Academy Unveils ‘Principles’ for Science Standards

By Peter West — November 04, 1992 5 min read

WASHINGTON--The National Academy of Sciences has completed a draft document containing five “guiding principles’’ that are expected to undergird the process of developing national standards for what students should know and be able to do in science.

The “discussion document,’' the first official statement produced by the National Committee for Science Education Standards and Assessment under the auspices of the academy’s National Research Council, was scheduled to be unveiled late last week at a forum on precollegiate science sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

While many in the science-education community had hoped that the panel would release a preliminary outline of the standards themselves, those familiar with the process say that important philosophical questions will have to be answered before the standards can be developed.

Questions have been raised, for example, about whether the standards should be differentiated by ability, with more difficult goals set for higher-achieving students.

But the draft document--which has been developed under the strict conditions of confidentiality that have characterized the entire process to date--argues that the goal of the standards-setting should be to describe an understanding of science and the scientific endeavor that “all students, regardless of background, future aspirations, or interest in science should develop.’'

The paper has been termed a “working document’’ by the research council, which is anxious to avoid giving the impression that the document that was slated to be discussed at the A.A.A.S. meeting is a definitive statement on the philosophy behind the forthcoming standards.

‘A Difficult Process’

The research council always has intended that the standards would be modified and shaped by the contributions of science-education professional societies, educators, and the general public during a period of national “critique and consensus’’ over the coming year.

But “the critique and consensus process is going to be a very difficult one,’' said Patricia McWethy, the executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers and a member of an N.R.C. standards-advisory panel.

She noted that while the general thrust of the standards project is to whittle away at the encyclopedic body of knowledge currently taught in precollegiate science, the many factions of the science-education community all will be anxious to dictate what should be included in the final document.

The release of the guidelines appears to be a major step forward in the standards-setting process that was set into motion late last year when the academy was asked to referee what was shaping up as a contentious rivalry between various groups that had undertaken their own standards projects.

To defuse the situation, the îŸòŸãŸ established the Coordinating Council for Education last spring to guide the process, and James D. Ebert, the academy’s vice president, was appointed as the chairman of the standards committee.

The project also received the support of the Education Department, which made a $500,000 grant to help support the development process.

Since last summer, 89 volunteers working on separate curriculum-, assessment-, and teaching-standards committees have been studying international, national, and state research and blueprints for science-education reform to begin shaping a broad consensus about what the standards should include.

The first complete draft of the standards is expected to be completed by next fall.

Philosophical Questions

The guidelines document indicates that as the three working groups began their deliberations last summer, they decided that despite their differences, they shared joint responsibility for articulating a philosophical base for deciding what should and should not be included in the standards.

Discussions among the heads of the three working groups, who each serve as members of the other committees, made it “compellingly clear’’ that in order to draft the standards, “thoughtful, clearly defined positions’’ on five central issues or questions would have to be developed, the document states.

The issues are:

  • How the goal of “science for all’’ should be interpreted and applied to guide the standards-setting process.

  • What the boundaries of school science should be, with respect to such subject areas as engineering, technology, and the social sciences.

  • Whether science should “reflect only the tradition and culture of mainstream contemporary science.’'

  • Whether the standards should specifically identify a particular “body of knowledge’’ that all students ought to learn.

  • And “how far in advance of current ... [teaching] practice’’ the standards should reach.

A ‘Western’ Approach

The guiding principles also touch on sensitive issues that are likely to characterize the standards debate.

For example, although mathematics and science curricula are thought to be relatively insulated from the fractious debate about multiculturalism that rages in other subject areas, the draft seems to indicate that its developers are wary of potential criticisms that the standards will reflect a largely Western European approach to learning.

It notes, for example, that "[w]hile many cultures are represented in the larger community of contemporary science, the mainstream of science developed in Western society.’'

Efforts are under way to instill multicultural approaches into math and science instruction, including, for example, the teaching of Aztec astronomy and number systems.

And, at the A.A.A.S. annual meeting earlier this year in Chicago, a dispute broke out over what some critics argued is the routine exclusion of “Afro-centric’’ approaches to science teaching. (See Education Week, Feb. 19, 1992.)

The working document notes that “contributions of other cultures that share attributes in common with contemporary science should be a part of the [science] curriculum.’'

But it also states that “it is the research agenda of the community of scientists, the ways in which research questions are formulated, and the rules of evidence and argumentation that should pervade’’ the science curriculum.

The guiding principles also note the failure of existing science teaching to reach the increasingly diverse student population that includes large numbers of nonwhite students, as well as its general failure to engage girls in the study of science.

“Every person must be brought into and given access to the ongoing conversation of science,’' the guidelines state.

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 1992 edition of Education Week as Academy Unveils ‘Principles’ for Science Standards