Photo: Kate Rutz-Robbins
Parents at Northwood High in Irvine have started a petition against the school's science course sequence.
This article was updated on Oct. 22, 2019.

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 In addition, they say the textbooks are outdated and the model has turned some students away from science.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.”

This story was updated to include information about Northwood High's academic performance.

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  1. Annie Brown 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Newsweek and STEM.org, released their ranking of the top 500 STEM high schools in the United States, which included two IUSD schools - Northwood and University high schools. The purpose was to determine which institutions offer students the best experiences in STEM, while preparing them for post-secondary outcomes. According to Newsweek, “We found schools in every region of the country that offer skilled teachers who keep up with developments in these fields and … Read More

    Newsweek and STEM.org, released their ranking of the top 500 STEM high schools in the United States, which included two IUSD schools – Northwood and University high schools. The purpose was to determine which institutions offer students the best experiences in STEM, while preparing them for post-secondary outcomes. According to Newsweek, “We found schools in every region of the country that offer skilled teachers who keep up with developments in these fields and who create dynamic learning environments to engage their students.” The ranking data included inputs from Q2 2015 through Q3 2019. To read the Newsweek post, visit https://www.newsweek.com/americas-best-stem-high-schools-2020 and visit IUSD’s news center http://bit.ly/2NK08nh.

    Replies

    • Natalie 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      How come NHS is often ranked higher than Uni in its overall ranking, but is always hundreds spot behind Uni for STEM? Such a fantastic cherry-picking job you’re doing here.

  2. W. Wang 1 month ago1 month ago

    While it is admirable to keep pursuing new and innovative ways to better educate kids, IUSD has to understand that ultimately it is the students that are directly affected by the changes, and it has to diligently and objectively evaluate the results and make adjustments accordingly. The public outcry about NWH's Integrated Science program clearly portrayed a picture of school administrators not listening to the invested stakeholders and refusing to make changes to the failed … Read More

    While it is admirable to keep pursuing new and innovative ways to better educate kids, IUSD has to understand that ultimately it is the students that are directly affected by the changes, and it has to diligently and objectively evaluate the results and make adjustments accordingly. The public outcry about NWH’s Integrated Science program clearly portrayed a picture of school administrators not listening to the invested stakeholders and refusing to make changes to the failed experiment, while trying to validate the wrong IS educational approach with falsely interpreted data that speak more about historical excellence with the individual subject approach.

    Here is to wish that IUSD as a public agency put aside its ego and make the right call for the greater good of the community. Irvine has been a great place to live and raise kids. Let’s not erode the excellence. Keep Irvine strong!

  3. GS 1 month ago1 month ago

    The integrated science approach is weak on fundamental concepts of science. Example, students are asked to solve combustion problems in chemistry without any knowledge of the molecular structure of the compounds involved. Having a thorough knowledge of the single subjects first and then integrating the knowledge would be ideal for students to understand the material in depth and then find the connections between the subjects. Otherwise it will be a watered down … Read More

    The integrated science approach is weak on fundamental concepts of science. Example, students are asked to solve combustion problems in chemistry without any knowledge of the molecular structure of the compounds involved. Having a thorough knowledge of the single subjects first and then integrating the knowledge would be ideal for students to understand the material in depth and then find the connections between the subjects. Otherwise it will be a watered down version of pure sciences without adequate preparation for in-depth problem solving or College level AP classes.

  4. B. Wright 1 month ago1 month ago

    Thank you EdSource for this comprehensive and objective report on the controversial Every Science Every Year (ESEY) Integrated Science (IS) program adopted by Northwood High School. It gives uninformed students and parents a new angle to examine this unique program other than what NHS and IUSD tried to portray. From this report they can get a fair and well-rounded picture. Readers need to understand that while it is the duty of IUSD Public Information Officer … Read More

    Thank you EdSource for this comprehensive and objective report on the controversial Every Science Every Year (ESEY) Integrated Science (IS) program adopted by Northwood High School. It gives uninformed students and parents a new angle to examine this unique program other than what NHS and IUSD tried to portray. From this report they can get a fair and well-rounded picture. Readers need to understand that while it is the duty of IUSD Public Information Officer to defend IUSD as much as possible, most of the data that Ms. Brown quoted for Northwood High School is from the Integrated Science FAQ document released by IUSD in July this year. This FAQ document has been widely disputed because of its biased presentation of data and misleading information.

    In contrast to what IUSD has claimed, after ESEY IS was adopted, NHS students performed below average in SAT subject tests. NHS students’ ACT Science score, as compared with IUSD average, is getting worse every year since 2015.

    Also, the FAQ states there are 234 high schools in California that teach integrated science (Every Science Every Year model) which is 12% of all California high schools. Per EdSource’s investigation, there are only three high schools in California (less than 1%) that use the Every Science Every Year model as of school year 2016-2017. Among those three, Northwood High and Creekside High are both in IUSD and Creekside High is an alternative high school.

    We wonder why Northwood High continues to choose such a rare and unproven science program? We also wonder when NHS and IUSD are willing to objectively assess students’ learning outcomes and make positive changes?

  5. Jane 1 month ago1 month ago

    Applause to the author of this article. You’ve done much better job than IUSD management!

  6. GD 1 month ago1 month ago

    Well said. Thank you!

  7. Frank Jia 2 months ago2 months ago

    Five months of community outcry requesting clarification of Northwood High School ESEY concerns. No any response from IUSD except one FAQ full of false and error information Two petitions at Change.org with hundreds of signatures. No any response from IUSD except one FAQ full of false and error information Dozens of parents continuous relay speeches at IUSD board meetings. No any response from IUSD except one FAQ full of false and error information. All requests from parent community … Read More

    Five months of community outcry requesting clarification of Northwood High School ESEY concerns. No any response from IUSD except one FAQ full of false and error information
    Two petitions at Change.org with hundreds of signatures. No any response from IUSD except one FAQ full of false and error information
    Dozens of parents continuous relay speeches at IUSD board meetings. No any response from IUSD except one FAQ full of false and error information.
    All requests from parent community to put Northwood High ESEY concerns as formal IUSD boarding meeting agenda refused by IUSD, except one FAQ full of false and error information
    IUSD PR promptly responded this published article with error and false statements pointed out many times by parent community.
    Great job, IUSD.

  8. Natalie G. 2 months ago2 months ago

    IUSD has not been straightforward in presenting and interpreting data/facts. They tell the community that ESEY IS is adopted by 14% of California High Schools, when in reality it is less than 1%. They refer to NHS's overall US News ranking to show it's a good school, but at the same time they tell parents not to trust its low STEM ranking because "such rankings are not reliable," Bottom-line, for the many semesters when … Read More

    IUSD has not been straightforward in presenting and interpreting data/facts. They tell the community that ESEY IS is adopted by 14% of California High Schools, when in reality it is less than 1%.
    They refer to NHS’s overall US News ranking to show it’s a good school, but at the same time they tell parents not to trust its low STEM ranking because “such rankings are not reliable,”
    Bottom-line, for the many semesters when students are under tremendous and unnecessary stress caused by ESEY IS, IUSD has never acknowledged there is any issue at all regarding NHS Science Curriculum, even after a student-initiated petition with 450 signatures, a parent-initiated petition with 1000+ signatures, and an ongoing petition asking for the 3-course model with 600 signatures. Oh well …

    Replies

    • Katherin S. 2 months ago2 months ago

      This summer parents received a FAQ about Integrated Science from NHS in following link. http://bit.ly/IntegratedScienceFAQ In this FAQ, NHS claims that “There are 234 high schools in California that teach integrated science (The Every Science Every Year model), which is 12% of all California high schools.” However, according to PPIC survey, there are ONLY 3 high schools in California have implemented Every Science Every Year model.

  9. Marle Chen 2 months ago2 months ago

    Irvine Unified's dedication is unquestioned, but Northwood families will continue to find disappointment in their neighborhood high school when they discover it provides an alternate curriculum that falls short for students on a science career pathway during the college years. This is the case unless students are forewarned and know to seek resources so they can take additional science preparation during their high school years outside of Northwood's offered curriculum. The fact that IUSD continually … Read More

    Irvine Unified’s dedication is unquestioned, but Northwood families will continue to find disappointment in their neighborhood high school when they discover it provides an alternate curriculum that falls short for students on a science career pathway during the college years. This is the case unless students are forewarned and know to seek resources so they can take additional science preparation during their high school years outside of Northwood’s offered curriculum.

    The fact that IUSD continually cites data that does not control for students who are taking classes, for example at IVC, on top of their high school course load to compensate for this preparation gap, continues to put into doubt infographics that purport to prove that Northwood’s science curriculum is well-thought-out for its current student population.

    Northwood families will continue to dialogue with each other and share what is learned across our social media groups because that sharing is how we try to help make Northwood HS become more thoughtful and considerate in pushing out changes to its goals of, and its training provided for, its very unique science curriculum, as it continues its efforts to pilot Every Science Every Year, along with Creekside High, which are distinctive as the only public high schools in Orange County to attempt this unique Every Science Every Year high school science pathway.

  10. Yu 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you Sydney for telling the fact.

  11. Annie Brown 2 months ago2 months ago

    I’m the Public Information Officer for IUSD and I personally worked with the reporter on this story. What is not clear from the Ed Source article is that the reporter omitted the lengthy information and data IUSD provided her, including a 10-page document addressing concerns about integrated science; AP science, SAT science, SAT II science, and CST scores; and data on Northwood students meeting the UC/CSU A-G requirements in science at high levels. … Read More

    I’m the Public Information Officer for IUSD and I personally worked with the reporter on this story. What is not clear from the Ed Source article is that the reporter omitted the lengthy information and data IUSD provided her, including a 10-page document addressing concerns about integrated science; AP science, SAT science, SAT II science, and CST scores; and data on Northwood students meeting the UC/CSU A-G requirements in science at high levels.

    It is stunning that the unequivocal evidence of Northwood High School (NHS) students excelling at high levels in science was omitted from this article. Not only is this omission in direct opposition to fair and balanced journalism, it denies our community the opportunity to make an informed decision when assessing the effectiveness of integrated science at NHS. Whether you agree or disagree with integrated science, the data that shows NHS students are the highest performing in AP science in the District should be a part of the discussion. It certainly refutes the assertion that NHS students are being “short changed.”

    Additionally, IUSD’s Dr. Chris Weber, Director of STEM and Lisa Gordon, Science Coordinator met with the reporter for nearly an hour to address many of the misleading statements in the community and on social media. The reporter did not use any information from those interviews, nor did she quote Dr. Weber or Ms. Gordon. Instead, she included a statement that NHS Science Teacher Mickey Dickson was the only person from NHS who would speak with her. While IUSD does not allow reporters to freely roam our campuses and disrupt instruction, we made several staff members available for interview.

    The District teaches our students how to be informed consumers of media and social media. It is a shame that readers and our community were not provided a complete picture. Data and information about integrated science at NHS, can be found by visiting https://northwoodhigh.iusd.org/academics/science-0.

    In the meantime, below are some facts that were not included in the story:
    • NHS students’ science AP scores outperform other IUSD high schools (99% biology, 94% Chemistry, 88% Environmental, 94% Physics)
    • NHS students’ SAT II subject test for science scores are at or above local, state and national scores
    • NHS students’ average science SAT scores are at or above local, state and national scores
    • NHS students meeting the UC/CSU A-G Science Requirement outperform other IUSD high schools (2016 – 87%, 2017 – 90%, and 2018 – 87%)
    NHS and IUSD appreciate feedback from our community but we also appreciate the opportunity to share information, data and our perspective for consideration. IUSD is one of the highest performing school districts in the nation, because we are committed to ensuring our more than 36,000 students are prepared for 21st century colleges and careers. It is disappointing when one-side stories rob our students and families of the facts.

    Replies

    • Grace 2 months ago2 months ago

      According to performance data disclosed by IUSD, NHS students overall performance in SAT and PSAT is well above IUSD average and at or near top of the district, reflecting an overall academically strong student body. However, since NHS started to teach ESEY in 2016, NHS students have been consistently performing below district average for most of SAT science subject tests. NHS students have also struggled to stay above district average for ACT … Read More

      According to performance data disclosed by IUSD, NHS students overall performance in SAT and PSAT is well above IUSD average and at or near top of the district, reflecting an overall academically strong student body.

      However, since NHS started to teach ESEY in 2016, NHS students have been consistently performing below district average for most of SAT science subject tests. NHS students have also struggled to stay above district average for ACT Science since 2016. When asked about this underperformance associated with ESEY, NHS administration told parents that high school’s job is not to prepare students for SAT or ACT, but to meet state standards.