STEM Class Issues from the 2017-2018 Aragon School Year: Part 2 – AP Statistics

This is the second in a three article series.  The first article was about precalculus at Aragon.  The third article is about Aragon’s physics classes.

AP Statistics is taught by possibly the best math teacher at Aragon, Mr. Shahrvini.  That is a big plus, but this article is intended to provide information to students and parents about what the class entails.

Unfortunately Aragon counselors often portray the class as an “easier alternative to AP Calculus.”  In my experience (and, of course, others might disagree), it is more accurate to describe AP Statistics as being “different” from AP Calculus.  Depending upon a student’s abilities/habits the class might be easier, or it could turn out to be very hard and frustrating.

The first thing students and parents should realize about AP Statistics is that it is primarily composed of “word problems.”  If a student views mathematics merely as a set of equations to solve at the end of each textbook section, they will be surprised at how much they need to be able to read carefully and comprehend in this class.

If your student does not do well with word problems, they may want to think carefully before signing up for “AP Stats.”  Students should be able to view the textbook in the Aragon library or look at one of the AP test prep guides from Barrons, Princeton Review, etc., to get an initial “feel” for the type of problems.

Second, AP Statistics requires learning and keeping in one’s memory a fairly significant number of  calculator procedures and statistical “methods” and formulas.

TI-84 graphing calculators are used extensively for the problems.  These are relatively complicated calculators with a lot of keystroke routines and data entry required to execute statistical methods.  Ideally this will all be picked up during the course of working copious homework problems, but if this work is not done religiously, a student may not know how to carry out a particular calculator operation.

Note that, if a student works with a tutor, they should try their homework before they meet with the tutor.  (Please note that my 2018-2019 schedule is already full, and I am not soliciting new clients.)  The homework problems often involve data entry, so significant tutorial time can be wasted entering lists of numbers into calculators.

There are also a fair number of statistical procedures that will be learned and must be retained during the course in order to do well.  This favors students with good memories as opposed to analytical abilities.  For some problem answers, the AP test graders expect fairly specific wording, and it is advisable to memorize those phrases.

Third, the many formulas and statistical tests in the class are generally only presented to students along with a list of conditions for their use.  Much of this must be memorized.  Formula sheets have not been allowed on many in-class tests, although the AP exam includes a standard formula sheet in the test booklet (with minimal information about the formula).   The statistical methods can be justified in class only to a limited extent because the mathematics required to rigorously prove them is beyond the level that most high school students have studied.  The consequence is that AP Statistics tends to be somewhat like a biology class where students have to learn methods rather than derive them as in other math classes.  Again, for those who forget things quickly, this can be a challenge.  (Personally, I believe that retention is aided by having a logical scaffold on which to hang ideas.)

As the course goes on, some of the methods are related / seem similar, and students have to be able to discern which method applies to the particular lengthy word problem at hand.  If the methods have not been studied carefully and retained, this will present another challenge.

Statistics is a very practical field.  Not only is it used in STEM fields and medical research / drug development, it is also relevant to manufacturing, public opinion polling, economics, social science, and other non-STEM careers.  Thus it is good that students have the AP Statistics option at Aragon.  But if the class is taken merely to avoid what students perceive as the harder work in Calculus AB, they may be in for a rude awakening.

Students who finish precalculus have a significant choice to make.  If they are skilled at the type of problems that they had in precalculus, proceeding directly to Calculus AB makes the most sense as they just finished the prerequisites for AB.  As I have written elsewhere, I do not advise skipping from precalculus to BC except in very exceptional cases.

If on the other hand, a student did “OK” in precalculus and is heading towards a career other than the physical sciences or engineering, AP Statistics may make sense provided the student has the skills to handle successfully the issues I list above.

If neither AP Calculus or AP Statistics is suitable for a student, unfortunately Aragon offers only one other math class called Finite Math.  I have written about this problem previously in an article entitled “A Hole in the Aragon Math Curriculum” and continue to encourage the math department to offer a non-AP calculus class that minimizes preparation for the tricky and demanding AP exam.  Such a course would follow naturally from precalculus.  It would also allow the teacher to go at a pace suitable to the students in the particular class instead of feeling compelled to hurry through the curriculum to cover everything on a trap-filled standardized test.

Hopefully one day they will depart from business as usual and adopt this idea.

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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