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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach High School Science

How Can High School Science Get Students Ready for College
Judy Jones

About a year ago, I served on a discussion panel at the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) conference. The topic was how high school science teachers and high school science classes could better prepare students for the college science experience. This discussion got me thinking more about this topic. And as I’ve watched standardized testing move science courses more toward memorization and less toward inquiry, I have become more and more concerned. Through my research, the information that I’ve found has led to even more questions that we should all be asking.

In May 2005, Indiana University conducted a “High School Survey of Student Engagement.” Along with the “Community College Survey of Student Engagement,” tens of thousands of students were surveyed about how ready they were for college. Here is a sampling of what was learned.

  1. College students are expected to study 2-3 hours outside of class for every class hour they are taking. However, 55% of the high school students said they did all their high school homework in 3 hours or less per week! What does this mean? Should we restructure high schools so that there is less time in formal class environments and more time with structured tutorials where students learn how to study? Yet, high school students are not college students. Do they need more teacher contact time? How do we resolve the need for more independent study with the frenetic pace of most high schools?

  2. 82% of high school students surveyed said they planned on going on to some type of postsecondary education. However, only 10% of current ninth graders will actually enroll in college and stay a second year. This is big gap. What does it mean? Should we be working differently to prepare high school students for college work and success? How do we do that?

  3. 88% of high school students felt they had the skills to complete their assignments, but only 66% said their high school prepared them well for college. Another gap! How can we better prepare students for the college experience? Are we willing to look at our high schools and substantially change them?

In an article from Education Week (Connect Ed)1, the author stressed the need for a better connection between how courses are taught at the high school level and how they are taught at colleges and universities. This raises the complicated question – who should change, high school or college instructors? One thing we should consider is the longstanding debate between “depth” and “breadth” instruction. A recent study 2 showed that high school students whose teacher used a “breadth” approach, most common in high schools, did less well in their college classes. Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) argues that the while it is reasonable to look at how high school teachers are teaching, the disconnect rests, in part, on how college classes are taught: lots of lecture and a huge amount of material to memorize.

A 2006 ACT report analyzing the tests of the previous year’s high school graduates found that 49% lacked the reading skills they needed to have a high probability of success in college. In California in 2006, 55% of freshmen were taking remedial math and/or English their first year of college. National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has done similar studies with similar results. Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor says that “few standards are developed for 11th and 12th grades or connected to the academic expectations of colleges.”3 We are not helping our students read at college level.

How can science classes help promote college level reading? We need to challenge students to read and understand complex texts if we want our students to succeed in college.

My high school, East Chapel Hill High School, has a fairly rigorous science curriculum with 5 solid AP classes and a senior class in human biology. We produce a great number of students who are interested in science and want to pursue science as a career, and yet some of them are totally “put off” by some of their college experiences. They cite Organic Chemistry and some biology classes as just incredibly hard and they are diverted from their science goals. This raises some questions. Should these students be diverted? Are too many being diverted? Is there a way that high schools and colleges can come together so that the college science classes are not so shocking to high school students?

Below is a link to the College Board Standards for College Success (CBSCS). A variety of high school teachers, college professors, curriculum experts, scientists, and others have worked together to produce this document. The focus is on high schools – both what they teach and how they teach. The CBSCS first started with what students need to know and be able to do in AP and college classes. Then, they worked backward to build the infrastructure from middle school onward that would reach those goals.

As you look these standards over, think about your school and your curriculum. Do you meet these standards? How would you improve your science instruction in order to meet the standards? Would your school organization require a revision? How could that be done?

I have asked some challenging questions. I don’t have answers for these. The answers may vary by school or by system. But I firmly believe that they need to be addressed.

1Education Week – June 21, 2006 - States Push to Align Policies from Pre-K to Postsecondary by Lynn Olson

Further Reading:
Depth v. Breath instruction


General overview of CBSCS

Specific Science Standards

As always, if you have comments or ideas about your experiences, please share them with me.


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