I work for Fresno Unified (FUSD). In the past ten years, I have taught all four of the main sequence standards (Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science and Physics) in California, standards that have been in place without modification since they were adopted in October of 1998. You can get a list of all the science standards, by grade level, in this PDF file.
Now, as you might imagine, in order to satisfy the Biology standards, you have a course based on those standards, most typically called 'Biology'. And so I have taught courses called Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science and Physics, and I have taught them all at least twice. I would guess that I might be the only such teacher in Fresno County, and one of the few in the state, who can say that. What can I say? Jack of all trades, master of none, I suppose.
Anyway, I have an unusual familiarity with the standards. But I have never taught an Honors or an AP course, and so the question of which of my students might qualify for the University of California is not exactly my first priority. But circumstances of late have led me to think about this. The UC requires two years of laboratory science, but strongly recommends a third year. And so, in its wisdom, Fresno Unified mandates a third year of science of some sort in order to graduate.
This year I've been lumbered with teaching a course, however, that is not directly tied to the standards, an elective called 'Environmental Science' that will allow juniors and seniors who don't want to tackle Physics or Chemistry a way of earning a third year of science from FUSD, which requires one year of some sort of science beyond the two years mandated by the UC. Well, I have to ask: what is the point of that? Read this carefully: the UC only accepts Biology, Chemistry, Physics and their AP and Honors permutations as 'laboratory science.' That's right, the UC doesn't accept the other main standards-based course (Earth Science) at all! That is because (frankly) it is an inferior course. There are no prerequisites for Earth Science, whereas Biology kids must have passed or currently taking Algebra I (which is, in case you don't know, the number #1 grade-killer in high school).
So, poorly-prepared freshmen are put into Earth Science instead of Biology when the system works right, see...and the UC people know this, so they won't accept it as a laboratory science course. This means that, in order to get that recommended (if not required) third year of laboratory science, a kid who takes Earth Science as a freshman will have to take three additional science courses to qualify for the UC. Somewhere along the way, this led to a whole bunch of juniors opting out of standards-based courses entirely, because they often don't pass Biology the first time they take it. They haven't had much success in science, and they hear how hard Chemistry and Physics are supposed to be, and they punt.
Well, when a kid makes this choice as a junior, they are choosing not to be eligible for the University of California. So, under this circumstance, why treat them as if they still need to take a third year of science? It's not going to give them an advantage in applying to a CSU or a community college. What's the point?
If the point is to make sure they get that third year of science, then I say 'epic fail.' That's just so much 'eat your spinach because I said so' to me. Electives should be enrichment for those who want to take additional coursework in a given area, not a remedial program for people who struggled with past science coursework. Most of the students in my Environmental Science class would benefit more academically from some kind of performing arts elective, frankly.
If the point is to raise the overall science literacy of the population, then again I have questions. The emphasis on rote learning and factoids in order to finesse the standards-based tests works against real science literacy, which involves internalizing the process, practice and critical thinking skills used in science. That's a lot more important more than (say) knowing how many stars are in the Milky Way Galaxy (an actual standard in Earth Science). And, since all the electives we offer are in the life sciences, a student can actually graduate from high school without any general science knowledge in things like electricity, magnetism, changes of state, machines...in other words, exactly the kind of science literacy that people in trades and everyday life are likely to find most useful.
So why is this happening? Well, the short hand answer is standards mania. See, kids in an elective science course still have to take a standards-based test. They get three years of standards-based science, even if it's in a course (like Earth Science, or the elective I teach) that is not considered up-to-snuff by the UC.
That's why all our electives seem to be in the life sciences, because the Biology test is supposed to be 'easier' than the Chemistry or the Physics. Ecology? Environmental Science? Physiology? Zoology? All our juniors in these courses still take a science test, so (the thinking goes) let's make sure it's the Biology CST. Never mind that Biology is actually the biggest challenge to teach due to the combined depth and breadth of the standards, and that you can't actually cover all these standards well in a course that has a narrowed 'elective' focus. In fact, one of the biggest complaints Bio instructors make to one another is how difficult it is for them to cover all the standards in Bio. Ironically, from the teacher's point of view, it is quite a bit easier to cover all the material mandated by the state in the Physics and Chemistry classes! If that sounds hard to believe, remember, I've taught all these courses at least twice, and I know what I'm talking about here.
So what to do here? Under the circumstances, I think we need to rethink our sequence at Bullard. Most of these kids are not going to go to the UC, but all of them are going to be tested in science their first three years of high school. Science typically forms a small part of the API score (about six percent), but under the present system nearly half of the students are going to have no real physical science. Sorry, but if Earth Science doesn't count as a real science for the UC, how can we argue that kids who take it are getting a quality science course?
So, as the saying goes, catch-22. How to best serve the average students? If we send poorly-prepared freshmen into Bio, they tend to fail, fall behind and hate science. If we put them in Earth Science, they are getting a year of science credit with the district but they are essentially a year behind qualifying for the UC, and their chances of taking an AP science course are also significantly diminished. When we turn a third-year elective into a remedial class, we essentially tell that population that science is spinach. Oh, and while I'm on a roll here, my gut tells me that assessing the juniors with a test that's intended to go with a different course is a bad idea, no matter how we slice it. If kids need to take a standards-based test, they need to be in a standards-based course.
What we need is a course that will give freshmen credit with the UC for laboratory science, but which will nurture their curiosity and give them a chance to catch up academically. I don't know if that is really possible, because the UC and the CST's are ultimately not all that well-aligned. None of this would matter were it not for the fact that California (like most states) is so addicted to federal education dollars that they must comply with NCLB.