Attention SMUHSD Parents! State Mandated Testing Negatively Impacts Aragon’s Physics Program

A state science test deadline ends an excellent regular physics class at Aragon HS and pushes too many students into AP Physics.

AP Physics is a very hard class for many students.  The results (below) for ALL AP Physics test takers (nationwide plus any international) are dismal.

As I have written previously in the most frequently read article posted on this blog:

…the minimum passing score to get a 3 for AP Physics 1 for 2015 was only 41%.  Despite that low bar, 63.1% of all students who took the exam were not able to pass it!

55% was the minimum score for a 4, and 71% for a 5.

Unconfirmed reports state that the AP Physics 1 passing grade in 2016 may have been 36%, but the College Board does not readily release such information to the public.

If this had happened in a single classroom, any teacher who taught a class where over 60% of their students failed when the passing grade requires only 36-41% correct answers would realize that there is a serious problem.   But since the College Board makes around $90 per test per student, and students think that they have to take these classes to get in to good colleges, this travesty is allowed to continue.

Many students at my local high school, Aragon, sign up for AP Physics each year and then realize part way through the first semester that they have bitten off far more than they could chew.  Not only is AP Physics composed of dreaded “word problems,” but there are a large number of problem-solving methods which must be learned, and students must learn them well enough to decide which method or methods from their large “bag of tricks” must be applied to the particular problem at hand.

Until this year, there was an excellent regular physics class at Aragon that students could drop back to if AP physics was too much for them.  This program was originally developed by a master physics teacher at Aragon named Mr. Neri who retired in the first decade of the 2000’s.  I know parents of current Aragon students who also took physics from Mr. Neri and confirm that he was a great teacher.

Mr. Neri’s class was more advanced than the low-level Conceptual Physics program in use at many CA schools.  Conceptual Physics is a decent class which relies mainly on physical intuition and logic while eschewing any math beyond very simple algebra.  Mr. Neri’s class was targeted at a level between Conceptual and AP physics.  I recommended that most students take that class before taking AP physics.

Unfortunately this is no longer an option.

In 2013, after a process lasting several years which originated with the National Research Council (the branch of the National Academy of Sciences that is permanently staffed), and then included many other scientific and teaching organizations, the Next Generation Science Standards were released.

The State of California, always eager to be on “the bleeding edge,” adopted NGSS the same year.

This year the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) changed its non-AP science classes to follow the NGSS curriculum.

Please note that the SMUHSD change only affects their non-AP science classes because the College Board (developer of the SAT test and AP programs) controls the AP curriculum.

What has all of this change led to?

This year at Aragon, Mr. Steve Ratto, the physics teacher, is teaching all AP physics classes and has no regular physics classes.  Mr. Doyle, the AP chemistry teacher, is teaching several regular physics classes for which he is also tasked with developing a new physics curriculum without an NGSS-aligned textbook!

Because of the new standards, this new class has had to jettison many of the excellent regular physics problem sets that Mr. Neri developed over the years.  The new regular physics class is at a lower level of mathematical rigor than previously.  Students are using worksheets which often can be described as a work-in-progress, not too surprising since this is the first year of the class.

With the big influx of students into Aragon’s AP physics program, I suspect that many AP students are struggling.  I tutor only a handful of this overall student cohort and am seeing this problem in my tutoring practice.

Unfortunately I have a hard time recommending to struggling students that they drop back to regular physics this year.

Because of this problem I spent several weeks trying to meet with staff at Aragon, but only received a partial answer to my questions when I finally went down to the school office.

That same day I called the SMUHSD office and requested a meeting with Superintendent Skelly, only to be told that Curriculum and Assessment Director Brian Simmons was the person that I should speak to.  Mr. Simmons was very forthcoming, agreed to meet with me the next afternoon on Thursday, January 25th.  He asked for me to send him an email in advance of the meeting describing the issues.  This is a portion of that message:

California has been using the “Conceptual Physics” text by Paul Hewitt for many years.  It is a decent introductory physics text for people with limited math background.  Please note that it is a major intellectual undertaking to develop a textbook, particularly in a subject as complicated as physics.  It would be *completely foolhardy* to expect a working teacher  to develop a curriculum of similar quality.  In addition most high schools are faced with the problem that their physics teachers more often than not are not physics majors.  This makes it even more difficult to believe that an acceptable replacement curriculum will be developed.
Aragon high school had an excellent regular physics program that was developed over a number of years by a master teacher named Mr. Neri.  It was above the 9th-grade style Conceptual Physics program that often uses Hewitt’s book, but below the AP Physics level.  It served as a valuable bridge to AP Physics.  Too many students go straight into AP Physics and fail because they have not had a bridge course like the one taught by Mr. Neri (who is long retired).
As far as I can tell, my regular physics students do not have an NGSS textbook and are still issued the Hewitt book which does not seem to get much use.  So far I have seen only worksheets given to the students that I tutor.  These worksheets clearly are a work in progress and often have mistakes in them.
In our meeting I would like to learn what the rationale was for moving to these standards without a suitable standards-aligned physics textbook, and why an already excellent program is being relegated to the trash heap.

In addition to Brian Simmons, Sabbie Hopkins, a science teacher at Burlingame who serves as the district’s science curriculum coordinator attended the meeting.  As expected, I learned that the driver for the curriculum change was a state mandate.

This coming April California will be field testing a new science test aligned to the NGSS.  This test is computer-based and will be given to 5th and 8th graders and then one time to high school students after they finish their final science class, but no later than their senior year.

In conclusion, once again California students are being negatively impacted by changes/experimentation with the school curriculum.  This has been an ongoing problem for over 30 years as I have written about previously.  Mr. Simmons described the science changes as “arguably the greatest reformulation of our science curriculum that has ever been undertaken” which should by itself be cause for concern.  He also emphasized afterwards,

“As I mentioned in our meeting, our staff at all school sites continue to work diligently to enact these new standards. And while we all would have liked to have aligned instructional materials from day 1, it just wasn’t the case. We continue to enact and continuously improve a set of shared courses of study and common learning experiences that will make physics and all science content more accessible (and learned) by more students. We appreciate your feedback and have noted the things you indicated.”

I replied that I understood their reasoning, but that we should be prioritizing the children’s welfare over the state mandates.

Parents, I know that it is easy to throw one’s hands up and give in to the system.  I know that the staff in our schools and at the district are doing their best to comply with the constraints placed upon them.  However, at some point we need to say that “enough is enough.”

California is the biggest textbook market in the country.  I suspect that, while the NGSS standards themselves were driven by legitimate scientific organizations, there are also publishing interests, “school reformers” and charter advocates hoping to see public schools fail, educational software developers, and other lobbying interests that drive many of these initiatives at the state and national levels.

We all need to start speaking out at school board meetings and to our elected representatives.

I am not advocating that we freeze the science curriculum forever, but there is no logical need to introduce a new program before a decent textbook aligned to the standards is ready for use.  Doing so to meet a state test deadline just does not cut the mustard!

As I said in my final reply to Mr. Simmons and others at the district:

“If it is politically popular in California to oppose the Feds on DACA, why can’t we do the same for the welfare of our own children???????”

Meanwhile all of the years of effort that Mr. Neri put into the development of his physics course now appear to be lost to Aragon students…

And the gap between the new regular physics class and AP physics looms larger…

Will I remain a lone voice of protest?

That decision is yours!

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Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

3 thoughts on “Attention SMUHSD Parents! State Mandated Testing Negatively Impacts Aragon’s Physics Program”

  1. I have sent the following email to the SMUHSD Board of Trustees:

    Dear Members of the Board,

    I work as a private tutor and served the district some time ago (Mr. Griffin may remember me) as the first cochair of the Measure C Citizens Oversight committee where I played an active role in the rebuilding of San Mateo HS.

    The adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards is having a negative impact on the physics program at Aragon. The majority of the students that I tutor attend that school. I would not be surprised if similar problems are happening elsewhere in the district. The following article on my blog describes these problems and the efforts that I have made to try to resolve them.

    This topic is of sufficient importance that it should probably be added to the agenda for an upcoming board meeting. I am usually tutoring students when board meetings occur now and haven’t attended one in quite some time. However, I am sufficiently concerned about this issue that I would cancel and reschedule my appointments for that meeting.


    Dr. David Kristofferson


  2. I received the following feedback from a local resident on that I am reproducing here as many readers of this blog may not have access to that forum.

    From Don Geddis:

    “I noticed that you don’t seem to have analyzed whether (or not) NGSS is a superior framework for educating students in science classes, compared to the previous state standards. Criticizing whether the rollout of a new curriculum has been a successful transition, is a very different comment than criticizing the new curriculum itself. It would help me if your precise objection were more clear.”

    My reply on Nextdoor:


    Thanks very much for your note and allow me to clarify.

    In my blog article I write,

    “I am not advocating that we freeze the science curriculum forever, but there is no logical need to introduce a new program before a decent textbook aligned to the standards is ready for use.  Doing so to meet a state test deadline just does not cut the mustard!”

    In my blog article the above quote was in bold font which I can not copy here.

    Clearly I am not commenting on the relative merits of the new standards versus the old ones. Nor have the new standards been completely “rolled out.”

    Their implementation is still a work-in-progress, but the district felt the need to do something before the students took the first state pilot exam in April, the results of which will not even be released to the public.

    During my meeting with Mr. Simmons I asked if there would be dire consequences if the district did not participate in this exam and he did not indicate that there would be any. Our meeting time was limited to 30 minutes so there was insufficient time available for me to cross-examine him on every detail of this issue. I was unsatisfied with the lack of detail in this particular answer and would have liked to have asked more follow-up questions.

    By rolling out the new curriculum before there is a standards-aligned textbook, this puts an *inordinate amount of work* on teachers to develop a new curriculum program themselves – not just new lesson plans, but also accompanying homework problems. This will clearly tend to have negative impacts on students who become the guinea pigs for this new material.

    I also quoted Mr. Simmons email response after our meeting emphasizing how hard and collaboratively district teachers are working on this project. I have no reason to doubt that statement, but I do have reason to doubt that very many teachers would enthusiastically embrace such a massive project if it was not imposed upon them.

    Finally, academic standards are basically a set of guidelines about the science topics that should be taught in each course along with some implementation suggestions. If a school such as Aragon already has a physics program that is superior to its replacement (the new worksheets that I have seen to date are at a lower academic level than Mr. Neri’s previous problem sets), they should not be forced to discard it.

    I believe that schools should have some degree of discretion as to what they should be able to adopt. Far too often today in the current “reform” environment the professional judgement of teachers, who know the local students better than a set of bureaucrats in DC, many of whom do not work as teachers, is given very short shrift.

    I am always skeptical of revolutionary change in education. More often than not I have seen it backfire and harm kids as I detailed in my blog article. If a district finds a good textbook, that textbook will be revised over the years as a scientific field progresses. Teachers using that book can revise their lesson plans gradually instead of throwing everything out and starting over. That is a plain recipe for disaster.

    As one final concrete example of these curriculum changes, the new physics curriculum seems to teach Newton’s Law of Gravitation together with Coulomb’s Law for electric force because they are both 1/r^2 laws. Traditionally the law of gravitation is taught following the introduction of Newton’s Laws of motion in the first semester. Previously in the second semester electricity and magnetism was taught and Coulomb’s law was introduced then. Most physics teachers would point out the similarities between the two 1/r^2 laws at that time.

    The above is not a difference in content as much as a difference in the order of presentation, and I was not sufficiently impressed that this change was such an amazing pedagogical improvement that it warranted the disruption of lessons that were already well thought through. This looked much more to me like a change designed to force districts to spend money on new textbooks, to be quite blunt… And make no mistake, there is always money behind the push for these new standards.

    As we progress through the remainder of this year, I expect to find additional instances like the above, but I remain open to being favorably surprised. It has not happened yet…


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