Changes to AP biology test?

An article in last week’s Education Life supplement to the New York Times reports that the College Board is working on a “wholesale revamping of A.P. biology,” a revision which will substantially reduce memorization and will also provide a model curriculum. The new curriculum will rely more on laboratory experiments and hypothesis testing, and less on memorization. The goal, according to the Times, is to allow the students to “focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.” The changes will take effect beginning with the 2012-13 school year. The Times notes that the changes are important because “critical thinking skills” are necessary for advanced college courses and jobs.

For biology, the change means paring down the entire field to four big ideas. The first is a simple statement that evolution “drives the diversity and unity of life.” The others emphasize the systematic nature of all living things: that they use energy and molecular building blocks to grow; respond to information essential to life processes; and interact in complex ways. Under each of these thoughts, a 61-page course framework lays out the most crucial knowledge students need to absorb.

Here are two sample questions that were linked to the Times article:

Currently, all living organisms are classified into one of three domains: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. In a sentence or two, provide two pieces of evidence that justify a common origin for the three domains.

Oxygen can diffuse into cells by passing between plasma membrane lipids. In a sentence or two, explain why ions, such as Na+, cannot pass between membrane lipids.

A great many of the comments linked to the article were critical and suggested that the revision amounted to a dumbing-down of the curriculum. Others said that the International Baccalaureate program was substantially better than the AP program and also that the revisions to the AP tests are a response to the success of the IB. Still others said that the AP courses are not necessarily useful substitutes for introductory college courses, and a few charged that program itself benefits not students but schools, which use the number of students in the program as a mark of their success. I haven’t the foggiest idea, but any program that stresses evolution cannot be all bad.