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Benchmarks for Student Learning in Science Unveiled

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WASHINGTON--The American Association for the Advancement of Science has published a collection of draft benchmarks--or guidelines for what students should know about science and when--that one day could be used to shape curricula that reflect the association's vision of "scientific literacy.''

The release of the benchmarks early this month is an important milestone for Project 2061, the association's long-term effort to reform science education. It is also likely to influence the work of a National Research Council panel now developing national standards for science curricula, teaching, and assessment.

The name Project 2061 refers to the date when Halley's Comet will return to the solar system. Most of the students who started school in the late 1980's, when the project began, will be alive when the comet returns.

The draft document, "Benchmarks for Science Literacy,'' which is being circulated nationally for comment, is the product of more than a year of work by six classroom-based teams of science educators who are developing innovative methods of teaching science as part of Project 2061.

The development teams, located in rural, suburban, and urban areas nationwide, undertook a painstaking process of "deconstructing'' Science for All Americans--the association's manifesto for science literacy--to decide in what sequence, and at what grade level, the concepts outlined in the book should be taught.

The development of benchmarks is integral to efforts to change the face of precollegiate science, noted F. James Rutherford, the association's education director, because Science for All Americans was intended to describe only those competencies that every American should achieve by high school graduation.

"What [the benchmarks are], is sort of one of the parts in this machine that we're building,'' Mr. Rutherford said. "It's still not a curriculum, but it's a lot more [for classroom teachers] to go on.''

Achieving Literacy

Individual teachers, as well as many state and local science-reform efforts, already are using Science for All Americans as a reference work to guide reform.

But the new document should provide a pedagogical structure for the work, said Danine Ezell, a science teacher who is coordinating the development of benchmarks for the Project 2061 team in San Diego.

"It's not a list of what should be taught,'' she said. "It's a list of the undertandings that students should come away with.''

The document released last week, the first of a two-volume set of benchmarks, is entitled "Achieving Science Literacy.'' It groups the benchmarks by content, following exactly the sequence of 12 chapters in Science for All Americans.

Each chapter contains a section of narrative on a specific topic followed by a series of learning goals for students, divided by grade level into K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

The chapter on "The Nature of Science,'' for example, asserts that students at all levels should know that scientists share convictions about the nature of the world and what can be learned about it; how scientific inquiry is conducted; and the personal, social, and institutional dimensions of science.

It further notes that two basic beliefs underlie all scientific work: that human beings can use their minds to determine "how the world works'' and that the universe is a unified system in which knowledge obtained in one field often is applicable in others.

One K-2 benchmark designed to teach the scientific world view states that "[f]rom the very first day in school, students should do science--not study science'' in order to understand that when an experiment is repeated, the result is usually the same and that experiments generally work the same way in different places.

By the end of the 12th grade, the document says, "study of historical episodes in science can provide the purpose and material for developing student insights on the scientific world view.''

It states, for example, that seniors should know that Isaac Newton demonstrated that the same principles of motion and gravity apply everywhere on Earth, and by inference, everywhere in the universe.

Seniors should also know that "change and continuity are regular features of science,'' it states.

Similarly detailed benchmarks for such topics as "The Physical World,'' "Human Society,'' and "The Nature of Technology'' are included in the 252-page document.

Later this year, a second volume of benchmarks, entitled "The Learning Experience,'' will arrange the same information by grade level.

Borrowing From Math Teachers

Some 3,000 copies of the benchmarks have been distributed to professional and educational associations as well as to educators and others interested parties for review and comment.

Reviewers have been asked to work in teams "so that the review process reflects the research-and-development process'' that produced the benchmarks, said Sheila Hardy, a Project 2061 spokeswoman.

The six site-based teams, she noted, were cross-disciplinary and included groups of teachers from all grade levels.

Mr. Rutherford said that while the bulk of the work contained in the benchmarks is original, the chapter on mathematics borrows heavily from the standards already published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Unlike other science-reform efforts, Project 2061 addresses the relationship between math and science, "but we're not competing with N.C.T.M.,'' he said.

Even so, he added, "our views don't entirely overlap.''

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