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Half-baked science standards throw students off track

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute

Legislation introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly would eliminate the controversial Next Generation Science Standards.

Like much state government does, noble intentions accompany these standards. After all, I've been calling for more rigorous education standards since starting this column seven years ago.

High-performing public schools, including charter and private schools, consistently demonstrate that students' academic performance usually escalates when standards rise. Results often are nothing short of amazing as students thought to carry little potential rise to the top and live successful, productive - often amazing - lives.

Such stories only get told, however, with higher standards. And that's where Kentucky's science standards are more incomplete than completely inadequate.

While they seem to offer ample challenges to improve the academic performance of younger students, the standards jump the tracks when it comes to setting the bar high enough for Kentucky's high school juniors and seniors.

The train Frankfort's political leaders and education bureaucrats have jumped on is taking us down a path where requirements related to traditional high school chemistry and physics courses get thrown overboard.

Since tests evaluating students' knowledge won't contain material omitted by the standards, it will be difficult for local school districts to resist the temptation to toss these more costly classes while blaming funding shortfalls.

The potential consequences of such decisions are unbearable for those who understand that without these courses, many students will remain ill-prepared to compete for future lucrative jobs in science, technology and engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Such neglect is one reason why a legislative subcommittee opposed implementing the deficient science standards by a 5-1 vote before Gov. Steve Beshear used his power to put them into operation anyway.

Law allows Beshear such latitude.

Logic, however, questions why a governor who claims to support the kind of rigorous education that offers students STEM opportunities uses his executive power to implement half-baked standards that discourage districts from providing traditional physics and chemistry courses needed for such careers.

Thankfully, these concerns do not escape the higher education community. Some University of Kentucky professors have designed an online class to better prepare high schoolers for advanced chemistry courses.

More than 5,000 students have signed up for the class - despite the fact that it's an optional, partial-year course that doesn't offer enrollees credits toward graduation.

With our universities picking up K-12's academic slack, Beshear may have offered misplaced priorities in his recent budget address when he proposed slashing higher education funding while sending more cash to public schools.

Beshear in that same speech announced he wanted funding for the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science, a residential high school at Western Kentucky University for juniors and seniors interested in STEM careers.

If the Gatton Academy went no further than the minimalist requirements in the state's new science standards, its students likely would be ill-prepared for chemistry and physics classes in Kentucky's universities, much less top schools like Yale, Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In fact, if the new standards offer sufficient K-12 preparation, why should we continue to fund Gatton - a school of choice emphasizing STEM readiness - at all? Isn't that unfair to all the rest of Kentucky's STEM-aspiring students?

Ironically, UK's online chemistry course begins on Monday during National School Choice Week.

If legislators decide to keep the deficient standards, the least they could do is also allow parents the option of sending their children to a public charter school that offers rigorous science courses - not because an inept bureaucracy demands them, but because Kentucky's future scientists and engineers want, and need, them.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky's free market think tank.

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