NGSS Impact on the 2018 SMUHSD AP Physics 1 Scores?

There were 95 more AP Physics 1 exams taken in the SMUHSD in 2018 than in 2017. This was a 31% increase, larger than in any other subject area that attracts a significant number of AP test takers. Of these 95 additional test takers, 47 or virtually half did not pass the test (score of 1 or 2) when a passing grade requires only about 40% correct answers! This may be due in part to counseling advice given Aragon students following the change of the regular physics program to the new NGSS standards.

I have written several articles recently about the negative effect of the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) on the Aragon regular physics program (see here and here).

I usually counsel my students who want to learn a subject properly and not just rack up resume points for college to take regular physics before attempting AP (college level) physics.

For many students, taking college level AP physics without first having a high school level physics class is attempting a “bridge too far” and results in bad grades and considerable stress/unhappiness.  While some students can pull off this feat of taking AP physics with no prerequisites, for most students this is a bad idea, particularly if they can not pay for outside tutoring help which should NOT be a requirement in the public school system!!

In the past Aragon high school had a good regular physics class that students could drop back to even late in the first semester, but this option has become problematic with the NGSS curriculum change to the regular physics class.

When signing up for classes for last school year (2017-2018), several of my tutoring students told me that they had been counseled to take AP physics 1 rather than regular physics because “the regular physics class was changing, and the AP physics 1 class was more like the old regular physics class.”  This was faulty advice because the AP physics 1 class remained the same as before – significantly more difficult than the old Aragon regular physics class.

This faulty advice led to some students taking AP physics 1 who should never have done so.  Getting precise data on this issue has been difficult, but there is an indication of the problem in the 2018 AP Physics 1 test results.

AP results are usually posted here, but the District has been very remiss in updating their website this school year (For example, Superintendent weekly reports to the Board of Trustees have notably not been posted since 10/12/18 through today, 1/30/19).

I had to request the AP exam data from the Curriculum and Assessment Department, and they were kind enough to release it.

Unfortunately I was not able to get the test data broken down by school for each subject, so the AP Physics 1 scores are for the entire district, not just Aragon HS:

screen shot 2019-01-30 at 11.31.17 am

You will note that 397 AP Physics 1 exams were taken in 2018, an increase of 95 over the 2017 totals.  This is a 31% increase in students in this category which is a larger percent change than any other subject area that attracts significant numbers of students.

For example below are the other subject categories and you will see that the Calculus AB and BC exam numbers (often taken by the same students simultaneously) show only a 2-4% increase over 2017.

screen shot 2019-01-30 at 11.39.45 am

Returning to the AP Physics 1 results above, note that 47 of the 95 additional exams ended up with a score of 1 or 2 which is not passing.  48 of the additional exams scored a 3 or higher which is passing, but, as I have written before, the passing bar in AP physics (as well as in some other AP exams such as calculus) is pathetically low – about 35-40% correct has been the only requirement to pass!!!

Thus half of all the 95 additional students who took the 2018 AP physics 1 exam did not pass it!  Without the specific AP Physics 1 score data from Aragon HS, it is hard to conclude that the bad counseling advice alone was responsible for this sad result, but I continue to suspect that it was one of the causes.  As all of my physics students attended Aragon last year, I do not know what counselors at schools other than Aragon told their students about their physics options.

I have learned that Aragon had the largest contingent of AP Physics 1 test takers in 2018 at 118 of the 397 district total (30%) versus 106 at Burlingame (27%) and 61 (15%) at San Mateo, leaving the remaining 28% spread out over the other three schools.  I have an older report containing the 2017 Physics 1 test totals by school and this shows that 30 of the 95 additional test takers came from Aragon, 40 from Burlingame, 16 from Mills, 4 from San Mateo, 2 from Hillsdale, while Capuchino had 1 fewer than 2017.  Unfortunately this totals to a net gain of 91, not 95, so there must be some errors in the source material.

Because of the lower level of the new NGSS regular physics (the regular curriculum has been diluted by the addition of Earth Science topics and the problem sets are significantly less challenging as I detailed in other articles linked to above), I could no longer encourage my tutoring students to take the regular physics class and thus do not have any regular physics tutoring students during the current 2018-2019 school year.

I continue to have AP physics 1 students who must soldier on because there is sadly no longer a more reasonable regular physics prerequisite option in the district.

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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