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Sciences Group Quietly Unveils Final Standards

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After four years of intense work involving hundreds of people, the National Academy of Sciences last week quietly released the final version of the national science standards.

The document released in Washington changed little in content from the first full draft released last year. But the once-dense and hefty volume now is sleek, slim, and--its makers hope--easier to use.

But beyond its appearance, representatives of the various organizations that spent months sparring over the voluntary standards say they are pleased with the result.

The document, they say, reflects a hard-won consensus about what American students should know and be able to do in the sciences by the time they graduate from high school.

"I see a lot of positive cooperative going on," said Gerald Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va.

"We've done our family talk, and we've hammered out a document we should all be proud of," he said. "Now is the time to be helping teachers, and not taking shots at each other."

The standards were released without fanfare: There was no news conference or formal event scheduled last week.

But the low-key approach was an intentional one on the national academy's part. The nas leadership wants to focus attention not on the document itself, but instead on how communities can use it, said Rodger W. Bybee, the content-standards group chairman.

"The big task is in front of us, not behind us," said Mr. Bybee, a principal author of the content standards and the executive director of the center for science, mathematics, and engineering education at the National Research Council, an arm of the academy.

With this in mind, the academy is planning a press conference in Washington next monthjan ms that will focus on how schools and communities can implement the standards.

`Minds On' Experiences

While some minor adjustments were made in language and design, the new document closely resembles a draft of the standards issued last year. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1994.)

It says science is for all students and that learning about science should be an active process. Whether or not they are college bound, it says, all students can benefit from the process of scientific inquiry: asking questions; making observations; identifying what is known; carrying out investigations; analyzing data; and proposing answers, explanations, and predictions.

"Learning science is something that students do, not something that is done to them," the document says. "`Hands on' activities, while essential, are not enough. Students must have `minds on' experiences as well."

Other Standards

In addition to content standards spelling out what students should learn in grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12, the document includes five other sets:

  • Teaching standards defining what constitutes effective science teaching;
  • Professional-development standards spelling out what preparation and in-service training teachers need to be able to teach effectively;
  • Assessment standards delineating how to measure student achievement, as well as how to gauge what resources they have access to and how this affects their opportunity to learn and achieve;
  • Program standards outlining the components of effective science programs at the local level; and
  • System standards addressing what broad policy changes must take place nationwide to successfully implement the other standards.

"If you are looking for substantive issues, there is not a lot of change," Mr. Bybee said.

What changed is the document's appearance. "We responded to an overwhelming response that said, 'This has to be more readable,"' Mr. Bybee said.

The original "blue book" draft of the standards was a nearly 300-page, inch-think tome weighing more than 2 pounds. The new volume is trim, colorful, and full of photographs, charts, and diagrams--and, the academy hopes, easier to use.

The release of the science standards, which were financed by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Institutes of Health, follows last month's release of standards for foreign-language education. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

The panel setting standards for economics--one of the few remaining disciplines still working on national benchmarks--has produced a first draft of content standards.

That draft was presented at a board meeting of the National Council for Economic Education last week but has not been released publicly.

Past Criticism

The science academy sent out 40,000 copies of its draft standards for review and received thousands of responses.

"It is an excellent document in the balance of different points of view and does an awfully good job at reflecting the consensus reached in the science-education community," said Bill G. Aldridge, a former executive director of the NSTA who had strongly criticized the draft document.

Mr. Aldridge said he was particularly pleased to see that the final version has a more quantitative emphasis.

"Throughout the project there have been competing forces, some of whom felt very strongly we should de-emphasize science content--that scientific literacy was just a recognition of words and that not everyone can learn science," said Mr. Aldridge, who is now the director of the NSTA's Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Science project.

"Others of us felt very strongly about the subject and content matter and pushed more strongly for quantitative treatment throughout the document," he said.

"What is significant about the new standards is that it gives us something to measure what we are doing locally against a national standard," said Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Aldridge's successor at the NSTA.

"The tricky part will be, will the public accept it and see it for what it is? It is not Big Brother telling them how they should teach, but a matrix from their fellow colleagues, for comparing what they are doing with what a national group of experts say ought to be done," he said.

Getting the Word Out

To make the standards more accessible to teachers, the NSTA in March will issue a set of guidebooks and a CD-ROM for the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

The group also plans to set up interactive "home pages" on the Internet to spark a computer dialogue between teachers and scientists about how to help students meet the standards.

Meanwhile, the Annenberg CPB/Math and Science Project is paying for public-service inserts in magazines and newspapers about the standards and is underwriting "awareness kits" aimed at parents and the public, science teachers, and school administrators.

"We have seen slow but steady progress in science and math national-achievement scores in states and localities where higher standards and increased exposure to science and math courses have been applied," Neal Lane, the director of the NSF, said in a statement last week.

"We must keep up the momentum," Mr. Lane said. "It is not overstating the case to say that the very future of our country depends on it."

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