From Advanced Placement to Advanced Physics

After receiving criticism mainly from teachers regarding the mandatory AP Physics I course, the administration has decided to change the course to Advanced Physics, which...

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By Zoe Oppenheimer

In a decision announced last June, the administration made Advanced Placement (AP) Physics I mandatory for all juniors in an attempt to establish a uniform curriculum and provide students the opportunity to gain college credit for a course that was already at the college level. The administration also did not want Stuyvesant students to fall behind students at other specialized high schools—who were already taking AP Physics I—during the college application process. This decision, however, was met with backlash from teachers, who expressed dissatisfaction with the course’s execution.

Teachers had several issues with the previous AP Physics I course, one of them being the labs in the Stuyvesant AP Physics I curriculum. According to the College Board, classwork for the AP Physics I curriculum is suggested to be 25 percent lab work/inquiry, but the AP Physics I course at Stuyvesant was not meeting that suggestion. As of now, the physics labs comprise 20 percent of classwork and are designed for Regents-level physics courses. Changing the course to Advanced Physics would relieve teachers from the constraints of the 25 percent lab requirement; however, it still leaves the quality of physics labs unchanged.

Another major concern brought up by teachers was the curriculum of AP Physics I. “AP Physics is split into two parts: […] AP Physics I and AP Physics II. The course was AP Physics I, which is basically just half of all the topics in AP Physics. And the problem with that was that many of the topics in the Regents exam were not in the AP Physics I curriculum,” physics teacher Thomas Strasser said. “You only get to see half of physics, and you should see all of it.”

In addition, last year’s Honors Physics met for seven periods a week while this year’s physics classes only meet for five. This shortened class time was especially difficult for teachers to manage under the AP Physics I curriculum, which had more complex material. “[We were] given 28 percent less instructional time than last year with the expectation to teach higher-level content to students who didn't choose to be in an AP class in the first place,” an anonymous physics teacher said in an e-mail interview. “The rigor and pace of the curriculum we were expected to deliver was too much for a large percentage of our students. Too many students were being left behind and it was only going to get worse once we got to the unit on Rotation.”

Moving forward with the AP Physics I course meant that teachers had to sign off to the College Board on teaching the class. “The course code [for AP Physics] requires that by a certain deadline, the teachers attest on the College Board website that they feel that they are teaching the course as delineated by the College Board,” Principal Eric Contreras said.

Because of factors like the lab issues and the curriculum, physics teachers could not sign the audit certifying that the AP Physics I course offered at Stuyvesant met the College Board’s requirements. “We couldn’t sign it, we didn’t sign it, so therefore we had to change the name [of the course],” the anonymous physics teacher said.

United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Representative and chemistry teacher Samantha Daves e-mailed the College Board earlier in the school year explaining the issues with AP Physics I at Stuyvesant and detailing the class time and labs allocated for the course. The College Board confirmed that the course did not meet their standards and could not be trademarked as an AP course.

Daves, Assistant Principal of Organization Dr. Gary Haber, and four physics teachers—Ulugbek Akhmedov, Rebecca Gorla, Thomas Miner, and Thomas Strasser—met with Contreras on November 22 to discuss this issue and find an alternative to the course.

Daves was crucial in sparking the transition to Advanced Physics. “[Daves] was able to navigate a conversation where we all came to the table and said, ‘Okay, how can we get past the issues of conflict and start talking about what we haven’t done in years?’” Contreras said. “I have to give her and the teachers she worked with the credit for moving forward.”

After thoroughly discussing the physics issue with teachers, the administration implemented the teachers’ requests to change the AP Physics I course and decided to rename the course “Advanced Physics with AP Physics I Topics.” Advanced Physics, which does not have the College Board’s AP trademark, will still hold college-level distinction on Stuyvesant’s school profile sent out to colleges, along with other college-level courses like Artificial Intelligence and Organic Chemistry. Advanced Physics will cover a greater range of topics than AP Physics I did. Optics, Electromagnetic Induction, Nuclear Physics, and Magnetism were added to the Advanced Physics curriculum while the most difficult topic from AP Physics I, Rotational Kinematics, will not be taught.

Advanced Physics will closely resemble the Honors Physics classes of previous years, but with more emphasis on basic theory. “[The] course is somewhere in between AP- and SAT II-level,” the previously mentioned anonymous physics teacher said in an e-mail interview. The pacing for Advanced Physics will also be slower than AP Physics I, giving students more class time to understand the fundamental principles of physics and practice complex, multi-step problems.

Despite the fact that the administration and the physics teachers support this change, the student body has expressed mixed feelings, with many students upset about the lack of student input, the lack of AP distinction, and the money already spent on the AP Physics I test.

Sophomore Henry Cen is in favor of the AP Physics I course and believes that the administration should have been more transparent and provided a greater transitional period. “The teachers don’t know anything, the students don’t know much, no one really knows much,” he said.

Senior Joseph Lee agreed. “Regardless of what colleges think of it, students will not feel satisfied with Advanced Physics. ‘AP’ just sounds better. Even if they get the class credit for it, I think the students themselves would feel more rewarded if it was called an AP class and they [got] the distinction,” he said.

Sophomore Rachel Xiao also believes that more effective communication should be present, and that the school should have taken student input before making AP Physics I mandatory. Her suggestion for the following school year is to offer sections of AP Physics I and sections of Honors Physics at the Regents level, much like how the school offers AP Chemistry and Honors Chemistry at the Regents level. “[Students should] at least know what they’ve set themselves up [for] […] and [if] the school’s forcing too [many] APs, it’s not good,” Xiao said.

While creating two types of classes has worked well for chemistry and biology, this dichotomy, according to Contreras, could create problems for physics. “There would be far fewer beneficiaries under that dichotomy. Two to four sections would say ‘we got AP’ and the others would say ‘I had Regents physics,’” he said. “That’s when it becomes an issue for college. The question by colleges is, ‘Did you take the highest possible physics for your class at that grade?’”

Additionally, the dichotomy would also affect which students have the opportunity to pursue other AP Physics courses after junior year. “Because physics comes so late in the high school career, [...] if you only give [AP Physics I] to a very small percentage of students [in] junior year, then it’s that very small percentage that gets access to AP Physics C [in] senior year,” Contreras said. “I’m always willing to hear alternatives, [...] but I think that a high-quality, rich experience that prepares everyone for the AP I and supports SAT II physics and Regents physics and covers those interesting topics that are really important is better for the entire Stuyvesant community than just having a few sections.”

Some students approve of the Advanced Physics change, though. An anonymous junior is content with the change, since the physics teacher stated that there would be a uniform curriculum and an improved lab schedule. Their lab experience has been “really inefficient and time-wasting,” and their lab partner is “[a] month ahead in terms of material. [...] I have no idea how to do it [because] we haven’t even done this yet in class,” they said.

Junior Julian Cunningham is also happy with the change, as it relieves the pressures associated with AP distinction. “In a lot of ways, the initial change to AP Physics felt like one largely in name only. However, due to the test-oriented nature of Stuyvesant, many students felt obligated to take the test simply because of the name of the course, even if they had no real interest in physics,” he said in an e-mail interview. “[Though] it was clarified that the AP exam was optional, the environment at Stuyvesant can make it feel otherwise for many students. Simply changing the name takes pressure off of the students to take an exam in a topic in which they're not interested, and it alleviates pressure on the teachers to ‘teach to the test,’ which is unfortunately too common at Stuyvesant.”

Though the Student Union (SU) was not involved in the decision to change the course, it has played an active role in mediating between the administration and the student body. Since the announcement of the Advanced Physics change, the SU has met with Contreras, Daves, and members of the physics department on multiple occasions to address student concerns. Through these discussions, the course name was updated from Advanced Physics to Advanced Physics with AP Physics I Topics, and a Town Hall was held to increase transparency and inform the student body.

Junior and SU Vice President Julian Giordano believes that a change should reflect the community as a whole. “My perspective when it comes to any change is that it needs to consult all of the people who are involved in the change. If a change is going to be made that is going to impact the students, teachers, and administration, then it should consult all of the groups,” he said.

Strasser and Daves proposed the idea of a Student Committee with student representatives from the SU, to be initiated in January. This committee will work toward a uniform physics curriculum that prepares students for the Regents, the SAT II, and the AP exam. “The idea here is that there is an ongoing conversation between students and teachers,” senior and SU President Vishwaa Sofat said.

Prominent concerns among the junior class are the low grades students have been receiving in their physics classes. “Students were having less instructional time, less lab time, a faster paced curriculum, a heavier workload, and a pushback from teachers,” Giordano said. “It created a situation where it made it very difficult for students to do well in the course.”

However, student complaints and the grade breakdown of the junior class do not fully match up. “If you look at test scores and you talk to students about test grades, the test grades are very low. And that is rather concerning. However, if you look at the marking period grades, as reported to us by Principal Contreras at the Town Hall, the difference between the senior year and the current juniors, the class of 2020 and the class of 2021, [...] is very marginal,” Sofat said.

As of second marking period, 97.7 percent of juniors this year are passing physics, in comparison to 96.9 percent of last year’s juniors. In addition, 70.6 percent of current juniors have an 85 or above in physics, while 71.9 percent of juniors last year had an 85 or above by second marking period. “There was a perception that a lot more students are failing. But physics is not an easy course, especially physics at Stuyvesant,” Contreras said.

“The issue really is, how can we make sure students are able to better perform on tests and that the tests are about things that they’re learning in class?” Sofat said. “The administration has said that they will be talking to teachers and they’re going to be having a conversation about grades as well. And once they get back to us, we’ll be able to see what the next steps are.”

Despite these unresolved questions, the administration has attempted to accommodate student concerns regarding physics in other ways. The administration has provided an extra day of AIS and is also hoping to provide additional test prep for the AP on a few weekends to supplement the five to 15 percent of the AP test that Advanced Physics will not cover. Dr. Haber is also working to issue refunds for students who no longer wish to take their AP Physics I test.

Though prominent controversies and concerns arose in response to the physics changes this year, issues surrounding the physics department have been present for years. “This challenge around physics has actually just made public what has been a long-standing challenge and concern at Stuyvesant around physics,” Contreras said.

Contreras believes that this conflict has allowed the school to start working toward an improved and uniform physics course. “Once I sat down with a few of the teachers and actually heard the compelling case to be able to craft the course that does both AP I and teaches topics that aren’t included, I gained an appreciation for the shift,” he said. “I feel that we’re now in a place where we’re actually mapping out what’s taught, how much of it gets taught, how to connect that to AP I very concretely, and then how to connect that to Regents and [...] SAT II and some topics in AP II concretely.”

The administration plans to continue working and building on Advanced Physics for future years. “I feel so strongly about [Advanced Physics] that I want it to be the course next year,” Contreras said. “It’s the core curriculum for the course, then it’s the labs, and then implement that, and then tweak it year to year, but have something we can keep coming back to [...] that’s concrete and tangible and aligned.”

For the upcoming years, Giordano wants to alleviate any confusion between the students and the administration regarding the curriculum. “Students should know what is happening regarding the curriculum they’re going to be taking for the next year from the administration, so the administration needs to be really clear about the changes. So, we’re pushing to make sure that all of those details come out and that the changes are as transparent as possible,” he said.

The administration also hopes to resolve the issue of shortened class time this year, which was due to restrictions in budget and the allocation of periods for freshman AP Biology, History, and English classes. Contreras plans to have next year’s physics classes return to the seven period structure. “What I’d like to do is go back to seven [periods a week]. And there may be some challenges with classroom space, but we’ll figure those out,” he said.

Contreras has other aspects of Stuyvesant physics that he hopes to improve. “I’d like to see more connections to real life. I’d like to move toward a less theoretical and more applied [physics] and a merging of the lab experience with the lecture experience,” he said.

For the administration, the physics labs are an especially important element to address in many aspects, not just the integration of lab work into the classroom experience. “The two things that need to happen in lab are consistency [...] and then alignment to Regents topics or AP I topics,” Contreras said. “Consistency and alignment have been the long-standing challenges for physics lectures and labs going back years.”

While the administration believes that making this adjustment is a step in the right direction, it acknowledges that resolving the historic problems of the physics department will take time. “It’s not going to be a one-year fix, [as] this has been something that has been a challenge [for] physics going back years,” Contreras said. “It’s going to take at least a couple of years to address some of those issues.”

“I do believe that the shift we’re doing long-term is the right one,” Contreras said. “We need to give students a rich, engaging, exciting—if I can use that word—experience. They deserve that. I think our teachers can make that happen if we work together. I think the talent is in the room.”