In December, I had a phone conversation with a New York City public school teacher about his experience with Physics First. This teacher had worked at the same school for seven years, and had seen the Physics First program there progress through a few different incarnations, the most recent being a promising course rooted in Modeling Instruction. This Modeling-based curriculum, however, existed for only a single year before the school switched their sequence of science classes away from Physics First back to teaching biology in the ninth grade. This decision, as well as a lack of administrative support for physics within the school, brought this teacher and a few others in his department to a decision to leave to school at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.
As he described it, the school's decision to reverse the sequence of science courses back to "biology first" was centered around administrative concerns over students' scores on the New York State Regents exam in biology. The "Biology/The Living Environment" Regents is a requirement for graduation designed to be taken by students at a ninth grade reading level. A school's performance on this specific test is scrutinized particularly closely by the state as evidence of a successful science program. In an effort to increase scores on this test, the school implemented a biology course in ninth grade as well as a tenth grade course, called "Biochemistry," directed toward preparing students to take the Living Environment Regents Exam at the end of the tenth grade. The Earth Science Regents class, most commonly taught in the tenth grade, is now taught to Juniors. In essence, the school restructured their science curriculum, and scrapped a successful Physics First program, in order to delay the taking of these two tests one full year so that students might do better on the tests.
I was able to find the Regents Exam results of this school online. In 2008, when Physics First was still in place, the percentage of students who passed the Living Environment test was indeed lower than the average for the state of New York (68% compared to 75%). The results for the "Physics/The Physical Setting" Regents, a test designed for eleventh graders and administered to ninth graders at this school, are quite low (42% passing, compared to a state average of 77%). Since the aforementioned curriculum changes were made just this year, no new test scores are available for comparison, but would an increase in biology scores mean that the science program is more successful? What about an increase in physics scores, for that matter?
We'd be right to be skeptical of any increase in test scores that come about as a result of curriculum changes like those instituted at this school. When test scores are being used to gauge the success of a course or a program, the program can certainly be modified to increase those scores, but do these changes really reflect our priorities as teachers? I was told by this teacher that he expects about 60 students a year to take physics at this particular school in this new sequence, down from 300 when the Physics First program was in place. Of course, one would expect this return to the classic paradigm of physics as a course for only the science-minded to result in higher scores on the Physics Regents at the school. But any increase in scores would simply show that fewer students were being exposed to physics, and that the students taking the class were two years older! (The teacher also mentioned that, at the beginning of that school year, his school had received boxes of equipment from two nearby high schools, which had closed their physics programs completely, in part as a result of the movemenet to dismantle large, failing schools and rebuild them as multiple smaller schools - more on this in a later post…)
In any discipline, emphasizing the results of a particular standardized test will skew the focus of the class toward this test, for better or for worse. In physics specifically, an increased emphasis on testing can encourage schools to abandon their physics class completely or relegate it to a course taken only by the top academic performers, simply because the physics test is perceived as more challenging. For Physics First, the lack of a standardized curriculum, let alone a standardized test, may make it difficult for passionate teachers to defend the quality of their program, but the solution to this isn't necessarily to develop a standardized physics test designed to be taken by Freshmen.
At a large public school I visited in New Jersey, the school demonstrates the effectiveness of their Physics First program using the FCI and the Lawson Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning. The state accepts this because the head of the science department at the school, along with other administrators, are committed to giving Physics First a chance as part of a school-wide sequential development of scientific thinking. As the teacher I spoke with in New York City put it to me, "If you don't have an administrator that believes in that, there's really not much you can do."