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NSTA to Provide ‘Anchors’ to Winnow Topics

By Sean Cavanagh — February 26, 2007 5 min read
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An influential science teachers’ group is launching a project to help educators identify the most crucial concepts in that subject, a move that comes as political and business leaders are calling for greater consistency in how science and mathematics are taught nationwide.

Officials of the National Science Teachers Association say their goal is to pinpoint “anchors,” or core ideas, that should be emphasized in the classroom, in teacher training, and on state tests.

The project represents something of a departure for the NSTA, which neither develops nor promotes curricula, according to Executive Director Gerald F. Wheeler. The new venture is not meant to take the association down that path, he said, but rather to create a resource for teachers and others attempting to organize science lessons and write exams.

NSTA officials said they plan to start by examining states’ science standards, which vary greatly, and attempt to identify the grade levels at which core concepts are taught now. The organization would then use two prominent, voluntary national standards documents as reference points in devising anchors.

“We’re preparing to look at what states are doing and find some common standards,” Mr. Wheeler said. The idea, he explained, is to give science educators “something we can rally around.”

Located in Arlington, Va., the NSTA has 56,000 members it seeks to help through professional-development materials, classroom guides, conferences, and other means. Planning for the new project began only recently, Mr. Wheeler said in an interview this month. NSTA officials hope to complete the project by fall 2008, though he acknowledged it could take longer.

The NSTA believes the timing is right for the project, with federal lawmakers having said that improving math and science instruction is a priority. States are also preparing to implement tests in science under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Math Model

Last fall, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va., published “Curriculum Focal Points,” a document that seeks to identify the most essential concepts for pre-K-8 math instruction. NCTM officials believe that document will help state and local education officials, textbook publishers, and others single out important math topics from the hodgepodge of often-contradictory curricula used by states and school districts. (“Math Organization Attempts to Bring Focus to Subject,” Sept. 20, 2006.)

Focal Points will serve as one model for the NSTA’s effort, Mr. Wheeler said.

Primary Sources

Two science organizations, the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published standards more than a decade ago that have strongly influenced the expectations states hold for their students.

National Science Education Standards
(1996):

Published by the NRC, this document sets standards for science content within different grade spans. It also sets standards for teachers’ professional development and for effective strategies for how school, district, and state officials seek to improve the quality of teaching and learning in science.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
(1993):

The AAAS document sets learning goals in science for students in grades K-12. Its recommendations grew out of an earlier AAAS guide, Science for All Americans, which described what students should know in that subject before they graduate from high school. Those documents were generated by Project 2061, an enterprise to improve Americans’ literacy in math, science, and technology.

SOURCE: Education Week

Bruce Alberts, who served as the chairman of the National Research Council when it published a set of national science standards 11 years ago, said the NSTA’s project could provide science teachers with important guidance.

Although he believes the research council’s standards, published in 1996, are a valuable resource, Mr. Alberts also said it is “unrealistic” to think that most educators have the time or inclination to pick out the most essential material in that document—which runs more than 260 pages, with appendices—for use in their classes.

Mr. Alberts said he hopes the NSTA undertaking could do more to encourage elementary and middle schools to carve out time for science lessons. In his opinion, the time for those lessons has been eroded in part by the 5-year-old federal education law’s emphasis on testing in reading and math.

“It is very important to further refine the core of what everybody needs to know,” Mr. Alberts said of the NSTA effort. “It will have value if it’s done well.”

The NSTA’s decision to launch the “anchors” project was shaped partly by a survey the association conducted last year. Of 1,600 members who responded, 86 percent said state and national standards should focus on fewer concepts, with more being added with each grade level.

Mr. Wheeler said the project would aim to examine where state academic-content standards—documents that spell out what students should know—currently discuss key concepts, such as force and motion and gravity. Rather than establishing recommendations for each grade, the anchors would most likelycover grade spans, he said.

The language and content of the anchors, NSTA officials say, would draw heavily from two prominent—and voluntary—national documents: the NRC’s “National Science Education Standards,” published in 1996, and “Benchmarks for Science Literacy,” released in 1993 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS has also created “maps” that describe how different science concepts connect and how students’ knowledge should progress by grade.

Many states have relied heavily on the research council and AAAS volumes in crafting their own academic standards. The NSTA will seek input from many of the same experts who helped write the research council and AAAS guides, Mr. Wheeler said.

Crafting Tests

The NSTA is beginning its work at a time when national leaders say they are committed to improving math and science education and what they see as American students’ lackluster performance in those subjects. Some federal lawmakers, policy organizations, and advisory groups have called for the establishment of national standards in math and science.

Meanwhile, the No Child Left Behind Act will require states to test students in science at least once annually in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12, beginning next school year. States are not required, however, to include those test results in measuring the yearly progress of schools, as they are in reading and math.

While Mr. Wheeler said he believes most states are already “in full swing” in testing students in science or designing such tests, he suggested that the NSTA project can help states devise better assessments that emphasize important science principles.

Although he praised the project, Mr. Alberts predicted that the NSTA would find it difficult to make judgments about the most essential science concepts.

“The most difficult part is, what do you leave out?” said Mr. Alberts, now a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. “The natural tendency of scientists is for them to think everything in their field is essential for everybody else to know.”

Linda P. Rosen, a senior math and science adviser under former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, speculated that state officials, and other policymakers, were likely to become keenly interested in the NSTA’S suggestions as more of them report their science scores under the No Child Left Behind law. Ms. Rosen, now a consultant, is also a former executive director of the math teachers’ council.

“If those results are disappointing, there will be real desire to look at these anchors,” she said. The NSTA project, she said, “will find a fertile audience.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as NSTA to Provide ‘Anchors’ to Winnow Topics

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