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AP Physics


Two levels of physics exist at OHS; general physics and honors physics. Honors physics covers the same material as general physics, but it places a stronger emphasis on algebra, an additional emphasis on trigonometry, and it provides a pace and depth that exceeds general physics.

The students enrolled in honors physics need to decide by January whether they are interested in taking the course for AP credit. I encourage parents to be an integral part of this decision. Students and parents alike will need to be frank about the skills and commitment that the student will bring into this venture.


The goals of Advanced Placement Physics, as stated by the AP Physics Course Description, are to develop the students' abilities to:
  1. Read, understand, and interpret physical information—verbal, mathematical, and graphical.
  2. Describe and explain the sequence of steps in the analysis of a particular physical phenomenon or problem; that is,
    • describe the idealized model to be used in the analysis, including simplifying assumptions where necessary;
    • state the principles or definitions that are applicable;
    • specify relevant limitations on applications of these principles;
    • carry out and describe the steps of the analysis, verbally or mathematically; and
    • interpret the results or conclusions, including discussion of particular cases of special interest.
  3. Use basic mathematical reasoning—arithmetic, algebraic, geometric, trigonometric, or calculus, where appropriate—in a physical situation or problem.
  4. Perform experiments and interpret the results of observations, including making an assessment of experimental uncertainties.
The College Board's AP Physics exam is made up of two parts. The Mechanics section is a 90 minute exam covering material often taught during the first semester in most introductory college physics courses. The Electricity & Magnetism section is also a 90 minute exam covering material often taught during the second semester in most introductory college physics courses. Both of these exams are calculus-based and are usually intended for students with a strong background in science. AP students generally have the option of taking Mechanics only, Electricity & Magnetism only, or both. OHS will be offering the Mechanics section of the exam to our students. If the grading criteria are met, the student will receive credit for one semester of introductory college physics.

I recommend that only students presently or previously enrolled in calculus consider taking this exam.
During the first semester, students intending to take the AP test will be learning the rudiments of calculus in their math class. In January, the AP students will begin cycling through all course content, but this time with a different slant; they will be using calculus to solve and analyze more difficult and more comprehensive problems. It is in this context that the AP students will prepare for the exam. This review is in addition to regular class work.

A true AP physics course is much more comprehensive than a high school physics course. So in addition to reviewing old physics concepts, students will need to learn a number of new concepts that are not included in the honors physics curriculum at OHS. Students will be expected to learn new concepts as independent study with help from the teacher only as needed.

Details for how to sign up for AP exams will be forthcoming sometime this winter.

The test itself is weighted equally between two parts: a 35 question multiple-choice section (45 minutes), and a free-response section (three questions of 15 minutes each). These tests are scored on a national level by readers of the AP College Board in June, and the scores are then sent to high schools and colleges in July.

The tests are given the following marks:
5 = extremely well qualified
4 = well qualified
3 = qualified
2 = possibly qualified
1 = no recommendation

A score of 3 generally requires getting 50% of the responses correct. You should talk directly with the admissions office of each college you're interested in to see what criteria they have concerning AP credit.


The AP exam is a test for a course that promotes understanding some things about all of the wide variety of topics covered. Honors physics at OHS stresses having a strong foundation of fundamentals for further learning and promotes thinking, problem-solving, and making valid judgments. I feel that these two philosophies are in conflict with each other. Therefore, I recommend that students consider the AP test option only if they do not plan on entering the field of physics or engineering. Most students who are entering these fields would most likely feel cheated by passing the AP exam in high school and missing the introductory college courses so important to their field.

Phil Sadler, in conjunction with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the National Science Foundation, found some interesting results about what factors in high school affect student's success in college science. An excerpt below pertains directly to his findings on AP coursework in high school.

Advanced Placement (AP) courses in biology, chemistry, and physics are offered in an increasing number of U.S. high schools, enabling students to engage in coursework designed to be the equivalent of introductory college courses. The benefits of AP are many. A transcript heavy with high grades in AP courses can make a difference with many college admissions departments. Many high schools recognize the rigor of AP by boosting AP grades by a whole letter grade over regular course grades, raising a student’s grade point average. Most important, Advanced Placement exams are designed to permit students to “place out of” introductory college courses. The highest score – a 5 on a 1-5 scale – is often thought of as the equivalent of A in a college course, warranting starting college with a more advanced course and perhaps saving tuition. Should students skip college introductory courses because of high AP scores?

While students can earn college credit by passing rigorous examinations, many do not earn credit for introductory college coursework either by choice or because of exacting college policies. We use the performance of 937 students who have taken AP coursework out of a total of 8594 students taking introductory college science courses in 63 randomly selected colleges to investigate the equivalence of AP and college courses in science. By controlling for students’ backgrounds and prior coursework in science, we investigate the degree to which AP courses contribute to introductory college course performance. Our findings do not support scoring policies used to assign exam grades by the AP's governing College Board. Students with passing AP exam scores (3 or above) do not earn high enough grades after retaking introductory college science courses to assume prior mastery. AP students who do not earn passing scores (2 or less) appear to have gained no advantage from their year of AP study. While students who take AP science, on average, do better in college than those who take less rigorous courses, half of this performance difference is accounted for by demographic variables and prior coursework in high school.

You can visit the Factors Influencing College Science Success (FICSS) website to learn more about what high school factors do and don’t appear to have an effect on student success in college science.

I hope this clarifies matters so that you can make an informed decision. If you have any further questions, don't hesitate to contact me.