How one high school’s dispute reflects the struggle to teach California’s science standards 

October 18, 2019

Parents at Northwood High in Irvine have started a petition against the school's science course sequence.

As California schools implement the state’s new science standards, parents at one high school are objecting to a teaching approach they say is short-changing students.

At Northwood High School in the Irvine Unified School District, students are required to take two years of integrated science, which combines chemistry, biology, physics and earth and space science lessons in each course, rather than being taught each subject separately one year at a time.

But several parents and former students say they are concerned that teachers lack expertise in all subjects. In addition, they say the textbooks are outdated and the model has turned some students away from science.

California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards in 2013 in part to better prepare more students for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. The new standards call for significant shifts in science instruction. Key among them is teaching concepts that are relevant across scientific disciplines, such as patterns and system models. The goal is to help all students gain a deeper understanding of scientific processes across different subjects, with less emphasis on memorizing facts.

Similar to Northwood, high schools throughout the state are trying to figure out the best way to teach science so students are prepared for college and possible STEM careers.

Northwood High, with an enrollment of about 2,200, has taught integrated science since the school opened in 1999. Its students consistently score well on science assessments. In 2018-19, for example, 99 percent of student passed AP Biology, and 94 percent of students passed AP Chemistry and AP Physics 1, according to data from Irvine Unified. Last year Northwood High also had the highest portion of students meeting the minimum admissions requirements for science to California’s public universities compared with all high schools in the district.

But parents recently began complaining after a district science curriculum committee determined which course sequence each high school would use under the new science standards.

Some Northwood parents objected to the model the committee selected for Northwood, which shifted some content among grade levels and calls for students to take three years of integrated science in order to learn all the concepts. This summer the parents posted an online petition calling on district officials to consider combining fewer science disciplines and make Northwood’s integrated courses voluntary. It has collected more than 580 signatures so far.

“Jumping into the deep end and not knowing how to swim is dangerous, and that’s what our school has done,” with its science curriculum, said Robin Leder, a parent of a student at Northwood and two graduates of the school.

Daniel Luo graduated from Northwood this past spring. He said that his integrated science classes felt “disjointed” and hard to follow. Now a freshman at Northwestern University studying mathematics and economics, Luo said discrete single-subject courses, like AP Physics, better prepared him for college.

“The teacher had a background in physics, and they went more in depth,” he said. “The surface-level integrated science didn’t prepare me for success on tests and understanding material as well.”

The California Science Framework, which provides guidance on implementing the science standards, outlines three main course sequences that high schools can choose: four one-year science courses; three one-year courses with earth science integrated in each; and a three-year fully integrated model that combines all four science subjects each year, called “Every Science, Every Year.”

In 2016-17, 47 percent of California high schools were using three one-year science courses integrated with earth science and only 17 percent were using four one-year science courses, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonpartisan think tank. About a quarter of districts had not yet decided on a model and 8 percent were using their own.

Very few districts offer Every Science, Every Year, the model used at Northwood High that combines the most scientific disciplines. In 2016-17, only 1 percent of California high schools used the model, according to the PPIC survey. In addition to Northwood, two other schools that have implemented the model are Creekside High, Irvine Unified’s alternative high school, and Paso Robles High School near San Louis Obispo.

When Northwood opened, it chose to offer integrated science courses based on research from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a national nonprofit that helped develop the Next Generation Science Standards.

In 2016, after the state adopted new science standards, a committee of 150 teachers, parents and science education experts came together to determine how Irvine Unified would update its high school science course progression to align with the standards.

The committee recommended a model that integrates two scientific subjects for each course for most high schools in the district. Since Northwood already offered science courses that integrated several sciences, the committee decided it should continue on that trajectory. And because the school couldn’t fit all of the new standards into their existing two-year model, it went with the Every Science, Every Year model, which would create a third year of fully integrated science.

“Other high schools were coming from a discrete course model,” said Chris Weber, STEM director for Irvine Unified. “For Northwood to go with the three-course model, that would be a far less integrated approach.”

Northwood High science teacher Mickey Dickson spoke in support of the model at a board meeting in May.

“We do not work alone in silos and isolation. And integrating science allows for connections to be made across disciplines,” he said. “This is important; this is how the real world works.”

Dickson told EdSource that since the new science standards were introduced, teachers have participated in workshops on the standards and integrating scientific disciplines.

Dickson is the only science teacher who would speak with EdSource. Irvine Unified district officials did not allow a reporter into any science classrooms.

Because most teachers have single-subject expertise, some parents are worried students will get limited exposure to different science topics rather than a broad understanding of all of them.

“If they had questions, they were told to go to YouTube because teachers didn’t know the answer if it wasn’t their focus,” said Leder, talking about her children’s experience.

Several Northwood parents also are frustrated that Irvine Unified has yet to adopt new teaching materials.

That issue is felt statewide. Last spring, California began administering a new science test. But some schools have yet determine a course sequence model or adopt textbooks that align to the new standards, further delaying implementation of the standards for some teachers and students.

According to Matthew d’Alessio, a lead writer for the California Science Framework, there aren’t many NGSS-aligned textbooks for high schools yet and even fewer for Every Science, Every Year.

“Really the only way to go about doing it is to develop your own resources,” he said.

The district plans to adopt new science instructional materials for all high schools by fall of 2020, according to Annie Brown, public information officer for Irvine Unified.

Another complicating factor in implementing the standards is that Irvine Unified requires two years of science to graduate, the state’s minimum. So students who opt out of a third year of an integrated science model could miss a portion of the standards.

The graduation requirement could change in the future. At a board meeting in October, where Northwood parents again spoke out in opposition to their high school science model, the school board moved forward with a proposal to increase the math and science graduation requirements from two to three years, which would go into effect for the class of 2027. 

This school year, Northwood High is rolling out a third year of integrated science, which is not required but the school recommends students take. Students can also choose from marine science, forensics science, AP Biology, AP Environmental Science, AP Chemistry, AP Physics and other courses in their junior and senior years.

Some Northwood parents support the new science standards and integrated science offered at the district’s other high schools, which combine fewer scientific subjects. But they remain unconvinced about Every Science, Every Year.

The debate has been flaring up for months. In May, a petition to remove Northwood High School’s principal surfaced after parents claimed that a previous petition against the science curriculum was taken down.

Not everyone agrees with that idea. A follow-up petition to keep the principal was started soon after.

“We want to make science accessible to kids in their everyday learning,” said Marle Chen, a parent of a student at a Northwood High feeder middle school. “But Northwood took this in a more ambitious, maybe foolishly ambitious, way to combine all four topics.”

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