154th ASA Meeting, New Orleans, LA

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Inequities in Physics Access for Students in Urban Secondary Schools

Angela M. Kelly - angela.kelly@lehman.cuny.edu
Lehman College, City University of New York
Bronx, NY 10468

Popular version of paper 2pED3, “Issues of equity in physics access and enrollment in New York City public high schools”
Presented 1:45 p.m. Wednesday Afternoon, November 28, 2007
154th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, New Orleans, LA

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. Restricted physics access is problematic in an increasingly globalized economy, particularly as underrepresented minorities in the U.S. remain an untapped resource in fulfilling the ranks of future scientists and engineers.

New York City (population 8.1 million) is the largest school district in the United States, with approximately 300,000 secondary school students (34% Black, 38% Hispanic, 13% Asian, and 15% White). During the 2004-2005 academic year, NYC had 316 secondary schools. This study examined these schools to see where physics was offered, and to identify institutional factors related to physics availability.

Overall, physics enrollment in the 298 schools that responded to the survey was 14,935 students, or 5.2% of the high school population. This corresponds to approximately 21% of NYC high school graduates having studied physics, which is one-third lower than the NY State and U.S. average of 31% for public schools.

Analysis of the availability of physics in these schools revealed that access to physics was not equitably distributed - a remarkable 55% (164 of 298) of the surveyed NYC high schools simply did not offer physics at all.  The translates to approximately 23% of the city student population being denied the opportunity to take any physics course in high school.

The institutional factor that best predicted physics access was school size.  The vast majority of large high schools offered physics (> 1200 students), while less than half of mid-sized schools (600-1200 students) and only a quarter of the small schools did (< 600 students).  Eliminating schools that had only grades 9 and 10 (and thus may have offered physics in future years), still only 39% of small schools offered physics.  Although small schools present a promising option in some respects, the question of access to advanced science courses needs to be addressed.  Student graduation rates are likely to increase with the proliferation of small schools, but the city may actually  graduate fewer physics students than they do today.

The racial composition of students in schools that did not offer physics was notably different from the city as a whole, with White and Asian students much less likely to found in these schools.  Schools that did offer physics  typically had a racial composition of 72% Black and Hispanic, and 28% White and Asian; schools that did not offer physics had 91% Black and Hispanic students, and 9% White and Asian.  These disparities illustrate large racial inequities in access to physics.

Socioeconomic status, measured by the percentage of students eligible for free lunch, displayed a similar relationship, with poorer students having restricted access to schools that provided physics as a science option.  The average percentage of students who qualified for free lunch in NYC at the time of the study was 69%, compared with 78% at non-physics schools and 53% at physics schools.

Advanced Placement Physics options were also examined in the study. Although New York State leads the nation in Advanced Placement participation, with 23% of its high school graduates earning a passing score on an least one exam, AP Physics was a rarity in NYC schools. This course was offered in only 20 (6.7%) of the surveyed schools, including all of the magnet schools.  Both race and socioeconomic status were inherent factors in determining the likelihood that students would have access to AP Physics.  Only 34% of students in AP Physics schools were eligible for free lunch, less than half of the city average for the student population.  The percentage of White and Asian students in AP Physics schools was nearly triple the city average, while the percentage of underrepresented minorities was less than half of the city average for public schools.  Further illustrating this point, the Bronx, which is the poorest of the five boroughs, had only two high schools that offered AP Physics (out of 85), and one is a highly selective science magnet school.

Often, students' race, socioeconomic status, and school size were major determining factors in whether they had the opportunity to study physics in NYC high schools.  This inequity in access to physics needs to be addressed in a comprehensive plan to improve science education for students in urban districts if the goal of "science for all" is to be realized.  Major changes are required in schools' structuring of science offerings, with an increased emphasis on higher quality elementary and middle school science education, which  will lead to greater preparedness for advanced science study in  secondary school.

Additionally, keeping an eye on racial and socioeconomic balance is necessary in providing socially just opportunities for the study of  physics.  The evidence presented in this study is a starting point for  identifying the extent of the inequities in order to inform the  development of long-term reform efforts that will improve physics  access and eliminate racial and socioeconomic gaps in participation.

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