On “AP Physics I is a Sham”: New Mandatory AP Physics Course Faces Controversy

The administration’s decision to make AP Physics I mandatory for all juniors has been controversial among both teachers and students.

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By Anais Delfau

In a decision announced last June, the administration has made Advanced Placement (AP) Physics I mandatory for all juniors. This decision, however, has been met with backlash, especially from physics teachers. “Forcing [students] to take an AP Physics class with less time than we gave last year for regular physics is just cruel,” said a physics teacher who wished to remain anonymous. Physics teacher Ulugbek Akhmedov strongly agreed with this teacher, saying, “I think the administration in this school are cowards, and they are playing games with students’ futures.”

The single-period AP replaces the 1.5-period Honors Physics course from previous years. Physics lab is held during a separate period, and is taught by physics teachers Eugene Majewski or Neil Wang. The teachers for Honors Physics—Daisy Sharaf, Eugene Majewski, John Avallone, Neil Wang, Rebecca Gorla, Thomas Miner, Thomas Strasser, Ulugbek Akhmedov, and Wai Lam—all now teach AP Physics I. Prior to the change, 68 students were able to take AP Physics I and 68 students were able to take AP Physics II. With the recent change, 850 students now take AP Physics I and 102 students can take AP Physics II.

The administration believes that the change is in the best interests of the students. The Honors Physics course last year encompassed all of the AP Physics I curriculum and some of the AP Physics II curriculum. “Students were doing a lot of intense [AP-level] work but were not getting validation for it,” Principal Eric Contreras said.

According to Assistant Principal of Chemistry, Physics, and Technology Scott Thomas, when teaching Honors Physics, teachers were often unable to cover all of the material. Changing the class to only teach AP Physics I would shorten the curriculum, making it easier to teach in a school year.

This change was implemented with the intention of expanding the number of courses available to students. “I started seeing a trend, which was that, had Stuyvesant students attended their local high schools, they would actually have had more access to AP classes than they have at Stuyvesant,” Contreras said.

He also noticed that courses at Stuyvesant had redundancies that were eliminated at other high schools. “The College Board allows local districts to collapse a state mandated course with an AP course. We had already been doing that in the history classes,” Contreras said. The new course helps eliminate such redundancies in the physics department.

Lack of interest in AP Physics courses, specifically from female students, was also taken into account when making this decision. Additionally, limited numbers of spots in the senior AP Physics C course meant that many students applying to college as engineering majors were put at a disadvantage. “Currently, [the graduating class] has very few kids with AP Physics, and from those very few kids, the vast majority were boys. I thought that there needed to be something that allows for universal experience that gives everyone, male and female, [...] access to an AP Physics course,” Contreras said. “Having a foundational experience that’s validated by colleges at least allows all students, male and female, to enter the university space by having a building block that is transactional for colleges.”

Contreras also mentioned how taking an AP Physics I course in high school can prove to be a financial benefit for many students. “When we talk about schools charging upwards of $1000 of credit, even three credits are significant money. It’s real money and a substance of savings for families. It also allows students in college who come in with AP Physics, even with a non-science major, [to] be credited as [fulfilling] the science requirement. It allows you to not take another class. It opens up room not just in high school, but also in college later on,” Contreras said.

Finally, the shift to an AP course means that the curriculum has become standardized. The previous Honors Physics course was not taught based on one shared curriculum. What was taught varied between teachers, as some teachers taught in more depth than others.

All in all, the administration sees the change as a positive one. “I think that as we move forward, all new ways of doing something have tradeoffs and also take some time. It may not lead to an outcome that’s ideal, but it's worth trying especially because AP [Physics] I requires Algebra, and every junior enters that space with that prerequisite knowledge,” Conteras said.

While the administration believes this configuration is in the best interests of the students, many physics teachers disagree greatly with the changes. Most teachers declined requests for an interview or have asked to stay off the record. Teachers were informed of the change on June 24, two school days before school ended on June 26. “We have a fundamental disagreement with the administration on how they implemented this. There was no planning, and the way they have done this is totally unprofessional,” said a physics teacher, who has asked to remain anonymous and shall be referred to as Teacher A. “It is against all research in physics education research. It is against best practices. It is against the recommendation of the American Association of Physics Teachers. It is against all current knowledge in the field, and they still did it. It’s really a terrible idea to do this as a mandatory class.” Every physics teacher who was interviewed revealed that neither themselves nor their students were consulted about the change.

Contreras acknowledges this and wishes that the implementation of mandatory AP Physics I had been smoother. “I don’t disagree that we could have had more time [to] consult. That’s true. I will own that. I am driven by the need of what students need now,” he said. “In hindsight, there’s always the approach of trying to give more time to prepare. That is something that I could have done better.”

Contreras also said that an e-mail was sent out last spring to all physics teachers regarding a training class by the College Board about teaching AP Physics I, and another e-mail was sent out with information about another professional training day in November. The administration has also offered to fund these courses so teachers will not have to pay for them. “I’m not mandating it because I don’t believe in forcing people to go to training they don’t want to, and I will continue to offer it,” Contreras said.

Additionally, teachers are worried that with the class time reduced from 7.5 class periods per week to just five, “understanding will be much more shallow [and] expectations [will be] lowered,” Akhmedov said. “If [physics teachers] were consulted, they would’ve said that five periods a week is not sufficiently enough time for AP [Physics] I.” Another anonymous physics teacher, who shall be referred to as Teacher B, agrees, saying, “AP Physics I is more conceptual than Regents, and it really helps to have more time to do longer problems and be able to reflect on what you’re doing. Students don’t have the same problem-solving time that they would in a regular class.”

In addition, many physics teachers expressed concern over the workload being pushed onto students. “The workload is going up, the speed is going up, and the homework is going up from half an hour to an hour. I know that the administrators are telling us that it will be easier, but I just don’t see how this is reducing student workload if we have to do more topics at a more difficult level in less time with more homework,” Teacher A said.

The teacher continued, saying, “[The students] have no choice. Whether you want it or not, you are in AP Physics. That’s not what’s happening at other schools. [Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech] have the option of either taking AP Physics or Regents physics.”

To this, Contreras has thought about reintroducing a non-AP option. “In future years, I would consider a non-AP option, but the non-AP option has to be an all-Regents option. It can’t be cloaked as a college textbook, college work without getting the benefit of having the designation of an AP credit that can be of transactional and real, meaningful financial value,” he said.

But despite the administration's claims of college-related benefits due to taking AP Physics I, many physics teachers do not believe the course will count for college credit. “In principle, if [students] do well on the AP exam, there are some colleges that will accept it for credit, but specifically the AP [Physics] I exam isn’t generally accepted for college credit at most [selective] colleges,” Teacher B said.

Though there are colleges that will accept AP Physics I, Stuyvesant students may not even qualify for this college credit. This is because most of the physics teachers are not certified to teach AP Physics. Students will also only complete the Regents physics labs, not the required AP labs. Moreover, students will not satisfy the AP credit requirement that AP Physics I labs must be 25 percent of instructional time.

Akhmedov said, “I would title [the article] ‘AP [Physics] I is a Sham,’ because it is.”

While students are required to take the Physics Regents in order to qualify for the Stuyvesant-endorsed diploma, they are not required to take the AP Physics I exam for the diploma. Because of the switch to AP Physics I, teachers had to cut many topics that are covered in the Regents curriculum. As a result, many teachers are worried about their students’ ability to perform well on the Physics Regents exam this year, which may jeopardize their Stuyvesant diploma.

When teachers confronted the administration about this issue, they felt that Thomas showed a lack of concern for the students by saying, “students are on their own.” “[He] said, ‘They can get a review book and study on their own. They’re on their own for the Regents exam,’” Teacher B said. “I don’t think [that this should be] the approach for something that is part of the Stuyvesant diploma.”

Contreras believes there was a misunderstanding, explaining that some Regents topics will be covered through labs. Additionally, the AP exam will take place in early May, and the Regents exam will take place in late June. The administration suggests that the Regents topics not covered in the AP Physics I course can be taught in between that period of time. “There are ways that we can problem-solve to give our students what’s in the best interest for them, and that requires a level of flexibility and openness and a willingness to roll up our sleeves and figure things out together,” Contreras said.

Another aspect of the change includes the separation of instructional periods and lab periods. According to the administration, this decision was made to help expand the opportunities for students to take more classes and electives. “One of the advantages of making universal courses is that it allows for complete programming flexibility because you can put it anywhere in the day,” Contreras said. This change also enables students to have a free period on the days they do not have lab.

Furthermore, the absence of shared, consistent labs in the previous structure led to inconsistent experiences by students. The separation of labs, which are now taught by only two teachers, creates consistency by ensuring that all students are taught the same labs in the same manner. “However, I do understand that this is something to consider for next year. To do that work, we have to agree that there has to be consistency in the lab experience, and that is going to require some work,” Contreras said. “I think it’s possible to get there and [have] teachers teach the class and the lab, and have the shared experience, but sometimes you have to step away from what you’re doing to re-enter that space and create that consistency. I’m not opposed to doing that.”

Majewski and Wang, the two lab teachers, have to keep track of 424 lab manuals per week in addition to teaching, which Wang feels can be demanding. Still, Wang has informally expressed his support for this reform and believes that it is for the best of the school.

However, many of the other physics teachers do not share Wang’s support for this change to physics labs. “[Wang and Majewski] have 500 students, and you see them every fourth day. They will never know who you are. You are a number in their gradebook. That’s ridiculous. We [have] created a system where students are anonymous numbers that have to swipe in,” Teacher A said.

It is also hard to fully complete labs in only a single period. “I just think that’s an appalling idea. You just cannot finish a thoughtful lab in one period,” Teacher A said.

Akhmedov believes that the lab and class experience will be disconnected, since the lab and class periods are now separate. “I don’t know how [Wang and Majewski] grade so many labs and how they have time to look over each lab, but since labs are taken away from most teachers, I don’t know what they do in the lab,” he said. “It’s really hard to make connections between the experiences they have in lab and the concepts they learn in class.”

Adding on, Teacher A said, “The American Association of Physics Teachers specifically warns against doing what we just did—splitting the lab off.”

A student who wishes to remain anonymous had similar sentiments to Akhmedov regarding lab. “I feel like it doesn’t make sense [to separate lab and regular class time] because the labs don’t correspond with the lessons that we learn in class,” the student said. “The labs expect you to know things you may not have learned, depending on the teacher you have for regular physics class time.”

Teachers have also mentioned that Contreras has refused to communicate about further changes to the course. “The principal is trying to hide behind his assistant principal, and he is not taking responsibility for the mess he has created,” Akhmedov said.

However, Contreras emphasized how he was open to new ideas and conversation regarding the changes. “This decision is not a perfect decision; no decision is. It’s one that I’m willing to think about [in regards to] how it can be made better and allow for more time with more input,” he said. “I do acknowledge that, and I think that there’s always room for allowing for more conversation, and I think that’s something I can do more of. But I also know that our students need what they need now.”

While the administration hopes the new course will be able to diminish the gender imbalance in AP Physics courses, as well as prepare students for college, teachers are worried about students’ performance in this higher college-level course and wish students had an alternate option.

Contreras, however, believes that change has to start on some premise, and corrections can be made from there. “Let’s try it in good faith. Let’s tweak it and make corrections for next year. Let’s do what’s best for children because that’s what our mandate is. It can’t start from the premise that, ‘This is terrible, and we shouldn’t do AP [Physics] I. AP [Physics] I is a terrible course, and the College Board is not good.’ If we start from that premise, then we don’t move pass that impasse,” he said.