I recently had an interesting conversation with a few homeschool parents of middle school age children who are in the process of making plans for high school. In the process, they raised quite a few questions that I think many other parents also wonder about.
Since these parents know me as their children's science teacher, our conversation naturally centered on science education. Fundamentally, we were discussing two things. First, what does a good, high school science education consist of? And second, what do colleges want to see?
Science is such a broad topic that it isn't at all obvious what subjects high school students should study. Of course, a year each of biology, chemistry, and physics is traditional, but why? Why isn't Earth science, which deals with some of the most important issues of our day, such as climate, part of that core curriculum? Is it ok to substitute more specialized classes such as astronomy, botany, or forensics for the more traditional classes? Should students study only the branches of science that they most enjoy?
There is no clear answer to these questions; the conclusions that people come to will have as much to do with opinions and preferences as they will with facts. Personally, I think that while biology, chemistry, and physics are all great, Earth science is just as good and ought to be in the spotlight more than it is. I suspect it gets short shrift because of the far-reaching influence of medical schools, which all require applicants to take biology, chemistry, and physics, but not Earth science. In my opinion, relatively broad survey courses should make up the greater portion of high school science, but adding in one or two specialized classes can be wonderful, particularly if they are in addition to the more general classes. If specialized classes replace too many broad survey classes, my concern is that students will not get enough background information to formulate an accurate picture of the way the world works.
Even though it is undoubtedly possible for students to get a great high school science education in very non-traditional ways, that strategy is risky. Some colleges, especially small liberal arts colleges, would undoubtedly look on unusual courses of study kindly, but most colleges will want to see SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams. In New York State, Regents exams may also be important. Notably, many of the schools most likely to de-emphasize standardized tests are very expensive, so unless money is not an issue, it makes a lot of sense to work hard to get some strong test scores. This is especially important for homeschoolers, who probably need to take at least 5 SAT Subject tests if they plan to apply to selective colleges. Therefore, it is necessary to include, and probably emphasize, classes that will let students shine on these tests. The only three SAT Subject tests in science are biology, chemistry, and physics. Doing well on AP exams is also a reliable way to impress colleges, so these tests should be taken into account as well. There are AP exams in biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental science. Regents, which can be important in New York State (and especially for SUNY and CUNY schools), offer tests in biology (called Living Environment), chemistry, physics, and Earth science.