Academy Unveils Draft of National Science Standards

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments


The National Academy of Sciences last week released a draft of voluntary national standards for science education that it hopes will prepare students to cope in the technical and information-rich world they will face after graduation.

"Our science education now is all about memorizing words," said Bruce M. Alberts, the academy's president and a leader of a citywide science-education-reform initiative in San Francisco. "We want to de-emphasize words. What we want to convey is understanding."

The long-awaited release of the science standards provoked an unexpected controversy.

The executive director of the National Science Teachers Association charged that the document failed to acknowledge that organization's pioneer standards-setting efforts. Bill G. Aldridge said the new standards dishonestly singled out a reform effort of the American Association for the Advancement of Science while ignoring the N.S.T.A.'s Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science project.

The massive standards document is the result of a three-year effort that involved contributions from thousands of educators, parents, scientists, and others. The draft standards will undergo further review in the next few months, and a final version is expected to be released this summer.

Developing Analytical Skills

The standards document argues that science education should seek to instill in all high school graduates--regardless of their college or job prospects--the skills and habits of mind to investigate problems and analyze information in a scientific manner.

To achieve that goal, the document calls for an overhaul of the precollegiate curriculum to emphasize investigative learning and to downplay memorization.

"Learning science is something that students do, not something that is done to them," the draft report argues. "Using this principle means shifting emphasis from teachers presenting information and covering science topics to students learning science through active involvement."

The voluminous document is meant to "define what the scientifically literate person should understand and be able to do after 13 years of schooling."

Richard D. Klausner, the chairman of the academy's National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, said many students with a particular interest in science may well exceed the minimum competencies laid out in the document.

But the purpose of the standards is to raise expectations and thereby to improve the quality of education for every student, he said. "This is a floor, not a ceiling."

While the document emphasizes that much extraneous information has been pared away to leave only essential science content, it also notes that "students could not achieve the standards in most of today's schools."

Key Principles

The standards are based on seven underlying principles:

  • All students, regardless of gender, cultural or ethnic background, physical or learning disabilities, aspirations, or interest and motivation in science, should have the opportunity to reach higher levels of scientific literacy.
  • All students will learn all the science in the content standards.
  • All students will develop an understanding of science that enables them to use their knowledge as it relates to scientific, personal, social, and historical perspectives.
  • "Learning science is an active process" in which students ask questions, "construct explanations of natural phenomena, test those explanations Á and communicate their ideas to others."
  • So that all students can understand more science, "less emphasis must be given to some science content and more resources, such as time, personnel, and materials, must be devoted to science education."
  • School science must reflect the intellectual tradition that characterizes the practice of contemporary science.
  • Improving science education is a part of larger systemwide education reform.

Specific Benchmarks

The standards are divided into eight categories of knowledge that should be included in the science curriculum at every level--from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

They include "science as inquiry," physical science, life science, earth and space science, science and technology, science in personal and social perspectives, the history and nature of science, and unifying concepts of science.

Within each category, students in grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12 would be expected to meet levels of competency appropriate to their ages.

For example, under the category of "science as inquiry" at the K-4 level, students should be able to:

  • "Ask questions about objects, organisms, and events in the environment;"
  • Plan and conduct a simple investigation;
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the sense;
  • "Use data to construct a reasonable explanation" of a phenomenon; and
  • Communicate their investigations and explanations.

The document notes repeatedly that the content standards are not a science curriculum, but rather provide a template for the development of exemplary science programs.

"Many, many curriculums may be proposed that would fulfill the criteria of the content standards," Mr. Klausner said.

Content and Teaching

The National Research Council, the arm of the academy charged with developing the standards, released the long-awaited first full draft of the standards to little fanfare.

The draft lays out in broad terms the necessary conditions for effective teacher education and student testing, as well as meaningful for content.

The document also describes "program standards," for judging effective school science programs, and "system standards," for judging the effectiveness of the entire science-education system, from science museums to professional societies.

It "includes all of the components that our experts tell us must be changed if we are to achieve a system of effective science education," Mr. Alberts said.

The draft document also "gratefully acknowledges" the N.R.C.'s indebtedness to two documents--"Science for All Americans" and "Benchmarks for Science Literacy"--both developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It does not similarly acknowledge contributions to the standards from other sources.

In response to a question at the academy's press conference, Mr. Klausner noted that the standards document greatly expands on the scope of those publications to address the issues of effective assessment and teacher training.

Mr. Aldridge of the N.S.T.A. argued that by mentioning the A.A.A.S. in the opening pages of the standards, the academy ignored the contributions of his organization and other groups in the standards-setting effort.

Further Review

The spat highlighted a long-simmering rivalry between the A.A.A.S. and the N.S.T.A. Both Mr. Aldridge and James F. Rutherford, the director of Project 2061, have sought in the past to downplay the rift.

"It makes it look like these content standards are nothing more than a duplicate of [Mr. Rutherford's] benchmarks," said Mr. Aldridge by telephone from Nevada, where he is overseeing a scaling up of the Scope, Sequence, and Coordination project to the high school level. "That's just outrageous."

As a result, Mr. Aldridge announced that he will resign from the advisory board of Project 2061.

He noted that it was the N.S.T.A. that began the effort to develop standards for science teaching. (See Education Week, 05/15/91.)

The academy later agreed to carry out the task as a neutral party specifically to avoid disputes about content and other matters between the many professional associations in science education.

Although thousands of educators, scientists, and others have reviewed previous drafts of the document as part of a lengthy critique process, the draft released last week represents only a first iteration of what will become the final standards document.

Mr. Klausner explained that over the next three months some 200 focus groups, representing roughly 11,000 parents, scientists, educators, and others, will read the draft and make comments on it before the final version is released.

Sample Science Standards

Following are excerpts from the draft of recommended voluntary standards for science.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Grades 5-8: All students should develop an understanding of:

Personal health

Sex drive is a natural human function which requires understanding. Sex is a powerful force, the fulfillment of which brings new life into the world. ... Sex is also a prominent means of transmitting diseases.

Populations, resources, and environments

Causes of environmental degradation and resource depletion vary from region to region and from country to country.

Natural hazards

Natural hazards can present personal and societal challenges because misidentifying the change or incorrectly estimating the rate and scale of change may result in either too little attention and significant human costs or too much cost for unneeded preventive measures.

Risks and benefits

Risk analysis considers the type of hazard, estimates the number of people that may be exposed, and the number likely to suffer consequences.

Science and technology in society

Science influences society through its knowledge and world view.

Technology influences society through its products and processes. SOURCE: The National Academy of Sciences.

Lynne V. Cheney, the former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said last week that she will create an independent panel to critique proposed voluntary national education standards.

The National Education Standards and Improvement Council already exists to review the standards, but Ms. Cheney said she is concerned that nesic will routinely certify standards that are not up to par. NESIC is a Presidentially appointed group created as part of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Its members have yet to be named.

Ms. Cheney has been highly critical of the proposed U.S. history standards that were released last month.

Her group, the Committee to Review National Standards, will be based at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank where Ms. Cheney is a fellow.

It will have four tasks: to analyze the standards and the Goals 2000 legislation; to build alliances with groups that are interested in the standards issue; to work with members of Congress as they consider standards; and to provide educators, parents, and policymakers in the states with information about standards.

The Readers' Digest Association is funding the project.

Committee members, to date, are:

Donald Kagan, a professor of classics at Yale University; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a professor of women's studies at Emory University; Leslie Lenkowsky, the president of the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank; Robert Costrell, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Sandra Stotsky, a research associate at the Harvard graduate school of education; Katherine Kersten, a member of the Center for the American Experiment, a Minneapolis-based think tank; Linda Chavez, the director of the Center for the New American Community at the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based research and education organization; Gertrude Himmelfarb, a professor emeritus of history at the graduate school of the City University of New York; Susan Kristol, a former professor of classics at Brandeis University; and Celeste Colgan, a former deputy chairwoman of the N.E.H. and a fellow with the Hudson Institute.

Vol. 14, Issue 14

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories