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Academy Unveils New Version of Prototype Science Standards

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BOSTON--The National Academy of Sciences has published an updated version of prototype standards for science education that reflects the comments of thousands of educators and others who have participated in a national process of "critique and consensus'' to help shape the final document.

Copies of the new document, entitled "National Science Education Standards: An Advanced Sampler,'' were distributed during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here this month.

Like the previous versions of the prototype standards, the new document was drafted by the National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment.

The committee of educators, scientists, and researchers is working under the aegis of the academy's National Research Council to produce national benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do in science.

Three working groups are cooperatively developing standards for science curriculum, teaching, and assessment.

Although academy staff members had hoped to finish the revision earlier, they noted that distributing the new working paper at the A.A.A.S. meeting had the added advantage of putting it in the hands of prominent scientists, many of whom have been watching the standards-setting process with interest.

A comprehensive, one-volume draft of standards for science curriculum--with initial drafts of the teaching and assessment standards--is now scheduled to be released in June.

A Change in Philosophy?

As did previous versions, the most recent sampler contains sections that outline "fundamental understandings,'' arranged by grade levels K to 12, in such specific subjects as physical science and biology.

But the new document is written in a more informal style than its predecessors. It also contains boxes on almost every page describing the intellectual underpinnings for the information along with suggestions for classroom use.

It also provides some interesting insights into the confidential standards-setting process.

An earlier draft of the document contained an appendix on the philosophy underlying the development of standards. The appendix stated that the standards-development team subscribed to a "postmodern approach'' to science, which questions the objectivity of observation and the truth of scientific knowledge.

In this view, a scientific theory is not "proved true; rather, the fit between theory and the existing knowledge base, as well as the goals of the individual or of the intellectual or social community are examined,'' it stated.

The postmodern approach was contrasted with "logical positivism,'' or the philosophy that scientific observations can be made in an objective manner and that scientists are able to discern universal "truths'' underlying their observations.

According to those involved in the standards-setting process, there was strong disagreement on the panel over whether the statement represented a consensus of the development teams or even belonged in the document, which was hurriedly released to meet a November deadline.

The new document merely notes that the appendixes have been dropped for now and that those issues "will be addressed in appropriate ways in later documents.''

Critique and Consensus

The new document is the first to have weathered the critique process that N.R.C. officials say is unique to this project. Typically, reports developed under the council's sponsorship receive only an internal review before being distributed in final form.

But the urge to insure that the science standards are inclusive and acceptable to a wide audience has turned that approach on its head.

In response to comments about previous versions, the new document notes, for example, that the Mathematical Sciences Education Board has offered to convene mathematicians and math educators to assist in the standards-development process. Some observers have been concerned that the connections between math and science might be downplayed in the standards.

It also notes that the academy is investigating ways in which the final standards will be disseminated to, and implemented by, teachers.

One approach under consideration is a national network of teachers with access to resource centers staffed by teachers trained in the application of the standards.

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