High school physics instruction takes great leap forward with arrival of new AP physics courses

The most important thing for a high school physics class to have is a great teacher.

But once you have that, the next thing to have is a great physics curriculum.  That curriculum – the new algebra-based AP physics courses – arrives this month in classrooms around Florida and the nation.  

The new courses, AP Physics 1 and 2, were developed by a group of physicists, high school physics teachers and physics education researchers.  AP Physics 1 and 2 are replacing AP Physics B, a single year-long course.  AP Physics 1 and 2 are each designed to take a year and will cover somewhat more physics content, making them a better match to algebra-based physics courses taught at the college level than AP Physics B had been.  In 2013, 5061 Florida high school students took the AP Physics B exam, scoring an average of 2.57 on the 5-point AP exam scale.

Furthermore, while AP Physics B was designed to be a second physics course – taken after an Honors Physics or standard Physics course – AP Physics 1 is intended to be a first physics course.  While taking the standard high school science sequence, Biology-Chemistry-Physics, some highly motivated students had faced a difficult decision for their junior year science course selection – whether to take an Honors Physics course or an AP Chemistry course that they believed (and were sometimes told by teachers and counselors) would look better on an application for a selective college.  The new AP physics courses eliminate this dilemma by making Honors Physics obsolete.  In fact, no high schools in Florida or elsewhere should be teaching Honors Physics this fall.

This quiet revolution in high school physics teaching has gone nearly unnoticed by the media.  The only story that has appeared in the Florida media is this from the Gainesville Sun that notes rather skeptically that AP Physics 1 will be taught to a small group of 8th graders in Alachua County this fall.  The journalist completely misses – and is probably unaware of – the importance of the new courses for a broader audience of Florida students.  In fact, about 20% of Florida high school students have been graduating with an Honors Physics or standard Physics course.  If all of those students take AP Physics 1 instead, then that will represent roughly a ten-fold increase over the number of students who have taken AP physics previously.    

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