How Has Detracking Impacted AP Chemistry?

4 mins read

Cover image taken by Celine Chien

Although some speculated that the removal of AS Chemistry would harm students’ preparedness for the AP Chemistry exam, scores show that little changed compared to previous years.

Last year’s AP Chemistry students were the first to take the class and exam without having taken Advanced Standing (AS) Chemistry the year before. Three years ago, as part of the movement to “detrack” certain advanced courses, M-A removed the option to take AS Chemistry, combining all students into grade-level Chemistry to diversify the makeup of science classes.

Prior to last year, most AP Chemistry students had taken AS Chemistry their sophomore year to prepare for the rigor of taking a college-level course their junior or senior year. Without the AS class, many worried that students would be ill-prepared for the AP while others argued that it would help diversify AP Chemistry classes.

Course Enrollment and Diversity

According to numbers provided by AP Chemistry teacher Matthew Sandora, enrollment in the 2022-2023 school year nearly tripled to an all-time high of 98 students across three AP Chemistry classes. The previous year there were 36 AP Chemistry students and only two classes. 

“A main reason [for increased enrollment] is that students definitely feel more competent taking AP Chemistry after taking sophomore chemistry,” Sandora said.

While interest in the course itself increased, many students felt that the course diversity remained similar to previous years. Senior Zahara Agarwal said, “Almost all of my classmates were white or Asian and from La Entrada or Hillview.” 

M-A Census Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity (2022-2023)

Despite M-A having a diverse student body, many students shared similar experiences, with the majority of their classmates being white or Asian and from La Entrada and Hillview feeder schools.

According to data collected by the Center for American Progress for the state of California, during the 2015-16 school year, 16.5% of Hispanic students enrolled in an AP course, 11.5% took an AP exam, and only 5.8% of these students passed the AP exam (receiving a score of 3 or higher). Only 12.9% of Black students enrolled in an AP course, 8.1% would take an AP exam, and only 2.4% passed the exam. 

This statistic is dramatically skewed when it comes to white and Asian students, with 39.3% of Asian students enrolled in an AP course–triple the percentage of Black students–32.4% taking an AP Exam, and 22.8% passing the exam–more than double the percentage of Black students who just took an AP course. 23.2% of white students were enrolled in an AP course, 17.2% taking an AP exam, and 12% passed the exam. 

AP Exam Results

M-A Students in last year’s AP Chemistry course scored higher on the AP Exam than the previous year. There was a 14% increase in the pass rate, a 4% increase from the previous all-time high. Scores remaining steady is certainly a positive, showing that despite the increased course enrollment, students scored better on their exams. 

“While the percentage of students who scored a four or a five remained about the same, many students who primarily would have scored a one or a two scored higher, achieving a three, and increasing the pass rate,” said Sandora. 

The AP Chemistry exam is notoriously difficult, consistently ranking among the top three most difficult AP courses based on student pass rate. 

AP Chemistry Catchup

Sandora said, “The first year—last year—that I had students who could not take AS Chemistry, I had to do more catchup–about a week’s worth of knowledge–compared to pre-COVID years. As a result, I talked about it with the current Chemistry teachers, and [last year’s sophomores] will now be coming in with more knowledge that they learn from the previous year’s Chemistry classes.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected students’ preparedness, many students still had difficulty adjusting to the rigor of AP Chemistry. Junior Jack Preston, who is taking the course this year said, “I feel like the gap between sophomore Chemistry and AP Chemistry is very large, and I don’t feel fully prepared for the course. A common sentiment among my peers is that we feel like we never took chemistry while our teachers expect us to know things we were never taught.”

Agarwal, who took the course last year, shared, “A lot of the first semester was spent covering basics because no one had a good foundation, and that made it harder to cover new topics.”

Junior Leo Mazzon, who is also taking the course this year, said, “I feel relatively prepared going into the course, however, all the Chemistry teachers taught in different ways and used different curricula so I think it’s hard to adjust at the beginning of the year for both teachers and students. I think it’s pretty early in the year to tell if people are struggling, but I feel a bit behind just starting off in chapter one.”

Detracking and AS Chemistry

The pushback against detracking started with the first removal of an Advanced Standing class, AS Biology, in 2016. This was followed by the removal of both AS English I (2022) and AS Chemistry (2021) for freshmen and sophomores respectively. 

The main argument against dividing students into separate “tracks” is that advanced classes are more accessible to underclassmen coming from wealthier feeder schools like Hillview and La Entrada. This makes these classes, like those schools, stratified based on income and race, where students often feel pressure to stay with peers they know in grade-level classes.

Science Department Chair Lance Powell explained, “What was happening with AS Chemistry was the same as 9th grade AS Biology, it became a course that only students from certain zip codes took.”

Opponents of detracking claim that grade-level courses do not prepare students for more advanced courses. Senior Emily Qian, who took AP Chemistry last year, said, “I believe that AS Chemistry would have been really helpful–the pace of normal Chemistry was too slow, and I think that it took away from the overall goal of learning because, although the teacher was trying her best, the students themselves were just coming from too many different levels.”

Sandora summarized, “With the combination of COVID and the removal of AS Chemistry, it’s difficult to know for sure what caused these changes, but as more years and classes go by, the data should become clearer.”

Ameya is a junior in his second year of journalism. He enjoys writing stories about education, sports, and local news and politics. In his free time he enjoys spending time with friends and watching movies.

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