News & Analysis

High School Physics Enrollments by Type of Course

JUN 06, 2024
Results from the 2018-19 National Survey of High School Physics Teachers

Enrollment in high school physics courses continues to increase and see shifts in the number of students taking various types of physics courses. This report examines the effects of these changes, including the impacts of the new AP Physics 1 and 2 courses, on the various types of physics courses offered in US high schools and the number and proportion of students enrolled in each type of course.

Figure 1

Enrollments in US HS type of course Report 3-01.png

Regular Physics courses comprise the largest proportion of students taking physics in high school. The number of high school students taking a Regular Physics course using a regular physics textbook has increased and is at its highest ever, around 526,000, and exceeds the enrollment rates of other physics courses (Figure 1). When including those taking a Regular Physics course taught using a conceptual physics textbook (Regular-C), enrollment is at 669,000 students, a decline from 691,000 in the previous survey. Some of this decline could be attributed to the new AP Physics 1 course. In addition, high school enrollments in Physics First more than doubled from 84,000 in 2013 to 183,000 students in 2019. More students were enrolled in courses taught using conceptual physics textbooks in 2019 than in previous years.

The largest increase in physics enrollments comes from AP Physics enrollments. In 2014, the AP program replaced AP Physics B, designed as a second-year physics course, with two courses: AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. AP Physics 1 was designed to be a first-year physics course that does not require a prior physics course, thus making AP Physics available to more students. In 2019, the number of students taking AP Physics 1 was almost as many students who took AP Physics B, C, or a 2nd-year physics course combined in 2013. AP Physics C continues to be offered, and student enrollments have increased since the prior survey. (Figure 2)

Figure 2

figure 2 AP and 2nd yr physics enrollments-01.png

The College Board recommends students complete a physics course prior to taking AP Physics 2 and AP Physics C, but there are students who still take them as their first course in physics: 16% of high school students taking AP Physics 2 and 25% taking AP Physics C are in their first physics course (Figure 3). Approximately 79,000 high school students are taking AP Physics C. This is an increase from 56,000 in 2013, contributing to the ongoing increase in enrollments in AP Physics courses.

Figure 3

figure 3 students enrolled in ap physics-01.png

AP Physics B had about 132,500 students enrolled in 2013, its final year of availability. It too was intended to be a second-year course, but nearly two-thirds of these students had not taken a prior physics course. Beginning in 2014, such students had the option to enroll in AP Physics 1, which does not assume prior enrollment in a physics course, allowing for more students to take AP Physics.

The number of students taking Honors Physics has declined since 2013. The difference of about 50,000 students was more than offset by the 86,000 more students taking AP Physics 1, where AP Physics B had been offered (Figure 4). In fact, more students are opting to take AP Physics 1 than Physics First.

Figure 4

figure 4 students enrolled in honors physics report 3-01.png


Although the number of high school students taking physics has increased since the prior survey, the percentage enrolled in Regular Physics courses has declined to 43% (Figure 5). This includes about 9% of students in a Regular Physics course taught with a conceptual physics textbook. The introduction of AP Physics 1 and the increase in enrollments in Physics First contribute to this reduction in the share of Regular Physics students. Instead of taking Regular Physics as their introductory physics course, students now have another option, taking AP Physics 1.

Figure 5

figure 5 proportion of physics enrollments-01.png

About 14% of the students taking high school physics are enrolled in AP Physics 1. Students enrolled in Physics First account for 12% of all students taking high school physics. This is double the 6% seen in 2009 and 2013. The share of physics students taking Honors Physics declined to about one in eight (13%). The new AP Physics 1 option might have impacted this (Figure 5).

Conceptual Physics-based course enrollments increased at a similar rate as Regular Physics enrollments. Conceptual Physics-based courses include Conceptual Physics, Physics First, and Regular Physics courses using a conceptual physics textbook. The percentage of students taking these courses remains steady at about three out of ten physics students (28%).

We classify teachers into five types based on their academic background, overall teaching experience, and experience teaching physics (Table 1). Career teachers comprise the largest group; these teachers have been teaching at the high school level for at least five years and have taught physics in at least half of the years they have taught at the high school level. (We do not require Career teachers to have taught physics every year because some high schools offer physics in alternate years thus precluding the opportunity to teach physics every year.) Specialists and Newcomers hold a degree with a major in physics or physics education.

Table 1

Table 1 Characteristics of High School Physics Teachers by Type of Physics Teacher


Specialist and Career teachers teach the majority of all physics courses, and they are more likely to teach Honors, AP, and 2nd-year courses than other teachers (Figure 6). Apprentice teachers (with less than five years of teaching experience and a degree in physics or physics education) are more likely to teach AP courses than Newcomers.

Figure 6

figure 6 variation in physics courses-01.png

Survey Methodology

For this study, we take a stratified sample of one-sixth of the public and private high schools classified as regular, technical, or emphasis schools in the United States. Data collection for this round began in the fall of 2018. High schools already report similar information in other surveys. Therefore, a sample survey instead of a population survey reduces the burden on high schools to report data. The estimates shown are estimates of the total number of students and teachers in the US; the sample has been weighted.

We define a high school as a school with at least three students enrolled in grade 12. Many of these are traditional high schools; some comprise grades 7–12, and other grades K–12.

We began with web searches for each of the 3,751 high schools in our sample. If we could identify a physics teacher at the school, we collected the contact information for that teacher. If not, we collected contact information for the principal or science chair. We then contacted each of the schools where we had not identified a physics teacher by phone and email to determine whether physics was offered at the school and, if so, who taught it. We collected data on whether physics was offered from 3,371 of our 3,751 (90%) sampled schools. We compared demographics for the nonresponding schools with those of the responding schools and found no evidence to suggest that the two groups differ significantly. Therefore, we believe we have a representative sample of schools.

During the spring of 2019, we contacted each of the 3,538 teachers we had identified in the fall to learn more about physics in each of the high schools. We heard back from 42% of the teachers.

This survey series has exclusively focused on physics courses taught in high schools. In some cases, students at one school might attend a physics class at another school synchronously or asynchronously via video. These cases have been included in our previous studies. AIP will explore the inclusion of wholly online physics classes for future surveys, focusing especially on the COVID-19 situation.


We sincerely thank the responding principals, teachers, and staff at our sampled schools for helping us provide this information.


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