Help for AP Physics Students during the Pandemic

A tip for mastering AP physics when teacher/tutoring help is not available.

Jan. 3, 2021 – Note to my readers – This is my first blog post in slightly over six months. After an extremely busy June 2020 spent dealing with issues concerning San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, in July I was preparing to go on a 65 mile backpacking vacation trip with my wife along a rugged segment of the John Muir Trail when I herniated a disc in my lumbar spine. This took me completely out of commission and left me in considerable pain and discomfort for two entire months. My adventures with the local medical system during this time are another story that I will spare you, but I am slowly recovering after doing physical therapy since September. I am finally exercising, bicycling and hiking again, but my loss of fitness was great, and it will be some time before I regain my previous level. The only good thing about the pandemic in light of the above is that I could work online and did not have to drive to my tutoring appointments which allowed me to continue to assist my students despite my injury.

The most common problem mentioned by my students during the pandemic is that technical glitches and other difficulties associated with remote learning are making it harder to finish the curriculum this year. It is more difficult to get assistance from teachers under these circumstances, and, in a challenging class like AP physics, access limitations are particularly problematic.

Many AP physics students rely on tutoring, but this is often an expensive proposition, and many families might not be able to afford the fees, particularly if a student needs several hours of help a week.

For many students who take physics in high school, AP physics may also be the first physics class that they have ever taken. If so, this makes their task even more difficult.

I long advocated that students first take a regular high school physics class before they attempted AP physics. Unfortunately once SMUHSD adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for their non-AP science classes, the regular physics curriculum significantly diverged from the topics covered in AP physics, and I was no longer comfortable making this recommendation.

The best recommendation that I can make to AP physics students under our current circumstances is to get a copy of the textbook previously used for regular physics in the SMUHSD. Below I will tell you how to use it to get a quick introduction to the material before doing your AP class work.

The book is entitled Conceptual Physics: The High School Physics Program by Paul G. Hewitt, ISBN-13: 978-0-13-364749-5. This is the edition used in the SMUHSD regular physics program prior to the adoption of NGSS, and students may still be able to check out a copy from their school library. It can also be purchased new or used on Amazon.

When a new chapter is started in the AP physics class, I recommend first doing a quick read of the corresponding chapter in Hewitt’s book. This text is much simpler reading and will give students a decent introduction/overview. Do the Concept Check and the think! problems embedded in the chapter text. The Concept Check problems are simple questions to make sure one was awake while reading the chapter section. If you can’t answer them, look back through the text in the section for the answer. The think! problems are quick tests of understanding with answers at the end of each chapter. Also at the end of each chapter, the Think and Rank problems are worth doing.

I realize that many students might immediately scoff and say that they are already overloaded with class work, so how are they going to fit in additional time to do my recommendations above???

My response is simple. If you understand what you are doing, your required class work will be completed much sooner and you will do better on exams. Too many AP physics students succumb to the temptation to memorize equations and other tricks to help them get over the AP physics hurdle. In the process their education suffers tremendously.

Finally, here is Hewitt’s short and simple dedication page in his textbook. It is a sentiment too often lacking in College Board AP classes:

AP Exam takers lost network connectivity in some cases !!!

I had three of my tutoring students take the Calculus BC exam yesterday. All of them felt well-prepared, but ONE out of THREE lost their network connection which made it impossible to finish.

(UPDATE: Instead of the reasons given in the Chronicle article below, the problem might be due to system overload near the end of the exam – uploading of results near the end of the test bogged down and the exam timer closed the test before the uploads could complete.  This is an unproven but plausible hypothesis given that the College Board may not have had enough students to load test the system before the real exam was given. More in the Comments section following this article.)

Apparently they were not alone according to the San Francisco Chronicle.  I found this article this afternoon while reading Diane Ravitch’s blog.

The College Board claims that this happened to only 1% of test takers.


From the Chronicle article:

“A Twitter post on Wednesday from the company’s official account said, “While more than 99% of students successfully submitted their AP exam responses today, some who didn’t told us they had trouble cutting and pasting their responses. We took a closer look and found that outdated browsers were a primary cause of these challenges.”

It advised that people who had issues submitting their exams update their browsers to the latest version of either Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Microsoft Edge.

The College Board also posted a link to a new troubleshooting page.

An earlier Tweet from the organization suggested that the problem had to do with the interface not accepting the default format of iPhone photos and that images would have to be converted to the widely-used digital format known as a jpeg.

The messaging did not sit well with the Twitter account’s followers who, in the replies thread, accused the College Board of “blaming the students” and said, “This is disappointing.”

The technical problems affected students across the country.”

My opinion on the AP system is well known…

SMUHSD Class Sign-up Time – Please Read This First!

Each year I receive calls for help part way into the new school year from parents whose children signed up for too many AP classes. I usually can not help these students because my schedule is already full, so I wrote the following article to try to stave off these problems to the extent possible. This article is an update for 2020 of my experience with AP Science and Math classes. Most of my students attend Aragon, but the cautionary notes in this article should also be considered by those attending other SMUHSD schools.

Continue reading “SMUHSD Class Sign-up Time – Please Read This First!”


A serendipitous chain of events – frustration after reviewing for an AP physics final leads me to begin reading a new book by the co-founder of Summit charter schools. Is there a path out of the current education morass?!??

Friday the 13th, December 2019 – Fall semester is coming rapidly to a close and everyone, myself included, is busily reviewing/helping review for final exams.

Last night I was working with one of my favorite students who is taking AP physics.  I only meet with this student once a week for a session of up to two hours, but, as we started going over the review packet for the final, I was chagrined, once again, to see that most of the material covered early in the semester had been almost completely forgotten.  I’ve been tutoring AP physics for the last 8 years now, and this year’s review packet also contained some ambiguous questions which did not help matters.

I encounter this situation every year, but this student in particular is excellent, so it bothered me even more than usual this time.

Readers of this blog know quite well that I have not been a fan of the AP system.  AP physics in particular tends to cover too much material far too quickly.  Nationally in 2019 the AP Physics 1 exam had the lowest average score of any AP test (2.51 on a scale of 5) with a pass rate of only 45.4%.  This is despite the redesign of the exam in 2015 when the College Board reacted to poor scores by cutting back the material covered PLUS the even more amazing fact that students need only around 41% correct answers to get a passing grade of 3!

In the rush to cover the topics even on the newer pared-down exam, it is crystal clear to me that insufficient practice problems are given to students before the class needs to move on to the next topic in the frantic rush to “cover the material.”

I believe that the sacred trust of high school teachers is to inspire interest and enthusiasm in the subject taught, not overwhelm students with so many details that they end up feeling stupid and frustrated.

Physics is a hard topic to begin with, but should be the most fun and enlightening class a student takes in high school.  Very few students are fortunate enough to have this experience in high school (neither did I; college physics saved me fortunately).

When a teacher is forced to teach to the requirements of the AP exam (the main purpose of which is to spread out the curve to help college admissions offices sort through applicants), the pace of the curriculum is not conducive to generating a love for the subject; in fact, it sadly does the exact opposite!!

I have been working with the student above for several years and was really looking forward to studying physics with them this year (unfortunately due to my public writings I have to use gender neutral references).  It was crushing to see that “the system” was crashing down on things yet again.

Starting today off in a foul mood because of the above, I decided to go to lunch at Filoli, one of my favorite places around the holidays.  After eating, I walked around the now dormant rose garden and took a seat under a large persimmon tree to read.

I was scrolling through my WordPress blog list, perusing a few articles from Diane Ravitch’s education blog, when I ran across a post from Bill Gates, reviewing a new book by the co-founder and CEO of Summit charter schools, Diane Tavenner.  The title of the book is “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.”  Summit schools started out right here in the Bay Area originally sharing space with Sequoia High School in Redwood City.

Anyone who knows the history of Dr. Ravitch and Mr. Gates might be surprised that I look at both blogs.  Dr. Ravitch leads public school advocates and is vehemently opposed to privatization/charter schools.  Mr. Gates has been one of the largest funders and supporters of the public school “reform” movement.  The vitriol flung back and forth between these two camps can be overwhelming at times.

As to reading both blogs, I admit that I am a dinosaur – one of the few remaining Americans who believes in investigating the many sides of the story instead of just tuning to MSNBC or Fox News all day long to reinforce my prejudices.

I downloaded a free Kindle sample of Ms. Tavenner’s book and read it engrossed while sitting in Filoli’s rose garden.  The story in the book’s Prologue about a student named Isabella who succeeded at Summit despite amazing odds against her was riveting.  I quickly finished the Prologue, chapter 1, and the first part of chapter 2 when I reached the end of my freebie.  I then paid for the rest of the book which I hope to finish over the winter break, and will report back more later.

Ms. Tavenner focuses a lot in the free Kindle excerpt on disadvantaged students struggling to make it in our society (including herself at a younger age), and near the end of the first chapter mentions their “Summit Learning” software program “in which other schools could have access to the resources, curriculum, and tools we use, for free.”  She mentions Summit’s method of personalizing education for each student using technology, and how every student is paired with teacher and student mentors to help them succeed.  In contrast to the rushed AP system, learning is self-paced, but “100 percent of of our graduates are eligible for a four-year college, and 98% are accepted.  Summit grads finish college at double the national average, and the rate is much higher for minority students.”

Sounds very good, and I look forward to reading the rest!

However, I should also note that Summit Learning and the personalized learning approach in general has generated its fair share of controversy as noted in these articles:

So is Ms. Tavenner’s new book going to turn out to be a marketing tool for Summit Learning?  I don’t know yet.

I have used the ALEKS software with some of my math students for supplemental self-paced instruction.  My personal experience casts doubt about putting a student alone in front of a computer.  Unless an adult is sitting with the student while they work through the program, it tends not to get used, and the computers are often used instead as a tool to access other distractions.  HOWEVER, with close adult supervision, I believe it can be a valuable additional tool in a teacher’s quiver of arrows.  The fourth article “2011 Video…” in the list above makes one wonder, however, if technology will in fact be used that way.

Despite these reservations, I look forward to reading the rest of “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.”

Sadly, what I currently see in our public schools does not bring me joy either…

On that cheerful note – Happy Holidays!!

Raising our Children – American Society Reflects our Values and Choices

This may be the most important article in my blog. Let us never forget – society is our creation – the sum total of our values and choices, beginning with how we raise and educate our children!

Continue reading “Raising our Children – American Society Reflects our Values and Choices”

My SMUHSD Board Report on NGSS – A Lot of People of Good Will Trying to Deal with a Tough Problem

Current problems may eventually be ironed out of the NGSS curriculum. There was a nice display of positive progress at the 3/7/19 Board meeting, but there is still a significant way to go. There will be problems during the transition. Parents unfortunately appear unaware of / unconcerned by this issue.

Continue reading “My SMUHSD Board Report on NGSS – A Lot of People of Good Will Trying to Deal with a Tough Problem”

A Great Conversation at the SMUHSD Board Meeting Regarding NGSS

It is very unfortunate that it took a year to occur, but I am pleased to report that we finally had an excellent exchange of views about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) at the San Mateo Union High School District Board meeting last night (3/7/19), and I feel more hopeful for the future.

I could post my presentation today, but that would give only my side of the story.  I will defer that until I also have time to write a description of the presentations from the District and the ensuing discussion with the SMUHSD Board members.  I hope to get that done before the end of the weekend.

SMUHSD Board of Trustees Science Curriculum Agenda Item on Thursday, March 7th

After a wait of almost a year, the Next Generation Science Standards agenda item will finally be discussed at this coming Thursday’s (3/7/19) Board of Trustees meeting.  A link to the entire meeting agenda is here.  I have been told that the NGSS item will come up around 8:00 PM, but this timing is only approximate.  The District will give the following PowerPoint presentation, and I have been granted six minutes to respond.

I just sent the following email to the SMUHSD administration and the Board of Trustees in preparation for this event:

Dear Board Members,
I am pleased that we will finally address the NGSS agenda item this coming Thursday, March 7th.  I have reviewed Dr. Kempkey’s and Mr. Simmons’ presentation.  Dr. Skelly has informed me that I will have six minutes to reply following it.  I have specific comments that I will make in regards to the District’s presentation, but also request that you all be aware of the following.
Since the SMUHSD science curriculum is of paramount importance, since it has been over two months since I posted the following article summarizing my concerns, and since I have waited for almost a year to the day for this forum to occur, I sincerely hope that you will do me the courtesy of rereading ahead of the meeting this article from my blog and also the Education Week article that is referenced therein.
As I noted near the end of my article, I am NOT seeking the quixotic goal of overturning the District’s adoption of the NGSS standards, but I do have serious reservations about the adoption process and want to implement better public notification in the future before such major changes are adopted.  Please refer to my meeting objectives stated at the end of my article starting with the text “Despite looking into this for a year now, it is not clear to me how involved the Board of Trustees really was in the NGSS adoption decision, and I hope the meeting sheds some light on that question.”
Thank you.  I’m looking forward to seeing you Thursday evening.
Dr. David Kristofferson

How to Get Into Harvard – II

Finally, as my last note in this series of articles before students sign up for next year’s classes, I would like to remind everyone of an article I posted here back on March 4th, 2017.  Newer high school students have probably not seen this article:

How to Get in to Harvard

It references an article written by another author who is a very intelligent, talented, and driven Chinese-American who “graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.”  He says, “In high school, I got into every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford.”  He later joined an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Harvard Medical School and MIT.

His perspective runs counter to a lot of conventional high school counseling, but I found it extremely interesting, believable, and compelling.

As with anything worthwhile, his article is a lengthy read.  I list a few critical points in my synopsis which I urge you to read first before tackling his detailed text.

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