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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.

Shifts in how high school classes are taught will force students to do more than just memorize information.

Shifts in how high school classes are taught will force students to do more than just memorize information.

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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."

[Check out the rankings of the Best High Schools.]

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 begging—in 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.

[Awareness is key to success of Common Core Standards.]

Since implementing the language arts curriculum in his senior English class two years ago, Kris Gillis of Fort Mitchell, Ky., has noticed that he's now using "the exact same strategies in my regular English class as I did in my AP class." Rather than simply reading a book, discussing it, and writing about it in summary fashion, says Gillis, the Dixie Heights High School seniors now start off "with a giant question."

For example: How would a feminist critic view Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window? They read related texts from different genres, think critically to reach an informed conclusion, and then "synthesize all of the information into a cohesive essay" backed by evidence from the texts.

In math, the shift is away from lectures and rote working of equations to the practical application of mathematical processes, often in teams, to real-world situations. High school math students might use probability to make decisions, geometry to design a bridge, and statistics to create surveys.

The idea is to help students gain "a broader understanding of mathematical purpose," says Lynn Dougherty-Underwood, director of K-12 literacy for the Tampa-area Hillsborough County Public Schools. Tampa schools began phasing in both Common Core Standards in 2010.

By emphasizing analytical skills, a deeper understanding of key concepts, and applied knowledge rather than a simple recall of facts, the Common Core Standards and revamped AP curricula should work "in harmony" even though they were designed separately, argues Trevor Packer, senior vice president for the AP program at the College Board.

[Weigh the pros and cons of AP courses for your student.]

The first two redesigned courses—French language and culture, and German language and culture—debuted in the 2011-12 school year. Both integrate communication much more squarely with what's actually going on in the world, under six broad themes such as global challenges, science and technology, and contemporary life. Redesigned for fall 2012 are Latin and Spanish literature and culture, as well as biology.