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Issues of Equity in Physics Access and Enrollment August 6, 2015

Posted by PER Section Chair in : History, Policy and Education (HPE), Physics Education Research (PER) , trackback Bookmark and Share

High school physics is a gateway course for post-secondary study in science, medicine, and engineering, as well as an essential component in the formation of students’ scientific literacy.  Yet, despite reports to the contrary, the availability of physics as a course for high school students is not equitably distributed throughout the United States.

While some schools provide physics for all who wish to take it, a more common scenario is limited availability. This is particularly true in urban districts, where physics is not universally available in secondary school.  The existence of policies that restrict science opportunities for secondary students results in diminished outcomes in terms of scientific proficiency.

Recently researchers at Columbia University examined the 316 secondary schools in the New York City Public School system to identify factors related to availability of physics courses.  New York City’s (population 8.1 million) public schools system  is the largest school district in the United States, with approximately 300,000 secondary school students (15.1% White, 33.6% Black, 38.2% Hispanic, 13.0% Asian).

Overall Enrollment

Overall, physics enrollment in the 298 responding surveyed schools totals 14,935 (5.2%) out of 286,862 students. This corresponds to approximately 21% of students graduating having studied physics, which is lower than the state and national average of 31% for public schools. Analysis of the availability of physics in schools shows that access to physics is not equitably distributed – a remarkable 55% (164 of 298) of the surveyed New York City high schools simply do not offer physics as a subject. This translates to approximately 23% of the city student population not having access to any physics course in high school.

Where is Physics Available?

School size strongly influences whether physics is available. The vast majority of large high schools offer physics as a course, while fewer than half of mid-sized schools and only a quarter of the small schools do. Eliminating schools that only have grades 9 or 10 (and thus may offer physics in future years), still only 39% of small schools offer physics. Although small schools present a promising option in many respects, the question of access to advanced science courses needs to be addressed. Student graduation rates are likely to increase, but the city may actually graduate fewer physics students than they do today.

New York State leads the nation in Advanced Placement participation, with 23% of its high school graduates earning a passing score on at least one exam before graduation (the national average is 14%). Despite this prominence, AP Physics is a rarity in New York City’s public high schools, offered in only 20 (6.7%) of the surveyed schools, including all of the magnet schools.

Correlations to Race and Socioeconomic Status

The racial composition of students in schools that do not offer physics is notably different from the city as a whole, with White and Asian students much less likely to be found in these schools.Schools that offer AP Physics also show a much higher percentage representation of Asian and White students.Schools that do offer physics typically have a racial composition of 36% Black, 36% Hispanic, 15% White, and 13% Asian; schools that do not offer physics have 45% Black, 46% Hispanic, 5% White, and 5% Asian.These disparities illustrate large racial inequities in access to physics.

Socioeconomic status, measured by percent eligible for free lunch, displays a similar relationship, with poorer students having restricted access to schools that provide physics as a science option.The average percentage of students who qualified for free lunch in New York City was 69% during 2004-2005; compared with 77.7% at non-physics schools and 53.3% at schools that offer physics.

Both race and socioeconomic status are inherent factors in determining the likelihood that students have access to Advanced Placement physics in NYC. Only 33.5% of students in schools offering AP Physics are eligible for free lunch. The racial breakdown of students showed similar disparities. The percentage of White and Asian students is nearly triple the citywide average in schools that offer AP Physics, while the percentage of underrepresented minorities is 38% lower than the citywide average.Further illustrating this point, the Bronx, the poorest borough in New York City with the largest population of underrepresented minorities, has only two high schools that offer AP Physics (one is a highly selective science magnet school).

Often, students’ addresses, race, or socioeconomic status are major determining factors in whether they have the opportunity to study secondary physics at any level. This inequity in access to physics needs to be addressed in a comprehensive plan to improve science education for students in urban locales if the goal of “science for all” is to be attained. Major changes are required in schools’ structuring of physics course offerings; additionally, keeping an eye on racial and socioeconomic balance is essential in providing socially just opportunities in the study of physics. The evidence presented here is a starting point for identifying the extent of inequities in order to develop long-term reform efforts to improve physics access.

Policy Recommendations

NSBP calls for the following policies to increase access to K-12 physics courses for all students.

  1. States and the NCAA, which collects high school course data, should improve their databases of what schools are offering physics courses.  Each State should have a verifiable system of course offerings and student outcomes.
  2. In the No Child Left Behind Act or its successor, Congress should emphasize opportunity to learn and adequate funding.
  3. Congress, the States, STEM and teacher professional organizations should have mechanisms for meaningful science education standards for all K-12 schools and students.

For more information on the New York City schools study contact
Angela M. Kelly, Ph.D.
Department of Physics & Astronomy
Center for Science & Mathematics Education (CESAME)
CESAME: 094 Life Sciences Building | 631.632.7075 (office)
PHYSICS: A-141B Physics Building | 631.632.8168 (office)
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY 11794-5233
www.stonybrook.edu/cesame

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