Physical science, a low-level introduction to chemistry and physics, is making a comeback in Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools, sparking debate over whether it helps teens graduate or sidetracks them from the more advanced science many colleges demand.
Four years ago, physical science was almost obsolete in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Only two of the district's 17 high schools offered it, and fewer than 150 students took the state exam.
Last year, just over 2,400 students from CMS high schools took the test. Meanwhile, students taking the chemistry exam plunged to about 3,300, down from almost 5,800 in 2006 (results weren't reported in 2007, while the exams were being revised).
The shift from higher-level to introductory science is most pronounced in schools that are struggling with overall performance. Last year, CMS's four low-scoring “challenge” high schools had more students taking physical science than chemistry and physics combined. That was also true at some higher-performing schools, such as Independence and Hopewell. The more advanced science courses continued to dominate in top-scoring suburban schools and magnets such as Berry and Harding.
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The drop in chemistry enrollment, if permanent, is troubling, some science experts say. Taking physical science instead of the more difficult chemistry is good enough to earn a diploma, but can make it tougher to get into many competitive four-year colleges.
“I've done everything in my power to get rid of physical science,” says Cindy Moss, CMS's math/science director. “Physical science in the rest of the country is a middle-school course.”
But CMS officials say they believe the dip in chemistry participation is temporary. They hope physical science will prepare students with weak math skills to advance to chemistry and/or physics, rather than serving as a substitute. Associate Superintendent Ann Clark calls it “queueing kids up for success.”
What's behind the change
The shift in science teaching is driven partly by testing pressures. But it's also part of a national tension between the global demand for advanced math-science students and the reality that many American teens are lucky just to get through high school.
Nationally, the number of students taking chemistry and other advanced science courses is on the rise, says Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. There's even a new acronym for the classes viewed as crucial to 21st-century jobs: STEM, for science, technology, engineering and math.
“It is very important for students to be taking as much science as they can,” Eberle said. “STEM fields are economic drivers; they're high-wage jobs.”
In the late 1990s, then-Superintendent Eric Smith pushed more students into advanced math and other classes, saying too many minority and low-income students were being slow-tracked. Hundreds of middle-school students were switched into algebra and geometry, which meant they'd take four years of more advanced math in high school.
But in recent years, CMS's pendulum has swung back. Dismally low high-school test scores brought a new quest to make sure students master the basics before tackling courses – including science – that demand strong math and reading. The number of students taking middle-school algebra dropped by more than half over the last three years, while geometry has virtually vanished from CMS middle schools.
Facing pressure over high dropout rates, the school board is also considering cutting the district's graduation requirements from 28 to 24.
High schools have doubled the time struggling students spend on required courses such as algebra, freshman English and biology. Starting next year, students can't graduate until they pass the state exams in those courses and two others.
The new biology
Cindy Rudolph is standing on a chair, leading her “greenhouse biology” students through an elaborate series of hand gestures that illustrate the photosynthesis equation.
Greenhouse biology is one of CMS's strategies to help weak students master tough science.
Rudolph, who teaches at Hopewell High, says adults often fail to realize how abstract and demanding high-school biology is now.
“We spend very little time on animals,” she said. “Everything is subcellular.”
More than a third of Rudolph's third-block students, who are in 10th grade or higher, have learning disabilities. This semester, she's helping them build knowledge and vocabulary that will get them ready to take regular biology – and pass the big test – in the second semester.
She reads a story about a realm of candymakers ruled by King DNA, stopping to make sure students have grasped each point of the extended metaphor for protein synthesis.
Later, she explains that she talks to her class about the medical and ethical issues related to molecular biology. But “the hard-core science of it is very, very difficult to teach, and you don't necessarily have any prior learning of it at home.”
Paths to graduation
Students in greenhouse biology can't stop there if they want a diploma. But students who pass physical science don't need the tougher chemistry and physics classes to graduate.
The standard science track for CMS students with good math and reading skills is earth/environmental science in ninth grade, biology in 10th, chemistry in 11th and physics in 12th.
The role of physical science remains open to debate.
Until this year, most Gaston County students took earth/environmental science and physical science as ninth-graders. Strong students took it at the honors level – an option the state ruled out last year.
Moss, the CMS math/science director, says districts that put strong students in physical science are “playing a game with numbers,” boosting their overall pass rates with an easy test.
Robert Carpenter, principal of Gaston's Forestview High, disagrees. At the honors level, physical science was “a strong course,” he said, and two science classes are better than one for high-performing students. Now, he says, physical science is mostly for “people who don't feel like they can pass chemistry.”
In Cabarrus County, many students choose between physical science and chemistry in 11th grade, said high school curriculum director Chris Lowder. About twice as many students opt for chemistry, he said. Most of the physical science students will stop there, he said, but some will take chemistry as a senior.
In CMS, the trends have not yet shaken out. Top officials are even considering moving physical science back to middle school and using it as preparation for the harder courses.
Eberle, the national official, says a strong background in science is an important job skill, even for students who won't pursue advanced degrees in the field: “For every Ph.D. in science there may be eight, 12 technicians – people who have bachelor's, master's or associate degrees who are working with that person.”
Clark says she'll be disappointed if chemistry enrollment suffers because of physical science, but she acknowledges the intro-level course will be the last stop for some.
Hopewell junior Dylan Cremins, for instance, says he tried chemistry and switched to physical science; passing that will be enough for him. “I'm not strong in math,” he said. “I'm more into art.”
But classmate Adéca Cox plans to take chemistry as a senior. Physical science “helps me understand my science more,” says the aspiring algebra teacher.
Whatever role physical science may play, it doesn't appear to be a shortcut for schools seeking higher scores. Last year, only 53 percent CMS students passed that exam, compared with 64 percent who took chemistry.