Published Online: November 1, 2005
Published in Print: November 2, 2005, as Experts Disagree Over What to Include in Revised NAEP

Experts Disagree Over What to Include in Revised NAEP

A new blueprint outlining the content that students will encounter on the science version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress places too little emphasis on applying science to technology, engineering, and real-world problem-solving, a number of critics contend.

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The board that sets policy for the influential, congressionally mandated exam heard those comments at a public hearing here last week on its science framework, the basic outline of what will be included on a revised version of the test in that subject.

NAEP provides the country’s only nationally representative test of students’ academic skills in core subjects. For that reason, state and national leaders, among others, scrutinize the test results as an independent gauge of academic achievement.

A Practical Purpose

Several speakers at the hearing argued that the framework should focus more on the connections of science to technology, engineering, and real-world applications, a concept sometimes called “technological design.”

“It is appropriate for science education to carry a vision that includes a practical purpose tied to the inventive and innovative future created by the next generation,” said Kendall N. Starkweather, the executive director of the International Technology Education Association, in Reston, Va. “We should not wait until the next generation of assessments to address this issue.”

NAEP tests representative samples of students in reading, writing, math, and other subjects. Content is periodically revised. The science framework is being revamped for the first time in 15 years.

Science Revisited

The new draft of the science framework, the basic outline of the material to be included on the revised science test for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, covers a lot of ground. The revised version, for example, addresses the concept of “technological design” in a way that is not in the current framework, and it upholds the teaching of evolution.

On technological design:

The framework identifies “employing technological design” as one of four broadly organized scientific practices in which the NAEP science test should evaluate students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. A dissenting note from a panel of experts that worked on the framework suggests removing that concept, calling its inclusion premature.

On evolution:

“The modern concept of evolution, including natural selection and common descent, provides a unifying principle for understanding the history of life on Earth, relationships among all living things, and the dependence of life on the physical environment. The concept is so well established that it provides a framework for organizing most of biological knowledge into a coherent picture.”

On the nature of science:

“Science is a way of knowing about the natural world that is based on tested explanations supported by accumulated evidence. Explanations that rely on nonscientific views are not reflected in the framework.”

SOURCE: National Assessment Governing Board

Two committees of experts have been working on a new science framework, under the oversight of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. Yet those two expert panels have different perspectives on the importance of including technological design on the next test, a division that appears to underscore broader disagreements about the concept’s place in science study.

One committee included the concept in the framework, reasoning that such an approach encourages problem-solving and innovation. But the other panel—in language inserted in the most recent draft—recommends taking that wording out, believing the NAEP test should focus more directly on science itself.

Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, who co-chaired the committee that opposed including technological design, acknowledged that the concept has support. An estimated 38 states incorporate technology into their state curricula, up from 30 four years ago, he told governing-board members last week.

But while he urged the governing board to consider ways to encourage those lessons, he said his committee had decided to “keep the focus on science” with the next NAEP science test.

William A. Wulf, the president of the National Academy of Engineering, a division of the congressionally chartered National Academies, said the time is now.

“A combined assessment of science and technology would be ideal,” Mr. Wulf told board members. Otherwise, he said, “some of the richness of student understandings and abilities related to science would be lessened.”

Senta A. Raizen, who co-chaired the committee that sought to include more technological design, said practical applications have long been factored into science.

“There are those that want to keep science pure, but in reality, there’s always been that interaction,” said Ms. Raizen, the Arlington, Va.-based director of the National Center for Improving Science Education. “The steam engine was invented before we understood it.”

Science Facts, Evolution

The new version of the science test is slated to take effect in 2009, in grades 4, 8, and 12.

Another speaker, Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, suggested that more attention be given to teaching students basic science facts and concepts, as well as including more math. Instead, the draft framework focuses too much on science practices, he said, and the process through which students learn in that subject.

“There’s too much emphasis on this fad called ‘discovery learning,’ ” said Mr. Petrilli, until recently a U.S. Department of Education official. “A lot of [science material] is going to need to be taught specifically.”

Fordham is currently studying the quality of state science standards. The NAEP framework received a C grade when it was judged by that study’s criteria, he said.

Mr. Petrilli and others, however, praised the document for its broad treatment of the theory of evolution—and for not promoting so-called alternatives to it, as is being considered in several states and districts. One such alternative, “intelligent design,” is the subject of a federal lawsuit, arising from a policy approved in the Dover, Pa., district. ("Defense Gets Its Days in Court in Support of ‘Intelligent Design’," Oct. 26, 2005.)

“The [NAEP] assessment certainly has a tremendous impact,” Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington, said in an interview after addressing board members. “The more we can help people understand what science can and what science can’t do, the more we can help people exist in this increasingly complex world.”

Vol. 25, Issue 10, Page 10

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