I've taught AP Physics B since 1986. The course I taught was always intended to be an excellent advanced high school physics course that would compare as favorably as possible to an introductory college physics course. Engaging demonstrations and robust lab work was always important. But in the end, students needed to be prepared for the College Board's Advanced Placement Physics B Examination, administered each May.
From 1986 to 1997, we ran it as a first year course. But it was supposed to be a second year course, and in 1998, we brought our course into alignment with College Board expectations.
In recent years, sign-ups for AP Physics B dwindled at my school. Not so for AP Biology. Nor for AP Chemistry (which is a harder test than AP Physics B, as far as I'm concerned). Last year we introduced AP Environmental Science. It blossomed from one section last year to two this year. Impressive growth. While AP Bio and AP Chem held there ground, AP Physics bit the proverbial dust. Enrollment for 2014 did not merit a single section.
It was hard to observe the demise without concluding that the instructor of the course (that would be me) was doing something wrong. Data provided by the school's administration today sheds light on the subject.
In 2013, I had 25 students in AP Physics B. Only 21 sat for the exam, an unusually low test rate for me. Still though, while 16 of my students earned an A or B in my class, 16 also earned a 5 or a 4 on the exam. Six of the 21 AP Physics B examinees earned 5s. All my examinees passed with a 3 or better. I am rightfully very proud of all of them.
What I didn't know until today was that my raw number of 16 4s and 5s represented better top-tier performance than was had in any other AP science course at my school (including one with over double my enrollment). Or that my six 5s outnumbered the 5s from all our other AP sciences combined.
I also didn't know that my rate of classroom grades of A and B (64%) was—by far—the lowest rate, as was my A rate (under 50%).
AP and honors courses enjoy weighted grading in my district, so an A gets you a grade point of 5, a B a 4, and a C a 3. Where I grew up, a GPA of 4.0 was the mark of academic perfection. My students routinely have GPAs well above 4.2. Students hoping for admission to elite post-secondary institutions are keen to fly their GPAs into the stratosphere. Such students try to enroll in as many APs as possible. But with so many demands on their time (and many are in our nationally-recognized band program), meeting the academic rigor of an AP science course can be challenging.
The story of my AP Physics B's demise can be found in the data that follows. To me, the tale jumps right off the page. If it doesn't to you, interpret that as me overreacting; making a mountain out of a molehill.
The diminishing enrollment in my course amid the flourishing enrollments of my colleague's courses does suggest that someone is doing AP science wrong.
Here's the data:
In AP Physics B, there were 11 As and 6 5s. There was insufficient enrollment to run the course in 2014.
In non-physics AP sciences, there were 82 As and 3 5s. Enrollments in these courses increased in 2014.
A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma? I think not.
UPDATE: Is it important that course grades given by high school teachers be accurate and valid? Very much so. Colleges are increasingly valuing classroom grades over SAT/ACT scores.