(The following analysis is based on the California state standards for education, but I doubt the results would be significantly different in other states.)
This is based on a fun question that I posed to some friends (the question is fun — the answers are scary).
When teaching history, the state standards mandate that students analyze fairly recent events (say, US v. Nixon, 1974). I agree that these things are important. Now, if we turn out attention to the hard sciences, how up to date are the state standards in these?
In Biology, a rough survey (I’m neither an expert in biology nor in state standards, take this with a grain of salt) takes us all the way forward to the exciting 1930s showing cell biology and enzymes. The division between prokaryotes and archaea (first proposed in 1970, accepted in 1990s) is still missing. This would be the equivalent of not covering any of the recent events (Gulf War, 9/11) in a history class.
Chemistry: We stop short of “quantum chemistry”, 1926, but we do cover stuff from 1912 — that’s the equivalent of covering World War I, but only giving hints that it was followed by another war.
Physics: we get all the way into the exciting 19th century with the recent discovery (~1865) of Maxwell’s equations on electromagnetism. A hint of Michelson-Morley (~1890) is added, so I guess at least we have the 19th century licked. This would be the equivalent of covering the civil war, but only giving hints that the reconstruction happened (World War I? World War II? That’s waaay too cutting edge).
Math: At least, by introducing some calculus, we get all the way to the cutting-edge of the 17th century. Newton and Leibnitz would both be happy to know that their discovery of calculus (whoever was first) is taught to the students as a cutting edge mathematical subject. Sadly, the 19th century never happened in high school math, as modern set theory is not even hinted at. Lagrange, Euler and the 18th century are also missing. This is like not teaching the American Revolutionary War. Hey, at least the American continent was discovered…
I find it amusing that this corresponds to the xkcd strip describing purity of subjects. I find it horrifying that we are turning out high-school graduates who are not aware of “cutting edge” (meaning, hundreds of years old and stale) research in the hard sciences.