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December 23, 2002
Volume 80, Number 51
CENEAR 80 51 p. 39
ISSN 0009-2347



Interest in improving the performance of U.S. students in math and science has sparked a serious reexamination of what K–12 students need to know and how well they are learning. Although much attention has been focused on improving the basic math and science skills of every student, a new study from the National Research Council (NRC), "Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools" (available at, calls our attention to those advanced programs that are expected to jump-start the next generation of would-be scientists and engineers. The NRC committee convened panels that focused on specific disciplines, including chemistry. The report sounds a warning bell about the effectiveness of current advanced courses. The ACS Society Committee on Education (SOCED) identified the following particularly compelling findings and recommendations, which merit serious consideration by everyone concerned with the education of our children.

Advanced course teachers must be well versed in content and also must understand how students learn.
Thousands of U.S. high school students take advanced science and math classes each year. Most advanced study occurs through the Advanced Placement (AP) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. AP classes, offered in about 62% of U.S. high schools today, are intended to be comparable to "typical" introductory college-level courses. Elective AP exams are offered by the College Board to assess student performance in specific subjects. The IB program provides an international standard of secondary education. Scores on final examinations developed by the IB Organization are weighed along with other factors for award of an IB diploma.

Students intending to pursue higher education have strong incentives to take advanced study. Successful performance helps to demonstrate that a student is capable of doing college-level work. Some colleges offer credits for good scores on the AP exams (and sometimes the IB), and these credits can be used to reduce course loads or to meet graduation requirements.

Although the importance of advanced study courses is growing, the NRC committee has identified a troublesome gap in access, particularly in inner-city and rural schools. While advanced study opportunities need to be equally accessible to every student, the availability of AP classes decreases as the percentage of underrepresented minority or low-income students increases, especially for math and science. Students from these groups take advanced study courses less frequently when they are available. The NRC committee recommends that all students have the access, preparation, and encouragement needed to take advanced courses. To do this, schools must develop a coherent plan to integrate advanced study with the rest of their programs.

Course options that leave students unprepared for further learning should be eliminated.

The report also points out that participation in advanced study might not provide the most effective learning pathway for some students. Although college-level material may be part of an advanced study course, students might not be ready for the complexity of the material. Moreover, not all typical advanced study programs employ the most recent findings on teaching and learning.

NRC recommends that the primary goal of advanced study in any discipline should be for students "to achieve a deep conceptual understanding of its content and unifying concepts." In other words, they should emphasize depth rather than breadth of coverage. To improve advanced study courses, NRC makes several recommendations concerning instruction, teacher preparation, and student assessment. Advanced course teachers must be well versed in content and also must understand how students learn. Teachers should engage their students in inquiry-based experimentation and analysis. To be effective, teachers need opportunities to improve continuously as instructors. Learning needs to focus on the development of conceptual understanding and problem solving, rather than on preparation for standard examinations.

A few other issues that the chemistry panel identified can serve as helpful starting points for improving advanced chemistry courses. The panel believes strongly that most students should not take advanced chemistry as their first high school chemistry course. Advanced chemistry should enable students to build on the concepts and laboratory practices they learned in their first course and engage in research where appropriate. The panel also points out that current advanced chemistry courses have not yet responded to the increasingly interdisciplinary focus of modern chemistry. The material taught in today's advanced chemistry courses fails to incorporate important related fields, such as materials science and biochemistry, and does not take advantage of opportunities to use examples from these fields to teach chemical concepts in context.

SOCED is determining how it can support NRC in implementing these recommendations, particularly with respect to student assessment. These actions could impact the ap

proximately 55,000 students who take AP chemistry each year. But action on this important report should not stop with SOCED. As scientists, educators, and parents, we all need to make the case for improving the quality of advanced math and science programs. To help ensure that these courses are meaningful, everyone should consider how to bring these recommendations to the attention of their local school districts and school boards: Advanced study should truly be an above-average experience.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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