Thinking inside the box

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Thinking inside the box

Zach Sanchez

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AP Physics I has a reputation as one of MVHS’ toughest classes — it might be that reputation that led students, over the span of three years, to contribute to a Dropbox for the course, containing old, unreleased tests from 2011-2014. It is by far the most extensive prep book a student can get their hands on, with copy after copy of unreleased material stored neatly in folders by year, topic and version.

“I got it pretty late last semester,” said one student who took AP Physics 1 last year, “but the first time I used it all the free response questions were the exact same except for the numbers.”

Free Response Questions, which require students to independently form their answers, are worth twice the multiple choice. The Dropbox has essentially all the materials someone would need to do well on Physics tests, from old multiple choice questions to worked out solutions to the FRQs. Senior Mark Geha, who took the class last year, said there would be students with copies of the test printed out from the Dropbox during their test prep periods.

“…I went to [take] the test, and it was the exact same test but with different numbers.”

“It wasn’t until the fourth test of last year, that I was taking the [practice] test and this guy asked me a question, and it’s like, ‘Where did you get this question?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s from the Dropbox,’” Geha said. “And then he showed me the [old] test…and I was like, ‘This is weird.’ And so I ignored it. But then I went to [take] the test, and it was the exact same test but with different numbers.”

While AP Physics teacher Jim Birdsong posts review material on Schoolloop for students to practice from, the answers are blank. Senior Ansuman Somasundaram claims the Dropbox is a joint effort between students from past and future years to compile all the possible answers.

No one is really sure who first created the Dropbox, as the company has made its public links untraceable by default. For students, the physics file remains just a rumor floating around in the air until they meet the lucky person with the link.
According to Geha, the advantage the Dropbox gave students was huge — every other exam, another student would bring another test in and ask him questions.

“It was [brought to Birdsong’s attention] second semester when somebody found the final online,” Geha said, “Like, all but one class found it. Killing the curve killed me, when they were getting these tests…it just killed me.”

Because the Dropbox is only accessible to people with the link, in order to get in a student would need to know another classmate who has it. Physics is graded on a curve, so when students are able to study off of materials not available to their peers, they have the potential to do much better on graded assessments. This, Somasundaram said, sharply elevates the curve against students without the Dropbox link who are struggling in the class.

While Geha understands that some people use the Dropbox to study, he believes having access to all those resources puts a certain group of people at an unfair advantage. The one student, who used the tests but did not want to reveal their name, said once someone learns how to solve the “Dropbox problems,” they are good to go for the test. Having the Dropbox second semester helped them a lot, especially since the problems for the multiple choice and free response remained relatively the same.

“[The Dropbox] definitely affects the curve for Physics because it makes it a lot lower,” Somasundaram said. “It is frustrating to know that someone put zero effort into studying for the tests and just memorized the answers.”

Most students realize that Birdsong and Michael Lordan, another AP Physics 1 teacher, know about the Dropbox but can’t do much about it.

“[I encountered rumors about the Dropbox file] at least two or three years ago. Just people referring to, well, ‘That was on the Dropbox,’” Birdsong said. “Now I don’t know exactly what’s in there…but I don’t have evidence that it matters because I change all the questions to a certain degree, so they’re not going to see the same question that they may see in the Dropbox.”

Birdsong and Lordan both realize that Physics is a difficult class, so they try to provide as many resources as possible — from putting up old tests to supplying students with an overwhelming amount of extra practice problems. Birdsong thinks that’s where the Dropbox might have originated — just practice copies of Birdsong’s old tests all in one convenient location.
Lordan is not sure why students would need the Dropbox as, according to him, Physics students already have a wealth of resources at their disposal. More old tests, according to him, should not have that great of an impact.

“The students already get old tests. They get a multitude of practice problems, so having additional old tests — the benefit of that is pretty minimal,” Lordan said, “but I am not exactly sure what is out there, so it is hard for me to quantify.”
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Birdsong and Lordan understand the class is graded on a curve — that students will be affected by any potential increases in other students’ grades. The way they see it, they have two options: either stop giving out the tests afterward, or release all the past years’ assessments to completely level out the playing field for all physics students. They do not see any point in trying to actively take down the Dropbox.

“So what we’ve talked most about is actually having all of my tests on Schoolloop,” Birdsong said, “to sort of co-opt what the Dropbox thing is trying to do.”

Birdsong hopes that it is just his old files in there, but if students have access to other unreleased assessments, the only thing he can do is not put up the answers to the dropbox-accessible problems. Both teachers agree that it is counter-intuitive to punish students by taking away resources in an already difficult class, so they try to accommodate to prevent any impact the Dropbox might have on the curve.

“[To]stop giving out the tests afterward…actually wouldn’t fix the problem that exists,” Birdsong said. “[Maybe] five or six years from now it would go away, but that genie is out of the bottle.”