Smoothing the Standards Path to the Classroom
By Gregory Byrne
With national standards for what students should know and be able to do in science nearing completion, educators have turned their attention to the task of seeing that the standards reach the nation's classrooms.
Educators, policymakers, and scientists discussed how best to overcome the roadblocks to getting the voluntary standards off the shelf and into use during six sessions at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held here Feb. 16-21.
Central to doing that is finding textbooks and other instructional materials to support the standards and devising ways of assessing whether students achieve the goals.
Science is one of the few subject areas with competing national standards--the association's own "Benchmarks for Science Literacy," developed by its Project 2061, and the standards devised by the National Academy of Sciences. Both documents offer guidance for the development of curricula and assessments, but neither is a curriculum or assessment system in itself.
"The trouble with both the benchmarks and the standards is that they still need examples," said Rodger W. Bybee, the chairman of the N.A.S. panel that produced content standards. "They need to be fleshed out."
Which Set of Standards?
The fact that science has two sets of standards has caused confusion among some state and local educators.
F. James Rutherford, the director of Project 2061, acknowledged during one session here that "if the science community--N.A.S. and the A.A.A.S.--are not singing the same tune, the practitioner out there is in a tough position."
But, like other speakers, Mr. Rutherford sought to downplay the differences between the two documents. He cited a Project 2061 analysis showing that a large overlap exists between the two that constitutes a common core of knowledge.
He said he hoped that top officials of his association and the science academy would issue a statement outlining the similarities. Such a statement would likely have to wait until the academy document is final in the fall.
Mr. Rutherford also had a message for states and districts interested in writing their own science-education standards: Stop.
"The states and local districts ought to stop trying to make up standards," he said. "They can easily take all the materials where the two documents are now in accord and not waste their time."
Nevertheless, many reform-minded states and districts are in the process of doing just that. William E. Spooner of the North Carolina education department said that over the past year 28 states have begun working on science-curriculum frameworks and that 19 have mandated science and mathematics frameworks.
Curriculum and Assessment
Other sessions examined the problems of finding curricula, instructional materials, and assessments that support the standards.
Both reform efforts call for the kind of inquiry-based, hands-on learning that rarely has been found in instructional materials for science. They also favor depth of knowledge over breadth of coverage. Jo Ellen Roseman of Project 2061 said staff members had searched for materials that would support the benchmarks and found few satisfactory.
Participants praised some existing materials, among them those produced by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study and the National Science Resources Center, a joint project of the N.A.S. and the Smithsonian Institution.
Sue Matthews, a science teacher at Elbert County Middle School in Georgia, demonstrated how a B.S.C.S. laserdisk on pecking order in chickens can match up with a number of the 2061 benchmarks. "Teachers all over the nation are having to fit existing resources to the benchmarks," she said.
Similarly, standardized tests are a poor match for the standards.
"If we stick to the spirit of the standards and benchmarks, it will be extremely difficult to use the types of assessments we've used," said Audrey B. Champagne, a former education officer at the A.A.A.S. who is now at the State University of New York at Albany.
Participants noted that some parents have rejected efforts to move to portfolios and other nontraditional forms of assessment.
"The person who can best evaluate what students know about science is the science teacher," Ms. Champagne said. ''The public has lost confidence in teachers' ability to do that."
She said the Educational Testing Service, for example, is "beginning to think about a better match with our approach."
But Stephanie Barta, a teacher at St. Mark's School of Texas, a private school for gifted boys, argued that the standards are meaningless until new forms of assessment are developed.
"We've got kids who max out on the [Scholastic Assessment Test]," she said, "but because after we teach them the inquiry-based stuff in the standards, we then pump them full of what they need to know for the S.A.T."
"It will be 2061 before E.T.S. has a decent science assessment," Ms. Barta said, "and by that time there will be no American kids left in science."