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August/September 2011 (Volume 20, Number 8)
A recent study found that while female representation in high school physics classes has almost reached parity with males overall, girls still remain underrepresented in advanced physics courses. The American Institute of Physics released a study in early July that showed that significant disparities between the sexes persist in AP course enrollment.
Between 1987 and 1997 the proportion of girls in high school physics classes increased from 40 percent to 47 percent, where it has remained fairly consistently since then. However, in AP classes, girls make up only 41 percent in Physics B and 32 percent of the Physics C classroom. This is an improvement compared to 1993, when girls made up 36 percent and 27 percent of the classes respectively.
The authors of the study looked at both those students enrolled in AP courses and those that took the corresponding AP tests. It found that other sciences and math tests generally had much higher rates of female participation. Only about 35 percent of the Physics B tests and 27 percent of the Physics C test are taken by girls. Comparatively, about 42 percent of Calculus BC tests, 46 percent of chemistry, 48 percent of Calculus AB, and 51 percent of statistics tests are taken by girls. Of the AP courses surveyed, only computer science had lower rates of female participation than physics. Overall, girls make up 54 percent of test-takers across all AP tests.
The report found also that girls were less likely than boys to take the AP test even if they were enrolled in the class. About 77 percent of the boys who took the Physics C course took the AP test, and about 56 percent received passing scores. However, only about 61 percent of girls enrolled in the course took the test and about 36 percent passed. The disparity was similar for the Physics B test as well. About 65 percent of boys took the test and 42 percent passed it, while only 50 percent of the enrolled girls took the test and about 25 percent passed.
Because the report only looked at the raw numbers of students enrolled in AP classes, it stopped short of specifying a clear reason for the disparity. “Mathematical rigor does not explain the low representation of females in AP physics,” the report read. “The reasons for lower female participation in advanced high school physics remain unclear.”
Women receive about 20 percent of bachelor’s physics degrees, a rate that has been remained stagnant since the turn of the century. By comparison, women receive 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees in biology, chemistry and math. The report identified a few possible sources for these disparities, including cultural pressures, problems with the curriculum and stereotyping, but did not identify any definitive cause.
“These and other questions can only be answered with research which actually asks students these questions. Because these questions remain unanswered, we can offer no simple solution for increasing women’s participation in physics,” the report read.
The report looked at the 2008-2009 academic year. The American Institute of Physics contacted a representative sample of 3,600 schools across the country to put together its report.
Female Students in High School Physics
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Editor: Alan Chodos