New science, math education standards already showing progress

April 29, 2014 

About the authors: Terry Holliday, left, is Kentucky education commissioner; Roger Marcum is chair of the Kentucky Board of Education.

By Terry Holliday and Roger Marcum

With implementation of the Kentucky Core Academic Standards in science underway, we feel it is important to correct some misinformation about the new science standards, as well as the mathematics standards that have been taught for the past three years in Kentucky schools.

First, we absolutely value science and mathematics education. We believe all children deserve access to rigorous and quality instruction in every subject — including science and math — from the day they enter school, no matter where they live or what school they attend.

That is why we wholeheartedly supported Senate Bill 1 in 2009 and the new standards it mandated.

The new standards are much more rigorous, according to 90 percent of Kentucky teachers surveyed, than the previous outdated standards and are designed to better prepare students to enter postsecondary education and be successful in college-level courses — even while in high school for those students on an accelerated pathway.

Just as Kentucky has minimum high-school graduation requirements, these standards set a baseline, not a limit, on what every district must deliver. Every school and district has the freedom to go beyond the minimum, to supplement the standards, to create curricula appropriate for their students and to add topics as they see fit.

Some have charged that the new standards are somehow "dumbing down" math and science education by omitting certain concepts and eliminating higher-level science and math courses such as calculus, chemistry and physics from high school. This could not be further from the truth.

In fact, the number of students enrolled in physics and chemistry courses has increased significantly since Kentucky began transitioning to more rigorous standards. Since 2010, Kentucky school districts have enrolled almost 372,000 students in chemistry and physics classes. In addition, more and more districts, even those with small student populations, are expanding course options in physics, chemistry and higher-level mathematics.

The Kentucky Department of Education's partnership with AdvanceKentucky, which works with schools and districts across the state to increase enrollment and success in rigorous Advanced Placement, or AP, courses, has helped drive this trend, as well as improved student performance in higher-level math and science courses.

From 2008 to 2013, Kentucky has seen the percentage of students with passing scores on AP math and science exams increase 105 percent — second in the nation and well ahead of the 48 percent growth seen in the rest of the country.

The increase has been even more dramatic among minority students who have seen a 183 percent increase in passing scores. This shows students are not only prepared for higher-level math and science coursework, but also are earning college credit for the advanced coursework they are taking in high school.

Districts are offering these courses, and we expect that will only increase as students acquire the prerequisite science and mathematics skills needed to enroll in these higher-level courses. However, this does pose financial and capacity challenges for school districts.

The U.S. Department of Education's annual listing of teacher shortage areas over the past decade confirms a lack of qualified high school science (biology, chemistry and physics) and mathematics teachers in Kentucky.

Additionally, due to financial constraints, some schools with small enrollments are forced to alternate the years in which these courses are offered.

We recognize these challenges and are committed to continue to work with schools, districts and the postsecondary community to find creative ways to ensure all students have access to higher-level math and science courses.

Scientific and mathematical literacy is essential for success in the 21st century, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

What the new standards ensure is that all of our students, not just those going into STEM careers, are science and mathematics literate, better prepared to begin postsecondary experiences and able to contribute meaningfully to Kentucky's economy.

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