A good high school physical science course would meet the new state science standards and satisfy SB 4

With all the noisy controversy surrounding the bill on teacher tenure and merit pay, SB 6, the angst about whether the “chemistry or physics” requirement for high school graduation will cause the state’s graduation rate to tank seems, like, so last week.

But one comment submitted to School Zone last week deserves a response:

I taught physics and can tell you whatever physics curriculum comes out of this, it will not be the physics that will get you into college or anything else. This will demand dumbing down the curriculum. I guess if we call physical science physics, we can meet part of the physics requirement.

Must every high school student take enough physics to prepare for an undergraduate program in engineering or biochemistry?  The answer is clearly no – there are some students that are just not cut out for careers in engineering or science.

So why should we require every student to take, as SB 4 says, “chemistry or physics”?

Because every student will be a member of a technological society in which energy, climate change and biotechnology will play central roles.

Because every student should know the difference between a kilowatt-hour and a volt so that she or he can understand the bill from the power company.

Because every student should understand that a hybrid car captures the energy that would have been wasted during braking and uses it to accelerate the car from the next stop sign.

Because every student should understand why plugging too many hair dryers in at the same time causes the circuit breaker to trip.

Has anyone thought about this?

The answer is an emphatic yes.  The state’s science standards committee thought hard about this in 2007 and 2008 and came up with a list of things in chemistry and physics – the physical sciences – that every high school graduate should know.  The Florida Board of Education adopted this list in February 2008, along with all the other science standards.  These new physical science standards were to be tested, along with corresponding standards in the life and Earth/space sciences, on the 11th grade Science FCAT.

That’s the same 11th grade Science FCAT that SB 4 will cancel.  In the short term, the 11th grade Science FCAT will be replaced by the end-of-course test in biology mandated by the bill.  For now, there will be no accountability in the physical and Earth/space sciences at the high school level – only the life sciences.

But SB 4 takes a step – that “chemistry or physics” clause – toward restoring the physical sciences in the high school curriculum.  It’s worth taking a careful look at the actual language in SB 4.  It says,

Beginning with students entering grade 9 in the 2013-2014 school year, one of the three credits must be Biology I or a series of courses equivalent to Biology I as approved by the State Board of Education, one credit must be chemistry or physics or a series of courses equivalent to chemistry or physics as approved by the State Board of Education, and one credit must be an equally rigorous course, as determined by the State Board of Education.

So a student must have one credit in chemistry or physics or “a series of courses equivalent to chemistry or physics as approved by the State Board of Education,” the same board that adopted the new science standards in 2008.  One would think that the Board would be perfectly happy to accept a physical science course that meets the physical science standards it approved in 2008 in lieu of separate courses in chemistry or physics.  Heck, if the Commissioner calls me up and asks me to make that proposal to the Board, I’ll do it in a heartbeat (but no, he will not ask).

This is not an original idea.  Florida’s Polk County has been doing this for some time.  Their high school graduation requirements in science demand that each student have a background in chemistry and physics (SB 4 only requires chemistry or physics).  Polk County allows students to satisfy this requirement by taking a course in physical science.  But students bound for universities worry about having that word “Honors” in the titles of their courses (and the resulting 0.5 quality point weighting for calculating the GPA).  Polk County doesn’t offer “Honors Physical Science.”  A student who wants Honors science credit must take the one-year Honors Chemistry course and the one-year Honors Physics course.  As a result, every university-bound student from Polk County takes both of these courses.

So back to our School Zone commenter:  Serious folks have thought hard about what every high school graduate should know about the physical sciences.  SB 4 will give us a chance to make sure they do.

And one more note:  Even under SB 4, the Earth and space sciences are still in hibernation.  The only acknowledgement in SB 4 that there is such a high school subject is the mention of an end-of-course test in Earth/space science in the bill’s basement.  The bill says that this test, and others in chemistry and physics, will be implemented when “budget conditions allow” and the Commissioner of Education decides he likes the idea.  These EOC’s aren’t in the first wave of tests, which includes the state’s featured science subject, biology.  Paul Ruscher bemoaned this fact in his recent Tallahassee Democrat op-ed.  Once again, SB 4 is only a first step.  But at least it’s that.

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