Psychology continues to be a popular high school class. However, differences in teacher training and psychology’s status as an elective means there is great variability in the way it is taught across different schools. While many teachers promote robust psychological science in their classes, others — especially those with less training in psychology — may not have the background or expertise to do so. As a result, students’ first and often only exposure to psychology may be misleading or inaccurate.

Preventing such variations in quality is the goal of APA’s National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula, a document designed to give educational leaders, teachers, policymakers and others benchmarks for determining what students should learn in a high school psychology class. In August, APA’s Council of Representatives approved revisions to the standards for the second time since 1999.

“It’s important that high school students get a consistent message about what psychology is: a scientific discipline that promotes evidence-based decision-making about psychological issues, including mental health,” says Amy C. Fineburg, PhD, assistant principal of Oak Mountain High School in Shelby County, Ala., who chaired the group that revised the standards. “We need to make sure that students are all on the same page and obtaining the psychological literacy they need to be informed citizens.”

For high school psychology teachers, the release of a new revision is exciting, says psychology teacher Jeanne A. Blakeslee, chair of the APA committee Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools and an administrator at St. Paul’s School for Girls in Brooklandville, Md.

“Having standards elevates expectations in teaching psychology,” she says. “The really important thing for psychology teachers to do is give students a sense of how psychological science works and a sampling of the diversity of the field.”

Ensuring high standards

Sometimes it seems that psychology doesn’t get the same respect many other disciplines enjoy, says James E. Freeman, PhD, a member of the National Standards Working Group and a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.

“You would never have someone teach physics who didn’t have a strong background in physics,” he points out, adding that high school psychology teachers often have little training in the subject. “We want to ensure that the psychology classes taught in high school have the same rigor and standards as many of the other courses do.”

The standards aim to do just that. First released in 1999, the document encourages consistency across schools, outlines learning goals and helps teachers and local school districts develop psychology curricula. APA encourages all teachers to align their classes with the standards and all state education departments to adopt them.

The revised document now opens with a set of overarching themes that provide a foundation for psychology courses, such as the importance of sociocultural diversity, psychology’s role as a scientific discipline and psychology’s interest in both human and animal behavior. “These things don’t fit neatly into a box; they’re just interwoven throughout psychology,” Fineburg says.

The revised version also expands the number of content domains from five to seven (see Content domains of the new standards). One new domain focuses on sociocultural context, while the other focuses on real-world applications of psychological science, such as health, the treatment of psychological disorders and careers in and related to psychology. The number of standard areas has also increased, from 15 to 20. The additions include new standard areas on perspectives in psychological science, social interactions and sociocultural diversity.

The revision also heralds a shift to a new system for assessing student learning. Instead of including performance indicators in the document, the working group has created a new, online database where individuals can submit suggested indicators. Intended as suggestions rather than requirements, these indicators offer ways to assess what students have learned. To find out whether students can accurately describe perspectives used to understand behavior and mental processes, for example, teachers could ask students to analyze how various theoretical perspectives would explain such phenomena as aggression or altruism or describe the limitations of each perspective when it comes to assessing behavior and mental processes.

APA encourages individuals, divisions and regional and state psychological associations to contribute suggestions for performance indicators, says Emily Leary, assistant director of the Office of Precollege and Undergraduate Programs in APA’s Education Directorate. Submissions will be reviewed by psychology educators, then posted online. 

To learn more about the standards, visit National Standards for High School Psychology. To submit a suggested performance indicator, use the online form.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.