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Volume 90 Issue 22 | p. 54
Issue Date: May 28, 2012

Unifying Science Education Standards

Proposed framework for K–12 education aims for depth over breadth
Department: Education
Keywords: standards, common core, elementary, secondary, education

An important effort to unify K–12 science education nationwide entered the spotlight earlier this month when draft science standards were released for public comment by a consortium of science and education groups.

Developed by a team of teachers, state science administrators, and professional standards writers, the Next Generation Science Standards are designed to be adopted by states to unify what teachers nationwide present in the classroom and what is evaluated on achievement tests.

The standards are based on a July 2011 National Research Council (NRC)committee report that lays out what all students should know about science by the time they graduate from high school. That NRC report, called “A Framework for K–12 Science Education,” lays out a road map for giving students deeper knowledge of key science ideas and practices, rather than trying to cover a breadth of content.

Under the current system, “we try to do too many things in science at too little depth, and we don’t build systematically across time,” Brian J. Reiser explained at a May 10 symposium on the standards. Reiser, an education professor at Northwestern University, was an NRC committee member. “The idea is to bring a better sense of coherence to the system.”

The Next Generation Science Standards are divided into four areas: life sciences; physical sciences, including chemistry and physics; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and the applications of science. This is the first proposal to include engineering as part of national standards.

The project is being led by Achieve, a nonprofit educational group that has worked to develop nationwide standards for other disciplines. Other partners in the effort include 26 states, NRC, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the National Science Teachers Association. Development of both the NRC framework and the standards was funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“What is really different this time is one unified voice in the scientific community saying this is what kids should learn in K–12,” Stephen L. Pruitt, who is leading the effort for Achieve, said at the symposium. “The standards are going to be a leverage point that a lot of other things are going to be developed on.”

In the U.S., standards are set by the states or local school districts. This makes a top-down approach to setting standards almost impossible. Targeting states and individual districts, however, is not easy, because state science standards are a mixed bag.

A review of state science standards released in January by the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave the majority of states a D or F. The review evaluated whether the state standards were clear enough to be used by teachers, whether they covered the material thoroughly, and whether they were scientifically correct. “You had different states with different levels of expectations for their kids,” said Pruitt, a former science supervisor in Georgia.

For many reasons, this diversity in state standards has created problems for those who are trying to improve science education. “You didn’t have an opportunity for states to collaborate, to share assessment, to share professional development,” says Peter J. McLaren, president of the Council of State Science Supervisors and a science supervisor in Rhode Island. For example, he can’t discuss testing or curriculum with surrounding states, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

New standards do not automatically mean that the curriculum used in schools will change. But if enough states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, textbook publishers and curriculum developers will have a financial motivation to develop materials that fit. It would also be easier for science organizations to develop materials to reach a large audience.

Past efforts to create national science standards, including those from both NRC and AAAS, failed to catch on, in part because they didn’t have the buy-in of the states, says Martin Storksdieck, director of NRC’s Board on Science Education.

But Storksdieck and others involved say the Next Generation Science Standards will be different because 26 states are heavily invested in the development and review of the standards. When participating states signed on to the project they agreed to give “serious consideration” to adopting the final standards. This agreement is vital because states voluntarily adopt science standards.

And the timing might be right because of larger developments in education. Many states have already adopted universal standards in reading and math, called the Common Core, Storksdieck says. And recent research has revealed more about how students learn science and when they should be exposed to certain scientific concepts.

Achieve, NRC, and the other sponsors have been spreading the word about the new science standards to scientists and science educators and seeking input on them. The public comment period ends June 1.

Among the groups reviewing the science standards is the American Chemical Society. Specifically, ACS’s Education Division will review the standards and make sure the chemistry community knows about the comment period, says Mary Kirchhoff, director of ACS’s Education Division.

ACS is particularly interested to see how NRC’s framework document has been translated into the detailed standards. “Integrating the three dimensions—scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas—outlined in the framework has the potential to transform the teaching and learning of K–12 science,” Kirchhoff says.

After the public comment period, the team will assess the feedback, incorporate any changes into the draft standards, and release a second draft later this year. There will then be another comment period before a final plan is released, which will likely happen early next year.

 
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