Using the ACS Exams in Your Classroom

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Say the words standardized test to most educators and you will likely notice a minor gag reflex. While I completely sympathize with this reaction given the frequently labeled testing culture that’s been far too often forced upon us within the past 15 years, I think it is appropriate to take a step back and recognize the meaningful role a standardized test can have on our curriculum and instruction. After a recent experience using an exam from the ACS Division of Chemical Education Examinations Institute1, I was able to recognize that meaningful role. So, the purpose of this article is to provide useful information for anyone interested in the exam implementation process. I will follow a general “things I wish I would have known before ordering the exam” format.

Last year, I purchased the 2016 ACS High School Conceptual Chemistry Exam for a few reasons:

1) Since it’s a standardized test, I knew I could compare my students’ scores with the normative data gathered throughout the country2.

2) The exam assessed students’ conceptual understanding, which is something I am always striving for as a teacher.

3) The exam contained 50 multiple-choice questions, which was convenient for scoring and implementation.

The process for ordering the exam is very simple. You request an order form online, fill out the paper order form indicating the quantity of the exam needed, and send it back to them. For scoring the exam, an answer sheet proof is provided and can be used to collect student responses. You can then choose to either send the paper copies or scans of the answer sheets back to the Institute which can usually be scored within a few hours. Once scored, the Institute sends back a nice statistical breakdown of your scores. Largely due to my own impatience, I chose to collect answers and score them using my own Scantron sheets.

I used the exam as a pre/post opportunity to measure growth, if any. I think using the exam in this manner has the potential for teachers to gain insight toward both content and pedagogical areas that they might not have previously emphasized as strongly in the past. For example, though my students’ scores improved, the average score on particle-based questions stayed relatively stagnate. I was surprised by this since I continuously stress a particle-based understanding in my instruction. But after thinking about it, I started to wonder that even though I show students particle diagrams all the time in my lectures, notes, and discussions, maybe I don’t provide them with enough opportunities to draw particle diagrams themselves. So, this summer, I am going to spend more time planning and creating these opportunities. The point is that this is an action I am taking because the exam shed some light on an aspect of my instruction that had not been previously visible in such a comprehensive way.

As for logistics, here is some general information about the test itself, pricing, and a brief description of what teachers might want to know if they are interested in implementing the test.


2016 High School Conceptual Exam Information:

  • 50 multiple-choice questions
  • Average time it took my students to complete was around 35 minutes (50 minutes is recommended)
  • Though I’m not at liberty to discuss how many questions there are for each topic, I can say that the exam includes the following topics: Atomic Theory, Electromagnetic Radiation, Chemical Reactions, Gas Laws, Radioactive Decay, Bonding, Lewis Structures, Physical/Chemical Change, Solutions, Moles, Stoichiometry, Phase Changes, Kinetic Molecular Theory, Isotopes, Periodic Trends, Acids/Bases, Equilibrium, and Ionic Compounds.
  • There are a number of particle-based questions, which align well with what the Modeling InstructionTM curriculum emphasizes.
  • The items are conceptually based rather than aligning to more traditional types of questions.


Pricing (exams come in sets of 5):

10-25: $2.00/each

30-80: $1.80/each

85+: $1.60/each

Pricing for other exams can be found here.

Things to keep in mind as a teacher:

  • This is a highly secure exam. It is illegal to make copies of any kind. The exams must be kept secure at all times from arrival on campus, to storage of the exams, to use of the exams. Because of this, always keep the exams in a secure location and if you are allowing other teachers within your department to use the exam, make sure to communicate the importance of exam security and protocols for administration. During testing, the test must be kept secure meaning that students can only take the exam during a constantly proctored environment (being particularly careful not to allow students to capture any portion of the test as well – this specifically includes the use of cell phones or any device that would capture a digital image or copy of the test). Along with your purchase of the test, you will receive the policies and regulations for giving a secure exam.
  • You will want to consider an appropriate time for giving the exam. I mistakenly gave the post-exam during the last week of school. In hindsight, I wish I would not have done this since the students were not in an appropriate state of mind to take the exam. Many expressed frustrations since completing the exam took time away from reviewing for finals. I won’t make this mistake next year.
  • Make sure to effectively communicate to students why they are taking the exam. You really have to sell this. Students at my school often reflect the product of a “point grabbing” culture so I ran into several moments where students did not even want to try on the exam since it was not going to count toward their grade. If a student finishes the exam in less than 15 minutes, you know that no effort was applied and their score is inaccurate. I’m still thinking about ways to potentially incentivize the exam, since many students often lack the maturity to appreciate why this data is important to me. If you have any ideas on this matter, I would love to hear them!

If the High School Conceptual Exam does not fit your needs, no worries. The Institute has a number of exams available for different educational levels and those within different branches of chemistry (e.g. Analytical, Biochem, Inorganic, Organic, etc.)3. Though I’m sure there are other options out there, I found that using the ACS Examinations Institute was a great choice. Each exam goes through intense scrutiny and its creation is led by a committee of well-respected professionals that know what they are doing. I strongly encourage any chemistry educators out there to seek out an exam like this and use it to help make decisions about your own curriculum and instruction!


1 "ACS Exams | ACS Division of Chemical Education Examinations Institute."

2 Since the 2016 High School Conceptual Exam is so new, there is not currently enough data collected for norming. However, it is only a matter of time.

3"Exams | ACS Exams - University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee."


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Comments 2

Leonard Freidhof | Mon, 10/16/2017 - 14:03

Do you think the ACS exam (one for fall a different year for spring could be used as a Type III assessment of student progress.  Our school is looking for mirrored fall/spring exams to look at student growth.

Ben Meacham's picture
Ben Meacham | Tue, 10/17/2017 - 08:24

My first year using the ACS exam, I used it as a pre/post exam to gather data on student growth.  Because there are so many topics covered on the conceptual exam, it's likely that it will provide you with enough data to adequately measure growth.  However, our curriculum didn't cover everything that was on the exam, so we felt that it was appropriate to rule out a couple questions.  

I would order a copy of the exam, determine if the topics assessed align well enough with your own curriculum, and then make the decision from there about whether you want to order them in bulk.

Overall, I really like the exam. The fact that it assesses a great deal of topics, is purely conceptual, multiple choice, standardized, and writtten completely independent of me, is enough to keep me using it from year to year.

I hope that answers your question!