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Extra Credit: Are we dumbing down 9th grade physics?

I am keeping my weekly Extra Credit column alive on this blog with occasional answers to reader questions, the format of that column I did for many years in the Extras before they died. This teacher, Michael Feinberg (no relation to the co-founder of the KIPP schools with the same name), sent me a copy of an intriguing letter about physics he sent to the Montgomery County school superintendent, and agreed to let me get an answer and use it here.

Dear Dr. Weast:

I am a retired MCPS teacher; I taught Physics at both Kennedy H.S. and Whitman H.S. until the time that I retired in 2005. After retirement I have, on occasion, tutored Physics students.

When the 9th grade Physics curriculum was introduced I opposed it on the grounds that Physics should be taught at a higher mathematical level. While tutoring students in both grades 9 and 11/12 I see that this is true; students in 11th grade learn rigorous Physics with mathematical applications while students in 9th grade usually do descriptive worksheets. I believe that it unfair that students in 9 th grade receive the same honors credit for what is promoted as the same curriculum but is not the same.

In order to accommodate 9th grade Physics a very easy final exam was written and continues to be administered yearly to both grade levels. It appeared then, and still appears, that there was virtually no difference in the test administered to both grade levels. Therefore, the test is the same-- an easy test for all.

Other than a form A and form B, the same questions were asked on day 4 of the exam period as were asked on day 1. (I hope that this has changed since the time of my retirement). Furthermore, the same test, unchanged, has been administered each year since 2003.

I recently looked on the MCPS website and I see that the review for semester A Physics 2010 is now releasing the questions, worth 15 % of the exam, in advance. These are specific questions, not topic guidelines. Any teacher can give the answers the day before the test and the answers will be regurgitated word for word on test day. Has success for every student now fallen to a new low--that the QUESTIONS are given in advance of the test. This exam, and its lack of academic controls, has made a mockery of academic achievement.

Michael Feinberg
Montgomery County

My response: This raises important issues about recent changes in science teaching. I assume the 9th grade physics course is part of a movement, of which Montgomery County has been a leader, to flip the traditional order of high school science courses. In most places the sequence is biology, then chemistry, then physics. But some smart people have reversed them in their schools. I think the idea is to go from the simple to the more complex structures of the universe, from a focus on atoms (physics), to a focus on molecules (chemistry), to a focus on organisms (biology). It makes sense to me, although when I first heard about it I questioned the ability of most ninth graders to handle physics, because of the math and because physics seems to me the one course in high school that requires some thought. Great memorizers like me often don't do so well. (I dropped physics after a semester in 1963.)

Anita O'Neill, the science and engineering supervisor for the Montgomery County schools, sent me this response:

"Physics is the same course regardless of grade level in which it is taught. There are no lower expectations for grade 9. Differentiation in exams is between on-level and honors, with some of the questions being different.

"We are not required to completely change tests each year; only a small percentage of the questions are changed. That said, exams should not be released to tutors or any other unauthorized persons. If a school is doing so, it is in violation of MCPS security directions.

"A list of Brief Constructed Response (BCR) questions that MIGHT be on a test are provided on the web to allow students to study and prepare for expanded questions. Our focus is on student learning, and it is felt that students, while focusing on preparing for a range of BCRs, will review material more thoroughly. This model resembles models that are used in higher education in which professors provide possible essay questions to help students study and prepare. This is the first time we have tried this model, and we will be reviewing how it works."

I showed O'Neill's response to Feinberg. He stood by what he said. He left me the impression that he thinks O'Neill needs to get into classrooms and see what is actually happening. I suspect she is already doing that, but in my view you can never overdo getting a kid's-eye perspective. If anyone else has some insights about this, please comment below.

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By Jay Mathews  | December 17, 2009; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  9th grade physics, Anita O'Neill, Montgomery County, science course sequence, watered down tests  
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As a physicist (and nuclear engineer) I don't think much of trying to teach a non-math based version of physics in the 9th grade. I definitely think four years of science should be required in high school. And I would even require that all students take physics in the 12th grade: college goers get a calculus-based version and everyone else get a lower math version.

I recall that in the 9th grade my son, who attended a Fairfax Co. high school, took a course in "Earth Science". That seems like an appropriate science course for 9th graders. One could even expand it a bit to include planetary science and maybe even a few astrophysics topics for budding astronauts. Plenty of interesting things there to (hopefully) intrigue young minds.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | December 17, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

"Any teacher can give the answers the day before the test and the answers will be regurgitated word for word on test day."

That's a pretty broad statement and one that in my experience, is not always true!

Teachers testing on things the students didn't expect is not an unusual gripe of students.

I welcome practice tests and teachers who encourage students to work them. It helps the student to focus on what's important.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 17, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

There's no question that the ninth grade physics is being taught without math and that it's much easier. That's not even an open secret; it's considered a selling point. The thinking is that physics without math is easier than biology, so it allows the schools to offer a heterogeneous science course that is less challenging than the usual ninth grade entry, biology.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 17, 2009 10:07 PM | Report abuse

So is 9th grade physics just a renaming of the physical science course I had in 8th grade?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | December 17, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse

This is NOT typically the same as Physical Science, but is usually something called "Conceptual Physics" as part of a curriculum called "Physics First!" I must agree with the posters who decry this being called "Physics" regardless of the qualifier used. It is NOT physics, and any student who graduates from high school with such a course as his only experience in physics is in for quite a rude awakening if he tries to major in anything more challenging than psychology or education...

Posted by: willismg1959 | December 18, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

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