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Model Science Standards Stress Quality of Learning

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WASHINGTON--Prototype standards for what students should know and be able to do in science, scheduled to be unveiled here this week, reject the common practice of rote memorization in favor of a pedagogical philosophy that "inquiry must be at the heart of learning.''

The standards, being developed by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, will "represent a dramatic shift in the emphasis of school science from what students know to how they know it and, consequently, how they spend their time,'' according to an introduction to the document.

"Thus, the standards will focus on the quality and usefulness of knowledge, rather than on how much students know,'' it adds.

The document, "National Science Education Standards: A Sampler,'' was to be discussed publicly here this week for the first time at a meeting of national, state, and local mathematics and science educators, called Partnerships for Systemic Change in Science and Mathematics Education.

The standards panel is also mailing copies of the document to several thousand science educators and others to seek their comments on the prototypes.

The prototype standards are expected to be the last draft document circulated by the National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment until next spring, when a comprehensive, one-volume draft of standards for science curriculum, teaching, and assessment is scheduled to be released.

Single Ability Level

The document spells out four learning goals that will guide the development of national standards to foster "scientific literacy.''

It asserts that by the end of their precollegiate years students should understand:

  • "A limited number of the basic concepts of science and the fundamental laws, principles, and theories that organize the body of scientific knowledge'';
  • The modes of reasoning of scientific inquiry and be able to use them;
  • The nature of the scientific endeavor; and
  • The history of scientific development, the relationship of science to technology, and the historical, cultural, and social contexts in which this relationship is embedded.

An effective science curriculum, it says, should also provide students with opportunities to practice their skills "outside formal education settings.''

A document released in October laid out five philosophical concepts that the academy believes should guide the development of the standards centered on the notion of "science for all.'' (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1992.)

Thus, the new document states that the standards will define a single level of scientific understanding that all students, "regardless of background, future aspirations, or interest,'' should develop.

Prototypes in Three Areas

The prototype standards also draw an important distinction between "program standards,'' which deal with the interweaving of the inquiry-based approach with specific content, and "content standards,'' which will define what students should understand and be able to do as a result of their science instruction.

The new document includes prototypes for program and content standards in understanding scientific inquiry, in understanding matter and its interactions, and in decisionmaking at a variety of grade levels.

Also included are suggestions for activities to teach the material and for ways in which students can demonstrate their mastery of it.

For example, the standard on matter for grades 5 through 8 suggests that students work in groups with minimal supervision to weigh a melting ice cube as a means of learning about the conservation of mass.

The standard also suggests that a computer linked to an electronic scale be used to graph any changes found. Students' findings about constancy of mass would lead to class discussions on the composition of matter.

Similarly, students in grades K to 4 could begin learning about matter by the simpler tasks of observing water in its solid and liquid states.

In the area of decisionmaking, high school students could be asked to work in groups to use scientific reasoning to analyze a proposal to build an industrial park in an undeveloped flood plain. Students could be expected to consult with local experts, take hydraulic and other measurements themselves, consult historical records, and weigh the economic and social impact of the development. Each group would present a seminar to the class on its findings.

No National Curriculum

While the standards are designed to provide broad guidance for state and local curriculum developers, they will not be a detailed blueprint for national control over local education policies, the document notes.

"The curriculum standards will not and should not specify the full science program,'' it states. "Teachers and school systems must continue to construct thought-provoking, engaging lessons that build on local resources and environments, reflect their particular interests and stimulate their students.''

Instead, a major goal of the standards is to create "a compelling vision of school science'' and give direction and goals to science education.

Furthermore, the document indicates that the development of standards will help to "ensure quality and accountability'' and to improve the public's "limited'' ability to assess the effectiveness of existing programs.

"The standards will provide the education community and the public with the information to make valid judgments and to hold educational systems accountable,'' it notes.

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