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High School Students Need to Think, Not Memorize

New education standards will affect the way regular and AP courses are taught.

Cheryl Hollinger has taught Advanced Placement biology at Central York High School in Pennsylvania for 17 years, plenty of time to see what isn’t working. The amount of material covered is “overwhelming,” she says; the 1,280-page textbook “is way too big to go in depth.” Students go through the motions of their lab assignments without grasping why, and “the exam is largely a vocabulary test.”

That all changes this fall, however, with a new curriculum that lasers in on just three body systems (down from 11); requires fewer but more creative biology labs, and entails an AP exam assessing reasoning skills rather than factoid recall. “I’m excited,” says Hollinger, who welcomes the prospect of getting students “to think and act like scientists.”

Students and parents, get set for the next wave of education reform, which is about to raise expectations. Data from 2009 show that only 38 percent of U.S. 12th graders performed at or above proficiency in reading, and only 26 percent were proficient in math. The goal, say experts, is to better prepare high schoolers for the rigors of college and a competitive world economy, and to create a pipeline of native talent for the millions of STEM jobs going beggingin science, technology, engineering, and math.

One aim of the reformers is to set common (and rigorous) standards nationwide for the teaching of K-12 math, English language arts, and science. Meanwhile the College Board, which oversees the AP program, will eventually revamp all 34 courses to get away from that mile-wide, inch-deep approach to subject matter.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the new Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts, which set a framework for what concepts and skills should be mastered at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. A separate collaborative, the Next Generation Science Standards, has released a draft set of K-12 science standards that similarly stress acquiring a deep understanding of concepts through analytical scientific inquiry. Those standards have support from 26 states, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Research Council.

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