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Prototype Science Standards Due by Month's End

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ARLINGTON, VA.--The National Academy of Sciences plans to publish by the end of this month prototype standards for what students should know and be able to do in one branch of science, according to the heads of the working groups that are developing the national benchmarks.

Speaking here late last month at an annual science-education forum sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, officials said that the new document is expected to contain an actual, though still theoretical, framework for what the standards might look like in "one domain'' of science at several different grade levels.

Officials have yet to decide which domain will be outlined.

In an unusual break with past practice, the National Research Council--the arm of the academy that is overseeing the development of the curriculum, teaching, and assessment standards--began circulating at the forum a "working document'' containing five philosophical guidelines that cover basic questions of what the standards should address. (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1992.)

But officials conceded that the document, which they characterized as a vital first step in the process of developing standards, was far from the detailed framework that the council's Coordinating Committee for Education originally had hoped to release last month.

"That was a very ambitious target,'' said Karen Worth, who heads the teaching-standards panel. "And in many ways, it was a very wrong target.''

Teacher Acceptance Questioned

The revised schedule illustrates the complexities of the standards-setting project, which, for the last several months, has occupied the efforts of more than 90 volunteers and academy staff members working under the auspices of the National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment.

The working document indicates that the developers of the standards already are wrestling with such thorny problems as whether the standards will define a minimum competency for all students, regardless of their academic and career plans, or whether a differentiated scale of standards should be established.

It also states that the philosophy of "science for all'' is one of the project's guiding principles.

The standards are designed to pare away much of the extraneous detail that characterizes the existing fact-jammed science curriculum.

And a cost-benefit analysis--balancing the level of detail needed to teach a given topic with the instructional time such teaching takes--will be one guiding principle in choosing what to include in the standards, officials said.

"Part of [our] challenge is to sift and refine ... and find what is truly fundamental'' to the curriculum, said Henry Heikkinen, who is heading the curriculum-standards effort.

Officials said the document that will be released later this month is expected to show what the standards for student knowledge in a specific area such as ecology would look like.

The standards developers already have tentatively decided to create separate standards for students in grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Despite the complexity of the undertaking, representatives of a variety of national science-reform efforts seemed to agree during a panel discussion here that the standards are important both because they will help spotlight the importance of good science education and because their development is forcing science educators to decide the topics it is essential to teach in specific content areas.

But Andrew Ahlgren, one of the co-authors of "Science for All Americans,'' the A.A.A.S.'s blueprint for reform, cautioned that the standards-setting process has entered unexplored territory and may prove to be fraught with even greater difficulties.

"We're running a little bit blind,'' he said. "I don't know that all of the effects [of setting] national standards [will be] good effects.''

A 'Complex Undertaking'

Panelists also questioned how readily teachers will accept the new doctrines devised by the committee.

"It's going to take a long time to promote the philosophy behind the standards,'' said William Spooner, the state science supervisor in North Carolina and a member of an advisory committee to the standards project. "We know that there is no buy-in at the classroom level to a state-mandated curriculum.''

The A.A.A.S. forum was therefore seen as an important vehicle to introduce to a target audience of federal education officials, university educators, public school administrators, and science teachers the philosophical basis of the standards project.

James D. Ebert, the academy's vice president and the chairman of the standards-setting committee, added that the public nature of the process, so unlike the academy's usual procedures, is vital to the development of consensus.

"This undertaking is one of the most complex I've ever undertaken at the N.R.C.,'' he said. "But this effort differs in a very significant, indeed vital way.''

As a matter of course, he said, the research council develops its policies under a cloak of confidentiality, and opens them only to internal review before releasing them to the public.

But, he said, "this [project] will not, and cannot, succeed without a change in that process.''

To that end, as the standards are developed, the academy plans a lengthy period of formal "critique and consensus'' to build support for the them among a variety of constituencies.

"The process of developing the standards parallels the methods of science--building on the work of others and subjecting preliminary work to broad-based review, critique, refinement, and revision,'' the working document notes.

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