10 2
58 76 3/10 2
57 75 3/10 2
56 74 3/10 2
55 74 3/10 2
54 73 3/10 2
53 72 3/10 2
52 71 2/10 1
51 70 2/10 1
50 69 2/10 1
49 68 2/10 1
48 67 2/10 1
47 67 2/10 1
46 66 2/10 1
45 65 2/10 1
44 64 2/10 1
43 63 2/10 1
42 62 2/10 1
41 61 2/10 1
40 60 2/10 1


6 Week Study Plan for the AP Environmental Science Exam

One tool that I provide for students is a 6 week study plan. I have everything on a chart which provides students will a systematic tool to help them study.

Some start to stress and panic when I pass this out, but I tell them that this chart is to ELIMINATE stress from procrastination. They can get through all these items in 6 weeks if they do a few each day.

This chart is customized for the Withgott book and my class.  If you want to use it, you will need to alter. I give my final exam (100 question released multiple choice exam) the week before the AP exam.

Also, I cannot provide the link to my Google review folder that I give to my students. I have a lot of items that are not my intellectual property so I wont share online without permission, but I can share with my students only. Its very easy to create your own google folder and just pop a bunch of items in it.

Do my students use this? Some do and some do not.  But, for the first time AP kid, this gives them comfort that they know where to start with reviewing for a big AP exam.

I also send via email and text to their parents. Provides another measure of accountability.


There are many ways to practice AP Environmental Science (APES) math.  As a teacher, you will decide which approach is best your own students.  You may have students who find the math super easy and some that find it impossible. APES math practice problems can be found from many sources–textbooks, shared drives, and released FRQs.

APES Math Info

This is the basic information you need about APES math on the AP Exam.

  1. No Calculators. Big bummer, I know, but its the way it is.  The story I heard (and this is anecdotal) is that when the course was written in the late 90s, scientists didn’t have electronics out on the field. An environmental scientist needed to quickly calculate by hand using a pen and notebook. Now that’s not the case, but in order to change the no calculator rule, the course needs a new write up.

    calculator and probe
    This is a no-no for the AP Exam, but useful for a temperature probe!
  2. Pre-Algebraic Word Problems. Many students don’t know how to apply math to life problems.  Even kids who are in higher level math (like pre-calculus) still struggle with these word problems.  The biggest hurdle is often setting up the problem.
  3. Usually 8-10 Multiple Choice Questions. There are 100 MC questions total and 8-10 are usually math related.  The Rule of 70 is a favorite for 1 or 2 of them. Kids DO NOT need to show work for MC questions.
  4. One FRQ is Half Math. There are 4 mandatory FRQs in 90 minutes. Question #2 will have math for half the problems. Over the years, the math has gotten easier on the FRQ, but this has not increased the national pass rate.
  5. Students MUST Show Work on FRQs. NO WORK=NO CREDIT, even if correct. Units in set-up and in answer.
  6. No Formula Sheet. Students must memorize some simple formulas (see below).

A student can pass the AP Exam without doing any of the math, BUT this is a gamble and they have to know everything else really, really well.

When I analyze my AP results, FRQ#2 performs the weakest and often drops kids from a 3 to a 2. This is why I focus on math a lot.

Math Skills Kids Should Have Already Learned (But Probably Forgot)

  1. Dimensional Analysis. This is something learned in chemistry, but often forgotten. APES math always has dimensional analysis.
  2. Density: Also in chemistry… and in middle school …and maybe elementary school.
  3. pH: Just the basics.
  4. Half-Life: Often taught in chemistry and/or physics. This may be new for freshmen in APES.
  5. Scientific Notation. A favorite on the AP Exam and one that most kids really don’t like. Many students will convert to zeros before solving, but this is a gamble as more errors are made when they do that. The AP Exam will often use scientific notation in the givens and these divide or multiply cleanly so its a benefit to know this skill.
  6. Long Division by hand. Many students have forgotten this elementary math skill and struggle with it.
  7. Percentages.  Many students don’t remember how add, subtract, multiply or divide using percentages without a calculator.
  8. Percent Change
  9. Metric Conversions 

New Math in APES (for most kids)

  1. Population Math (see below)
  2. Productivity (see below)
  3. Trophic Levels (90% loss of energy as you go up a trophic level)
  4. Energy Math: Kilowatts, joules etc.
  5. LD-50 calculations

Formulas they need to memorize

  1. Population Math Basic, easy formulas
  2. Percent Change
  3. Metric Conversions–g to kg, for example. They need to know the following prefixes only: micro, milli, centi, kilo, and Mega.

    The table from my metric review.
  4. Density–one they should know, but need to be reminded of
  5. pH scale1 # decrease on scale = 10x H+ (acidity)
  6. Productivity:  Gross Primary Production – Respiration = Net Primary Productivity
  7. Half-Life–not a formula, but a method to solve by sketching out

    Sample half-life problem with solution

Students DO NOT need to memorize any other conversions such as gallons to liters.

Methods to Tackle the Math

There are many ways to tackle APES math review and to teach new skills. You have to try different methods to figure out what works and what doesn’t work with your particular students.

I have a mixed class with 1/3 of the kids who find the math easy, 1/3 who need some review and they’re fine, and 1/3 who find APES math extremely challenging. I’ve tried many different methods over the years.

Here are some various ways to tackle the math that I’ve tried or other teachers have tried.

  1. Math diagnostic. A math diagnostic is helpful to see where your students are weak as a class or as an individual if you have mixed abilities. Then, students can do the review papers they need instead of all of the review. During math review, you can differentiate the approach students take by giving them choices.
  2. Math as a summer assignment. I don’t do this, but some teachers do.
  3. Review papers.  Can be done in class or for homework.  I prefer in-class to prevent copying and so I can differentiate. I flipped to allow more time to do this.  My students work on the review they need and have several options for how to do it.  They can watch a video for help (see below) for the whole paper, they can do the problems on their own and then check with a key. Or, they can do a combination of the two.

    Review papers with keys.
  4. Practice Problems for new math.  Some kids will find new math (population, energy math etc) easy and some find it difficult. I sometimes differentiate by allowing them some choices in learning and practicing. I have videos made of all my worksheets (see below) . Here’s one way I introduced the choices to the kids.
  5. Add math to labs wherever you can. Make it dimensional analysis.

    Owl Pellet Lab with dimensional analysis questions
  6. Add math problems to Multiple Choice Tests. Here are some I recently made for a toxicology and cities exam. (Chapters 13 and 14 Withgott).
  7. FRQ math practice.  Use released FRQs to do this.  We often peer-grade these FRQs so the kids can really understand how the CB grades them at the reading.

    Scoring guidelines for FRQ #2. Students use this paper to peer-grade.
  8. Review videos. I have recorded solutions to all my math papers so that students can watch me solve if they get stuck.

Where to Find Science Grants and Other Funding

When I was  beginning science teacher 20 years ago, a very wise science education professor told me to find the money and don’t buy supplies for my class out of my own paycheck. It was one of the most beneficial pieces of advice given to a new teacher.  He was right, there were places to get funds for science and science grants if I kept my ears and eyes open.

While I haven’t always followed his advice and do spend some of my own money (like all teachers), I’ve had good success building up my arsenal of equipment and supplies over the years through donations and grants.

These are my favorite go-to locations for funds.

Donors Choose

This is my favorite place in the past couple of years to submit a proposal when I want to try a new lab and need supplies. The first time I tried it, I was BLOWN AWAY, by the response from my families. I sent an email out with the link to my project to my students’ parents and was fully funded within two hours. In addition, so many gave money behind the requested amount that I was able to buy additional supplies for another lab. Donors choose is a great way to search for matching science grants also.

I bought pH probes and pocket scales with my first DonorsChoose to do an Ocean Acidification Lab. I have enough supplies for one set per group.


Since then, I’ve purchased soil probes, basic lab supplies and Kill-a-Watt meters all through donors choose.

Kill-A-Watt meters for measuring wattages of appliances.

Tips for Donors Choose:

  1. Don’t ask for too much at once.  My proposals range from $200 to $600 which is easier to be fully funded.
  2. Put in a request even if you can’t send the link to your families due to teaching in a high poverty school.  A lot of corporations or people will fund science and especially environmental science projects. My last two received funds that way–without any donations from my parents. Put in a proposal and let it sit there for several weeks and see what happens.
  3. Be sure to do the thank you notes and pictures to make sure you stay in good standing with DonorsChoose.


Our school PTA raises money for school events, scholarships, science grants and teacher equipment grants. Ask your PTA if they have a request form for equipment or supplies.  I make sure I put in smaller requests for items costing $150 or less since the PTA also funds a lot of other worthy endeavors.

My PTA funded several nitrogen cycle kits from Carolina about 10 years ago. I still use some of the items (such as these containers) years later.

Community Foundation

In my town, we have the Santa Clarita Education Foundation. Its a group that raises money and give science grants (and other subjects) to teachers. I’ve put in science grant requests several times over the years and have had good success getting funded. I make sure to explicitly state how I’m going to use the materials and how it will benefit all students to gain higher scientific skills.  Make some calls and see if your town or area has a foundation.

I received funds for 10 quadrats (sampling squares) last year to measure biodiversity for a lab. It was pretty funny at the grant ceremony when others received high tech equipment and mine was PVC pipes and bungee cords!
The SCV Foundation purchased these plant lights several years ago. My enrollment in AP Environmental Science increased that year from 2 to 3 sections and I needed more lights for ecocolumns.

School Foundation

When budgets were slashed in California during the recession and at the same time, lawsuits prevented us from charging kids for certain activities (like band or football), our school began its own foundation to help raise money to cover any gap between donations and costs for programs.

The foundation raises money with golf tournaments, auctions and plain old donations. I have received science grants for several pieces of equipment from them.

If your school does not have a foundation, perhaps talk to your admin, other teachers and parents to see if there’s interest.

I received 2 more dissolved oxygen probes from the foundation last year to bring my number to 5 DO probes. A good number for sharing in lab during ecocolumns.

Resources at the School

Find funds at your school that aren’t well-publicized. Make friends with all your administrators, because you never know which admin will control which fund in a given year.

These sources include GATE (gifted and talented), Title I, and AP funds. (The College Board gives $10 back to the school for each full-priced exam to fund teacher training, test administration and supplies).

AP Funds paid for my NSTA national conference registration last year.

Ask your principal

Principals usually have discretionary funds. I have, on occasion, written a proposal to my principal to fund a certain piece of equipment, such as a wastewater treatment kit or a sub to take my kids on a field trip.  I don’t do this very often now since we have a school foundation I can make requests to.  I’ve had a principal approve and deny proposals so I try to make this a rare occurrence.

Various Science Grants for Teachers

There are many grants for specific items or for professional development. I haven’t personally experienced any of these nor vetted them.

Here’s a list from the NSTA

Here’s a general list


Communicating “Why I flipped” to Students and Parents (or Admins)

I believe explaining WHY I do something in class is important for students. While they don’t get to decide or vote on the way my class is run, explaining the thought process or data behind a method models higher level thinking — which is the whole point of a flipped class.

Higher Level Thinking

Flipped classrooms provide more time for higher level thinking.  For Depth of Knowledge, that’s levels 3 and 4.  Levels 1 and 2 are important, but they’re easy. During the first week of school I hand out copies of Depth of knowledge, Bloom’s Taxonomy and AP Science Practices.

Image from this blogsite

I ask the kids “Which level/s do notes mostly fall into?” and we discuss that notes and textbooks mostly cover DOK 1 and DOK 2.  But the AP Exam mostly tests on DOK 3 and DOK 4 using content learned in the lower levels.
Then we look at Bloom’s Taxonomy which identifies exam questions. We discuss that learning the lower 2 levels is important because they need content knowledge and lots of it in AP, but that’s the easy stuff. I tell my students that the “easy” stuff is mostly at home. 

“Remember” and “Understand” are lower level thinking

By doing the easy stuff at home, a flipped class can focus and spend more time on the harder stuff (apply, analyze, evaluate and create) during class time.  I also give them the exam breakdown–over 60% of the exam is higher level and the way to get better at it is to practice. How?

  • More time in lab for data collection and analysis
  • More time in class to practice word problem calculations (a HUGE weakness)
  • More time in class for making graphic organizers to help memorize harder information
  • More time for student collaboration and discussion which improves thinking skills
  • More time in class for online coaching tutorials (that came with my textbook and have a lot of higher level activities)

Some of these higher level items (lab reports, math practice, data set analysis) used to go home, but with rampant copying, its better to have it done in class (see Authentic Work below).

I broke down the 2016 APES exam by DOK and Bloom’s Taxonomy. You can find that info on this page. 

(On a side note, explaining why higher level thinking is important for college and future careers and informed citizenry is a good thing for kids to hear–its not all about passing a test)

AP Science Practices

The higher level questions on the AP Exam come from the AP Science Practices. I post these practices and discuss with kids.  Reminders throughout the year of the purpose of activities help to reinforce the “why are we doing this.”  In our course, it seems that a large portion of the higher level questions come from science practice #7.

A high proportion of exam questions apply #7. This is one of the reasons the AP exam is so difficult. Students may memorize a bunch of knowledge, but connecting it in new and novel ways is challenging for some.

Authentic Work

The past couple of years has seen tremendous changes in technology. Students now have access to information through the internet that I never did. 99% of my students have smart phones which is great for looking up information, but also great for taking pictures of homework and sharing it via group text. Anything I want to make sure is not copied now has to be done in class or submitted through a plagiarism site.  By doing notes at home in a flipped class, students are supposed to copy notes from the video-its not meant to be authentic work.

Other sites for basic knowledge and content, such as Edpuzzle,  account for students logging in on their own and watching an entire video with embedded questions.  This also encourages authenticity.

Notes take less time

An hour-long lecture in class usually only takes 15 minutes of video. This is because I don’t have to pause and wait for students to copy notes.  On video, students can work at their own pace. This helps the fast writer as they don’t get bored and eliminates anxiety for the slow writer who can pause the video as much as needed.

Its NOT more homework

A handful of students last year complained that I gave them more homework since notes were at home. This was not true, but they didn’t have a good reference since this was their first and only AP class.  This year, I plan to discuss and discuss again to dispel the myth of more homework in a flipped class.  A lot of the items I gave as homework, are now done during class time. On the flip side, the majority of my students LOVED the flipped lectures.


APES Exam and Bloom’s Taxonomy/Depth of Knowledge

I’ve always told people that the AP Exam has a lot of higher order thinking questions, but never took to the time to actually count how many were in a sample released exam.  I wanted some evidence for my students as I explained why I flipped my course so the “easy” stuff (lower level thinking) is at home and the harder stuff (higher level thinking) is in class. (More info on communicating flipping to students and parents can be found here and research about flipped classrooms can be found here)

I took the most recent released exam for APES (2016) and broke it down. This was the first time that I analyzed an exam in this way so I mostly likely mis-classified a few questions, but the data below can at least give a sense of how the test is written.

2016 APES Exam Analysis

Blooms Taxonomy 

1: Remember
2: Understand
3: Apply
4: Analyze
5: Evaluate
6: Create (not found on this AP Exam)

Levels 1 and 2 are lower level and made up 35% of MC and 38% of FRQs
Levels 3, 4 and 5 are higher level and make up 65% of MC and 62% of FRQs

Depth of Knowledge 

Level 1: Recall and Reproduction
Level 2: Basic Application of Skills and Concepts
Level 3: Strategic Thinking
Level 4: Extended Thinking

Levels 1 and 2 are lower level and make up 46% of MC and 41% of FRQs
Levels 3 and 4 are higher level and make up 54% of MC and 59% of FRQs

More about DOK in Science: http://www.nciea.org/sites/default/files/publications/DOKscience_KH11.pdf

I’ve read some opinions online that DOK-4 cannot be asked on an exam-they’re more long-term labs or projects.  I disagree. I think the some questions on the AP Exam are so complex and meet the requirements of DOK-4.

How to increase higher level thinking

Higher level thinking skills can be increased by a lot of data gathering, analysis, and graphing, math calculation practice, student discussion and novel problem solving.

Using released exams help students practice the types of problems found on AP Exams.  Using released multiple choice and released FRQs can help build skills with students.

This article:  “Teaching for higher levels of thinking: developing quantitative and analytical skills in environmental science courses”  showed that students increased proficiency in scientific math calculations and may increase proficiency by practicing Data Analysis Skills. 

2016 Released Exam Questions

Below is how I identified each question from 2016. I’m not the expert in this process so feel free to comment if you disagree about a level. I’d love to hear your reasoning.

1st number is Question #
2nd number is DOK Level
3rd number is Blooms Taxonomy Level

Multiple Choice Section

1    1   1

2   1   1

3   1   1

4   2   2

5   2   2

6   1   1

7   1   1

8   2   3

9   1   1

10   2   2

11   2   2

12   2   2

13   3   4

14   3   4

15   3   5

16   3   5

17   2   2

18   3   3

19   1   1

20   2   2

21   3   4

22   2   3

23   3   4

24   2   2

25   1   1

26   4   5

27   2   3

28   4   5

29   3   4

30   3   4

31   3   4

32   2   2

33   2   2

34   3   4

35   2   2

36   2   2

37   3   4

38   2   3

39   4   4

40   4   5

41   2   2

42   4   5

43    3   3

44   2   2

45   2   3

46   2   4

47   4   5

48   3   4

49   4   5

50   4   5

51   3   5

52   4   5

53   4   5

54   4   3

55   4   5

56   2   3

57   2   2

58   2   2

59   3   4

60   4   5

61   4   5

62   2   2

63   3   4

64   3   4

65   4   4

66   3   4

67   2   2

68   2   2

69   3   3

70   3   4

71   2   2

72   4   5

73   2   2

74   4   5

75   2   2

76   3   3

77   2   3

78   3   4

79   2   2

80   4   5

81   1   2

82   3   3

83   4   5

84   2   3

85   3   4

86   3   4

87   2   3

88   2   2

89   4   5

90   3   4

91   2   2

92   3   4

93   2   2

94   3   4

95   4   4

96   3   4

97   3   3

98   3   4

99   3   3

100   2   3


I found it interesting to classify some of these questions. For example, 3d asks about the health problems associated with piles of tires. If I had covered this in class, it would be lower level, but since I did not, the kids had to apply what they knew in a new situation and come up with an answer. So, for my kids, this ended up being a higher level question. 

1a   3   4

1bi   3   3

1bii   4   5

1c   3   4

1d   3   3

1e   4  5


2ai   3  3

2aii   3   3

2aiii   3   3

2b   3   3

2c   2   2

2d   2   2

2e   3   3


3ai   3   4

3aii   3   3

3bi   2   2

3bii    2  2

3c   2   2

3d   4   4

3e   2   2

3e   2   2


4a   4   4

4bi   1   2

4bii   1   2

4ci   2   3

4cii   3   3

4di   2   2

4dii   2   2

4e   4   5


Finding and Using Released Exams in APES

Examining and using released exams in an AP Science class is important to help students be exposed to the types of rigorous questions found on the AP Exam.

What Released Exams are Available in APES?

There are several released exams for AP Environmental. We do not have as many released exams as other subjects (which is a big bummer), but we do have a few.

The 1998 Exam is the only one found legally online. But it is so old (first year the APES exam was given) that most teachers don’t use as the questions have changed quite a bit and its way too easy.

The 2003 Exam is available for purchase from the College Board.  This exam has been illegally posted online by many on internet so its likely that you may be able to find it. It is considered an “easier” multiple choice exam.  You can probably ask another APES teacher in your district for a copy.

The 2008 Exam is also available for purchase from the College Board. Many of us long-timers remember ordering these exams when they were released and getting the copy in the mail. Its also pretty easy to find illegally posted online. Its considered a “medium” exam in terms of rigor.

The Practice Exam was released in 2008 also, but it can only be found for free on your AP Audit account when you sign into the college board. Unfortunately for teachers who want to use as a final exam, it is also found illegally posted online. This is considered the “hardest” of the released exams.

Two more newer exams are available on your AP Audit account also. These are harder to find online and many APES teachers use as secure exams and are likely to harass the illegal posters and also report to the College Board.  They are considered “medium-hard” exams.

The most recent exam on the audit site is (according to reports by students) the one that most looks like the MC exam for the past 3 years. It has a lot of reading, graph and data interpretation questions. It takes kids longer to get through due to the reading involved. It is also considered fairly secure as many APES teachers report teachers who illegally post.

On that note, do not upload any released exams to your own website! Even if you think its password protected or kids need a link, search engines find a way. And, once its posted, its sometimes cached by Google so it stays available even if you then take it down. When you gained access to these exams, the College Board made you click that you would NOT upload to the web and would use in class only.

How to use Released APES Exams

Teachers use released exams in many ways.

  1. To add questions to unit or chapter exams that have AP rigor. Teachers will cut and paste questions into their own exams as practice for kids. I do this with the 2016 exam as I want kids to get used to the “newer” style of question throughout the school year. My exams have mostly questions from various test banks along with about 3-5 from the 2016 exam.
  2. As diagnostic exams before the AP Exam. I give several of the released exams as practice starting about 4 weeks before the AP exam. We only do the multiple choice and they self- grade. Afterwards, they fill out a diagnostic sheet to determine how close they are to the score they want on the AP Exam.
  3. As a final exam. This is why its so important to never upload to the web. Students are crafty and if they get wind of the exam you are using for your final exam, they will search for it and memorize it. I give my final exam MC the week before the AP Exam and often choose one of the released (or a combo) exams.
  4. As pre-tests. Some schools require teachers to give pre-tests at the start of the course.


Using and Teaching FRQs in Science

I have these FRQ terms on my bulletin board for students to use and memorize.

Students in an AP Science class need to know how to write Free Response Questions (FRQs). These are short answer questions, not essays, and have special strategies that are different than other AP subjects. Each FRQ is graded out of 10 point and there are 4 of them on the AP Exam.  This post will go over how to teach FRQs and how to choose FRQs to use on exams.

Teaching kids how to write FRQs

I teach kids how to write Free Response Questions (FRQs) as they are taking exams. For example, the first exam covers chapters 1 and 2 of my textbook and the FRQ I developed for that exam has a lot of explanation about how to write the answers. I’m not giving them the answers, but telling them how to write it.  I give instructions like this:

“Intro to APES FRQ (Chapters 1 and 2)
Your AP Exam in May will have 4 FRQs, each with multiple parts. It will be read and graded by High School and college teachers. They don’t know you and how smart you are—you must prove it to them.
Answer each part of the question in complete sentences.
 Be specific (don’t give vague, general answers)
 Give Examples
 Prove you know and understand the material to the reader.
 DO NOT spend your time with an opening sentence and/or conclusion.
 DO NOT waste your time with flowery sentences—get to the point with good solid science.”

Before the kids start writing, we read and discuss each bullet point. I then go over the different types of terms they will see. There are different strategies for each type of question.

What do the terms mean?

Identify, List, or Provide:  Simple answer with a complete sentence

Describe: Needs additional information beyond a simple answer. 1-2 complex sentences.

Explain: A process requiring steps in order OR an expanded “describe”.

Discuss: A 2-part answer: Cause and Effect, This leads to That

Calculate: A math problem. No written words required except for units.

I consider exams not only assessment, but also teaching tools.  I continue to remind and teach students these terms throughout the year as well as nuances in how to answer different questions.  For example, if I give an economic question, I tell the kids to include the word “money” or “jobs” in their answer as that’s what’s looked for by the AP readers.

Writing Tips

Students will be required to answer 4 FRQs in 90 min.

  • The first FRQ has a reading–usually a fake news article. It is mistakenly referred to as a “Document-Based Question” by some which is confusing to kids who take an AP History or AP English class.  In those classes, students must refer to the document and use for an answer. In APES, the article is for background knowledge. The kids should not quote or try to find answers in it. They should use it as inspiration for an answer, but pull more specific examples out of their brains.
  • The second FRQ has math calculations without a calculator. Usually algebraic word problems.
  • The third and fourth FRQs often have a graph to interpret or just a small prompt with questions.
  • Students should label each answer with their appropriate letter.  a)  b)i  etc.  They should NOT write one giant paragraph as it annoys the grader. (No points taken off, but it makes it harder to grade)
  • If the question asks for a specific number of answers, they should only write that number.  Ex:  Describe 2 benefits of electric cars. Kids should limit to two different and unique benefits. If they write a third, or fourth….its not graded.  If one of the first two is wrong, and their second and third are correct, the student still only receives 1 out of 2 points.  This is DIFFERENT than some AP History courses in which the grader will read and read and try to find points.  Make sure you make this distinction for the kids.

How to choose FRQs for an Exam

There are many ways to assign FRQs and your method will depend on what works for your particular students.  Depending on their writing level, age of your students, and how many AP kids you have, you will need to decide how many to FRQs to have them practice with.  I assign one FRQ per exam of two chapters.

An FRQs can be a released FRQ from a previous year’s AP Exam.  You can find previously released FRQs here on the college board website.  Be aware that the kids also have access to this website and some diligent students will study the questions and answers ahead of time to get an edge.

This FRQ is one taken directly from a released AP exam. I use the snip feature on the computer and paste onto a template with lines. I make sure to eliminate the year which helps prevent cheating.

Combo FRQs are where you cut and paste together bits from different released FRQs.  This is beneficial at the beginning of the year when most released FRQs have topics from many parts of the curriculum and you haven’t covered much yet.  Its also harder for students to gain an edge if they do study the CB website with released FRQs.

This is an FRQ from an ecology exam (chapters 3 and 4). I merged two different released FRQs together, because the kids hadn’t studied the other concepts yet that were on the original FRQs.

You can create your own FRQ. I did not get good at making my own for at least 5 years after teaching this class and after I was an AP reader. It takes that long to really understand how FRQs are written and you can better anticipate how easy or hard a particular question will be and common misconceptions. I don’t recommend this method for newbies. Using a combo FRQ or a released FRQ is usually better.

This is an FRQ I wrote about drought.

Since I teach multiple sections of APES, I prepare 2-3 different FRQs and each period will have a different FRQ. On occasion, I’ve assigned different kids in the same class different FRQs.  This prevents copying in tight quarters. I try to make sure the FRQs are the same in terms of how hard they are. If one FRQ scores lower on average, I will bump the grades for those kids to be fair.

Grading FRQs

When I grade an FRQ, it is worth 50 points. Below is how I curve the FRQ. On the real AP exam, students need to score an average of about 4-5 points per FRQ to pass the exam (along with a minimum score on the Multiple Choice).

10 max points

When we peer grade FRQs, I adjust the curve a little and tell the kids that I don’t want them to argue 1 point (out of 10) of a mistake that they think the peer grader made, because I factored in one point on the curve. They can argue 2 or more points if they can prove they should get the point. This is to save my sanity with over 150 kids in AP.  Here’s the peer-graded curve.



FRQs and Peer Grading

Peer Grading FRQS

Peer grading free response questions is a great way to
1. Teach kids how the questions are graded by the national readers and how picky and precise the language should be.
2. Save you some personal time.

My method of peer grading has morphed into this method through the years. Like most teachers I’ve take ideas of here and there and merged into what works for me. You can read how I use and teach FRQs here.

When we peer grade, my students write their student ID # on the FRQ instead of their name.  A couple of days after the exam (when most make-ups are finished), I pass out the FRQs to grade. Since I teach multiple sections of AP, classes don’t grade their own class’ FRQs. That way, its harder for the students to know if they’re grading someone that they know.  I also pass out a pink slip.

This is a quarter page slip that accompanies the peer-graded paper.

I don’t usually use the College Board rubrics for peer grading with the students. Many students find them confusing. Instead, I type the most common answers from the rubric that I know my students will use on a PowerPoint. If you are new to teaching the course, I suggest you place the answers that your students learned in the textbook, activities, or lecture. Its unlikely that students will know or guess something different (but it does happen so be sure to answer questions). We go through each part of the FRQ on the PowerPoint and I answer any questions.  The only exception to is when we grade math.

Students need to highlight the exact words that give the points. This helps students understand that they don’t need to write lots of words and sentences for points and helps them clearly identify where the points are. They are not guessing or saying “well it sounds right” and give points.  They need to clearly indicate where the points are by highlighting.

The exact words that earn the points are highlighted. Students also put the points for each section in the margin. The student here received 2/2 for letter c.

When we grade math, I find it best to copy just the page with the math solutions from the College Board rubrics. That way, kids can see exactly what their math needs to look like.  I also make notes on the rubric about remembering units and how any points each question is worth. After the math is graded, we go back to a PowerPoint for the rest of the FRQ.

After all sections are graded, students add up the points out of 10 or 11 and write on the top of the students’ paper. They also write it on the pink slip. If they need me to check something or they had another comment for me only, they need to write it on the pink slip. Students will never get the pink slips back to them. They are only for me. This helps with anonymity.

I go through each pink slip and check for comments.  When I’m finished, I recycle/toss the pink slips.

Students will get their own FRQ returned to them to check over on a different day. I also include a “fudge” point in the curve. If they want to argue 1 point, I say I don’t want to hear it as its factored in the curve. If they find 2 or more points in error, they can come see me, but they have to show me exactly where the mistake was made.  They cannot say “I’m sure I got more points, can you please check it over?” This prevents a long line of students who want to argue one point or grasping at straws to get a better grade.

Here’s my peer-graded curve as an FRQ is worth 50 exam points for me. (Multiple Choice is worth 100 points)




10 Tips for Teaching Large AP Classes in High School.

Teaching large classes can be daunting in any subject, but especially in a college-level AP class. Ten years ago, when I started AP Environmental Science at my school, I advertised to students and had 50 students sign up in two sections.  The next year, word spread and I had 3 full classes (36+ a class in CA). Now, I’m up to 5 classes of APES with over 150+ kids per year.

I usually have 36 students in lab at a time.

How do I handle it without becoming exhausted from grading, lab prep, and constant bell-to-bell lecture? Pedagogical and philosophical shifts.

Pedagogical shifts include teaching methods that might be innovative (what I like to call it) or crazy (what I’m sure other people think).  Then, a philosophical shift from being the “sage on stage” to teaching kids how to self-learn, self-advocate and collaborate with each other in a positive and constructive way.

These shifts are not just for AP or large classes. These tips can help to not only to avoid teacher burn-out, but to address modern students that are different from students in the past.

  1. Use technology. I’m a firm believer that technology should eliminate stress, not cause it. I utilize technology for online reading quizzes to verify that the kids actually did their reading homework. These are basic, easy questions that aren’t really AP level and wouldn’t be asked on an exam-they’re only purpose is to check that they’ve read. There are many online quizzing sites or you could use Zipgrade with paper. I also use Edpuzzle  to verify that kids watched an assigned video for homework. All these programs grade for you which is an enormous time saver for large classes.  I sometimes use Turnitin for long lab reports or written work. Kids do a better job when its submitted to turnitin (and it checks for plagiarism) and I can often just skim an assignment.
    This is an example of an online quiz question to check if students actually did their assigned reading.
    Most quizzing sites give instant feedback. Here’s a graphing showing the questions that a lot of students got right or wrong so I can address them.

    This is an example of an Edpuzzle where kids answer questions from a video. This site is EASY and user-friendly.
  2. Discuss and remind kids that they have personal responsibility in an AP class. I know this sounds obvious, but a lot of kids have breezed through regular classes where the teachers covered everything during class time and they needed to do very little outside work to get a good grade. On the first day, on my syllabus, I lay out the expectations they can have of me (I will get them through the curriculum, give feedback, know the material,etc) and then the expectations I have of them (do all readings when assigned, study how I instruct them to etc). They write down which expectation will be challenging and how they plan to overcome that challenge.  Teach them how to read and study the book-scaffold if needed. Ween them off of you as the weeks go on. Teach them how to self-learn –this is a skill needed for college and the only way you can manage large classes and high numbers of kids in an AP class.

    Gentle reminders with humor help guide kids to make better study choices.
  3. You cannot give personal attention to all the kids in large classes–this is sad, but true. Don’t lament about it either as its not good for your mental health to do this. Spin it to the positive as an opportunity to coach the kids to learn ways to self-advocate and self-study which are essential tools in college.  Spend time addressing the kids who are not doing well and focus on how to help them.
  4. Don’t grade everything. I collect and grade the first few video worksheets so kids think that’s my modus operandi. Then, every once in a while, I collect and toss (after school, of course). I have NEVER had a kid ask for that paper back or what grade they got.
  5. Grade some items for completion–its a waste of your time to grade every single worksheet to find the random wrong answer. Skim through the batch and if they all look to have 99% of the correct answers, then give points for completion.
  6. Rotate around the room and stamp work–like math or activity worksheets. Then, tell them to keep. This is especially good if the kids are collaborating and you know they’re getting the right answers. You can mark with a dot on your seating chart and give credit…or not..
  7. Peer grade FRQs (Free Response Questions). The kids learn A LOT from this process and you save personal time, but usually takes about 30-40 minutes of classtime to do.  We peer grade about every other exam, because I also like to grade and give more specific feedback.  Having large classes means I can only assign one FRQ per exam as each class of 36 kids takes me over an hour to grade (and I’m an AP reader). There are many good methods of peer grading. I outlined my method here. 

    Example of peer-graded AP FRQs. Students highlight the exact words that gave the student the awarded points.
  8. Teach a student service/ lab assistant how to do time-consuming lab chores. For example, I train a student each year to calibrate my pH probes.  This takes about 45 minutes every couple of weeks. The students enjoy doing real science and I enjoy not doing it.

    My lab assistant/student service go around the school collecting boxes needed for solar cookers.
  9. Explore the idea of flipping your class.  This can be a partial or total flip. The benefits include not having to do a marathon AP lecture from bell-to-bell several times a day with multiple periods of AP and also having a video resource for the kids at home to self-pace their notes and learning.  Read about best practices and research and also how I flipped last year.
  10. Over time, develop really detailed lab or activity instructions. During class, I make hand notes on a copy of the lab or activity with common questions from the students. Then, after school, I immediately modify the instructions so its ready for next year. Over the years, my instructions have become so clear that I have fewer and fewer questions from students which means I’m not rushing around the lab trying to help every group. Sometimes, I can sit and grade papers in the lab while they’re working, because they don’t need me to help.  Its pretty awesome. 🙂

    Solar cooker directions have been modified dozens of times to make clearer. Even though its an inquiry lab, students still ask clarifying questions.