Taking the Chem or Bio SAT Subject Test?

Why the Changes to the AP Tests Matter.

As we head into the home stretch of the school year, many students are considering taking Subject Tests in May or June. Often students in AP classes will take the corresponding Subject Test, as their class preparation for the AP exam will usually prepare them well for the shorter, somewhat less complex Subject Test.

This efficient approach makes sense and should be employed when the tests align with a student’s strengths, but as AP exams have undergone changes in the past few years, their multiple choice sections have grown strikingly different from their corresponding Subject Tests. As an example, let’s take a look at the Biology and Chemistry Subject Tests, two of the most popular choices among our students.

In May 2013 the College Board debuted the newly redesigned Biology AP exam, and in May 2014 it presented the new Chemistry AP exam. Much to the frustration of students in the first years of the new tests, these exams came with a much tougher scoring curve.


Percentage of students who received a score of:
Subject Year 5 4 3 2 1
Biology—Old test 2012 19.4 16.9 14.3 14.6 34.8
 New test 2013 5.4 21.4 36.3 29.5 7.4
 Old test 2013 18.2 21.3 19 15.1 26.4
 New test 2014 10.1 16.6 25.7 25.8 21.8



As you can see in the chart above, the newly revised 2013 Biology exam had FAR fewer students earning a 5 than did the older version given in 2012, and the newly revised 2014 Chemistry exam had a significant drop in top scores as well. We are expecting a similar score distribution in 2015, possibly with a slight (1-2%) upward tick on the higher scores as teachers and students get more familiar with the new test format.

The changes to the Biology and Chemistry AP exams were similar: both tests were redesigned to focus less on factual recall and more on conceptual understanding and the ability to make connections among topics within the courses. For some of my students, this simply translates into tougher questions, as they not only have to know the background information, but also understand what relationship the test is looking for and then apply that specific knowledge to the question.

In addition, the new tests are more reading intensive, particularly in the multiple choice sections. The Biology AP exam, for example, went from 100 multiple choice questions in 80 minutes down to 63 multiple choice and 6 grid-in calculation questions in 90 minutes. The Chemistry multiple choice section changed in similar ways.

In contrast to these changed AP exams, all Subject Tests remain 60 minutes and have only multiple choice questions. These tests are more in line with the old style of AP multiple choice questions; they stress direct factual recall and knowledge of the core subject matter. My colleague and I took the Biology and Chemistry Subject Tests in January 2015 and confirmed that the tests are still presenting the same types of questions that have been on the Subject Tests for the past 15 years. While the Subject Tests are certainly comprehensive and sometimes difficult, the questions are more straightforward, and students who do well with memorization and working quickly through many shorter questions will find that these tests suit them well.

So, now that the multiple choice sections on the Biology and Chemistry AP exams are different from those on the corresponding Subject Tests, students can’t assume that preparation for the AP exam will automatically lead to a strong Subject Test score. Students should take a baseline practice test of each, in order to gauge their comfort level with the style of questions before committing to taking the Subject Test.

All Marks Education tutors take the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests each year, as well as analyzing past tests, in order to provide up-to-date expertise in a rapidly changing testing landscape. If you have further questions or would like to schedule a baseline AP exam or Subject Test, please feel free to contact us.


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