The National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee on Programs for Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in American High Schools (parent committee) formed a physics panel to provide advice on the effectiveness of and potential improvements to programs for the advanced study of physics in American high schools. Appendix A presents the parent committee’s charge to the panel. To develop a framework for its recommendations, the panel began with a thorough discussion of recommended practices that it would expect to find in a good advanced high school physics program. Chapter 2 presents a summary of the panel’s review. Using the model that emerged from that discussion, the panel evaluated the two dominant advanced high school programs—Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB)—to determine the extent to which they encourage the use of those recommended practices in their physics courses. The results of this evaluation are presented in Chapter 3, along with the panel’s recommendations for improvements to both programs.
Although the panel lacked sufficient time to consider all possible alternatives to the AP and IB programs, it did consider one alternative approach, presented in Chapter 2. The panel recognizes that each high school is a unique environment with its own strengths and limitations. Thus there is unlikely to be a single advanced program that could reasonably be implemented with complete uniformity across the nation. Instead, the panel suggests that high schools and school districts offering advanced physics instruction adopt a program that has the general characteristics described in Chapter 2, but is flexible enough to be implemented in a school’s or district’s specific context.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 examine three topics of importance to the panel’s review of advanced study programs in physics: Chapter 4 looks at the crucial role played by teaching and learning; Chapter 5 summarizes changing emphases in physics and their impact on advanced physics instruction; and Chapter 6 addresses the linkage between advanced high school physics programs and college physics programs. Each of these chapters includes the panel’s specific recommendations in the respective area. Finally, Chapter 7 summarizes the panel’s main findings and overall recommendations.
Recommended Practices for Advanced Physics Instruction
WHAT IS AN ADVANCED PHYSICS PROGRAM?
The term “advanced” is taken here to mean study that is substantially beyond the level of the physics required for high school graduation under the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1995). Although the goal of an AP Physics course is to substitute for a physics course that would otherwise be taken in college, that is certainly not the only possible reason for undertaking or offering an advanced program of study in high school. In some cases, traditional high school–level courses are simply not sufficiently challenging to interest the brightest students. In many cases, students undertake advanced study to enhance their college applications. In still other cases, students may be interested in particular areas of physics that are not covered in available high school–level courses (as discussed later in this chapter). Certainly, the particular program adopted by each high school will depend a great deal on exactly what goals that program is intended to meet.
PREREQUISITES FOR AN ADVANCED HIGH SCHOOL PROGRAM
The panel recognizes that the level of preparation of students entering advanced physics programs varies widely from high school to high school. Nevertheless, we believe that there are two fundamental prerequisites most entering students should meet:
Prior to enrolling in an advanced physics course in high school, students should have studied the physics that is suggested as a requirement for high school graduation in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1995). This requirement can be satisfied with the first year of a 2-year physics program. This is the approach adopted by the IB program (as discussed in Chapter 3). If a 1-year advanced course is the first time that entering students encounter physics, the usual result is a packed schedule that allows too little time to develop the depth of understanding that is the fundamental goal of the program.2