Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Science Opinion

Jack Hassard: A Skeptical Look at Science Standards

By Anthony Cody — March 05, 2012 15 min read

Guest Post by Jack Hassard.

Over the next two posts I am going to focus on standards- and test-based educational reform with an eye toward opening a conversation about how standards and high-stakes tests might actually impede science teaching and learning.

We begin by examining the science standards, which have been an integral part of science education since the publication of the National Science Education Standards by National Research Council in 1995. Then in 2011, the National Research Council published A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas. The Framework is now being used by Achieve, Inc. to develop Next Generation Science Standards. Achieve, Inc. is the company that wrote the Common Core State Standards in K - 12 English Language Art, and Mathematics.

Standards as Reform
Contemporary standards based reform emerged during the early 1990s, and some science education researchers raised questions about the nature of the standards setting process leading up to the publication of the NSES in 1996. In a research document with funding from the National Science Foundation, Linn, diSessa, Pea, and Songer contrasted the 1990s science standards reform effort with the NSF science curriculum projects of 1960s.

Remarkably these researchers noted that the development of the NSES conjured up images of the 1960s reform in which the primary goal was to bring modern scientific ideas into the curriculum, focusing on the fundamentals of the discipline. Their view was that the curriculum projects of 1960s reform and the standards reform of the 1990s was being designed for future scientist as the target audience. They indicated in their research that they were concerned that science standards were heading in the same direction.

Their research led them to propose an “alternative models” view of goals, social aspects of learning, instructional practices, and roles for technology that ought to integral to the standards. We’ll examine the first two of these ideas, regarding the goals and social aspects of learning.

Goals: Standards for Citizens or Scientists-to-be?
The implication of their research was to suggest that the standards for science should focus on the need “for citizens to link their solid observations and good descriptive models of science phenomena” (everyday phenomena, I might add), to science understandings.

Their suggestion, which I do not think is the hallmark of the 1995 NSES, nor in current attempts at changing the standards, is, however, embodied in a 2006 research project published by Glen Aikenhead (Science education for everyday life). Aikenhead’s research is a comprehensive overview of humanistic (citizen centered) approach to science teaching.

Social Aspects of Learning.

According to many science teachers and researchers, science teaching needs to be related to the student’s own experiences, and should be relevant to the students lived experiences. Science learning needs to be context-based. Instead of a concept being the starting point for learning, science teaching should start with contexts and applications. Context-based science teaching thrives in web-based collaborative programs, environmental projects, gender projects, and culturally focused investigations. These experiences shed light on social content for students, and often focus on the affective outcomes of learning, how students feel about learning, how it impacts their lives, and what they can do to solve real life problems. Many teachers know from experience that projects like these help students see themselves as problem solvers.

Alternative models?

Alternative models as suggested by Linn, in 1994, and suggestions for making science teaching more context-based by Glen Aikenhead in 2006 has been relegated to the backseat in the standards-based reform era (1992 - present). Linn’s research group, Aikenhead, and others have grounded their view on the idea that science should be relevant to students’ everyday scientific lives. A major line of research, and curriculum development unfolded under the banner of Science-Technology-Society (STS) or Science-Technology-Society-Environment (STSE). STS or STSE implies that the students’ science curriculum is context-based leading them to investigate problems that are germane to their life experiences and related to both the learning setting and broader social or cultural dimensions. This is markedly different than content-based curriculum that determines what students learn and teachers teach.

There is little evidence that the science standards published in 1996 and those that will be published this year by Achieve are any different than the content oriented projects of the 1960s. The discipline and content of science is seen as fundamental in those earlier projects such as PSSC Physics, CBA Chemistry, BSCS Biology, or ESCP Earth Science, and to the science content standards in the 1996 NSES. In these case, groups of experts met in content areas to work out domains and then objectives in areas such as life science, physical science, earth and space science and engineering and technology.

As of early 2012, the science-standards movement is in the hands of Achieve, the corporation that is writing the Next Generation of Science Standards for K-12 classrooms. The standards will be based on the 2011 NRC document, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Idea. Currently every state in the U.S. has their own set of science standards, but it is very likely that there will be a single of set of science standards for the nation, as there is in English language arts, and mathematics. Dr. William G. Wraga, professor at the University of Georgia, suggests that the Common Core State Standards contain two blind spots. Insufficient attention is paid to the need for interdisciplinary curriculum and citizenship education. This is caused, according to Dr. Wraga, by the “discipline myopia” that characterizes the standards. School science standards are highly technical and steeped in disciplinary concepts (in physics, chemistry, biology) processes and practice.

Personal View
My view is that the standards movement is not in the best interests of students, it’s in the best interests of the organizations and individuals behind the standards movement. Who are these organizations, and how close are they to what really happens day-to-day in the classroom. Many critics of the standards movement point to the idea that is a corporate led by a very elite group of wealthy individuals that really don’t want to have an open discussion on the merits of common standards.

Authoritative demands were issued by the US Department of Education in its Race to the Top Fund insisting that if states did not adopt the Common Core State Standards as part of their proposal for funding, then it could have negative impacts on the assessment of the proposal. Last minute deals were made in a number of states to accept this demand.

Barriers, Bricks and Discourse

There are three ideas that will be explored form a research perspective. The first is, according to research, standards act as barriers to learning and teaching. Secondly, ideas or standards are like bricks that can be handed directly to students to be learned. And thirdly, standards use a “discourse of invisibility.” (Rodriguez, 1996).

In this post (Part 1) we will look at standards as barriers to science learning and teaching. In Part 2, we’ll explore standards as bricks, and discourse of invisibility and context.

Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning Science
According to research published by Dr. Carolyn S. Wallace, a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science. She makes this claim in her 2011 study, published in the journal Science Education, entitled Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience.

The purpose of Wallace’s paper was to uncover insights about the science standards that have been used over the past decade and a half that have posed barriers to science teaching and learning.
She puts it this way in her research study:
I synthesize research from educational policy, science education, curriculum theory, critical inquiry, and my own experiential learning from a particular case in the state of Georgia to analyze the effects of authoritarian standards language on science classroom teaching. I argue that curriculum standards based on a content and product model of education (A. V. Kelly, 1999), have been incongruent with research from cognitive psychology, science identity formation, language use, and science as inquiry.

One of the key aspects of her study is her suggestion “that there are two characteristics of the current generation of accountability standards that pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning in science.”
1. The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fits the needs of their students.
2. The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.

Dr. Wallace’s suggestions are significant in that nearly every state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, bringing America very close to having a national set of common standards and possibly a national curriculum, at least in English language arts and mathematics, with science next in line to be adopted by each state.

And to further support the notion of inflexibility of the standards, Achieve, the developers of the Common Core State Standards, makes the assumption that one set of standards will provide consistency, and the appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live. This is a troublesome assumption in that it is in conflict with findings in the learning sciences about how students learn. Do all students learn in the same way? How do students prior experiences and conceptions of science concepts fit into the way standards are written?

And on the heels of these standards is the development of Common State Assessments, with funding from Race to the Top Assessment (RTTA), with the goal to develop a technology based next-generation assessment system. You can read about all of this here.

Wallace’s research sheds light on how science standards have posed barriers to meaningful science teaching and learning. Dr. Wallace’s research integrates experiential learning theory (her own experience as a data source), and scholarly literature of educational policy, curriculum theory, and science education. Let’s take a look.

Barriers to Learning
As Wallace points out, the research evidence is very clear that student’s worldviews, and prior experiences are crucial to their learning. In science education research, the consensus is that students generate their own meanings for science concepts--such as energy, mass, or heat--within a sociocultural context.

Yet, as Wallace shows, the content of the school science curriculum uses a content (of science) and product (of science) model K-12. Indeed, if you were to look at any list of standards in science (NSES or state standards) the language according to Wallace is “authoritarian” in the sense that the standards as written defines what is to be learned and how it will be “mastered.” This model of curriculum stands in contrast to the “alternative models” suggested in STS or STSE in the discussion above.

The content and product model basically says that there is a body of knowledge that must be learned by all learners. As Wallace shows, it is the individuals in charge of curriculum (read standards) that determine the lists of standards to be learned. The lists of science content to be learned exists without a context, and without any knowledge of the students who are required to master this stuff, and teachers who plan and carry out the instruction.

An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, rather than having been a part of the process in creating the standards. By and large teachers are nonparticipants in the design and writing of standards. But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, in the first place. That was done by elite groups of scientists and educators.

Wallace integrates research by Apple and Kelly to show that standards are written in technical language rather than in plain language. Standards statements are full of technical words that student’s will be held responsible for learning. But the problem is that standards statements are “decontextualized” into discrete pieces (later in Part 2 of this discussion, I refer to them as bricks) that can be tested by groups far removed from the classroom.

Barriers to Teaching
Recently President Obama urged teachers not to teach to the test. But in reality, the standards, and the accompanying high-stakes tests that are used to “measure” whether the students have mastered the standard, force teachers to teach to the test. Don’t you think so? In Wallace’s way of thinking, this is an authoritarian epistemology, and teachers must coach all students to “produce identical performances, regardless of student’s prior knowledge and understanding, learning styles, and even where they live.

Wallace cites research studies that document the detrimental effects of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act on teachers and students, and students at risk. Wallace shows that NCLB has diminished teachers abilities to work professionally to interpret curriculum as it relates to the needs of their students. Wallace suggests that there is a consensus that the content and product nature of the standards (or curriculum) limits teachers’ pedagogy in that teaching becomes “less diverse, less contextualized, and less creative.” Teachers must teach the same material because it is discrete, and will be on the test.

Dr. Wallace spent the 2005 - 2006 year teaching biology in a south Georgia high school, and weaved her personal experiences in the classroom into the research study. One point she made was that where she taught, the school “managers” posted teachers’ testing results publicly, and they were used for discussion. As she points out, this was coupled with threats of “increased scrutiny,” which as she stated leads us to policies of control, normalization, and the notion of a “good” and “bad” school and teacher.

In fact, just today, someone forwarded a link bringing me to published lists of teacher rankings in New York City. You can download Excel files that identify teachers by name, and their scores. We wonder how this sort of scrutiny will pose a barrier to teaching.

Standards for a Democratic Society
Can we have standards in a democratic society that won’t impede teachers from teaching science, and students from learning science? In the American democracy, things don’t look very promising. In a recent eBook, entitled Achieving a New Generation of Common Science Standards, the standards movement in science education is critiqued. The Next Generation of Science Standards is currently being written, and these standards are based on the NRC’s document A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Will the new standards provide an alternative to the current status of state science standards, the NSES, and the Common Core State Standards?

To Wallace, one solution or alternative to the current drive to hold teachers and students hostage to a set of authoritarian standards is to impose a democratic approach in which teachers can negotiate ways to interprete the standards based on the needs of their own student. She points us to the New Zealand National Curriculum. According to Wallace:

The new national curriculum in New Zealand is one example of a standards framework, which links reasoning skills with content objectives and leaves the nature of achievement performances open-ended.

Wallace suggests that standards need to allow for more democratic participation, flexibility, and plurality for teachers. Teachers need to be the professionals who determine what makes for successful learning performance--in the context of local communities and cultures.

Her second democratic principle would firmly enable teachers to do more inquiry-based activities. This is especially important in that in this case, teachers would have options to engage student in “open-ended reasoning processes and performances. Done in a context of engaging students in local inquiry would help students “exercise their own thinking skills with the goals of fostering intellectual independence and developing a science identify.”

One of the barriers that standards reform presents is the way in which students are assessed using high-stakes tests. Instead of tests that are context-based, these tests measure discrete knowledge and facts primarily though multiple choice tests. Wallace alludes to research by Songer and colleagues on assessments being developed within the context of learning progressions. Until we either ban high-stakes tests, or change them so that teachers are ones that are involved in their development, we will have made very little progress.

What do you think? Are science standards an obstacle to learning?

Wallace, C. (2012). Authoritarian science curriculum standards as barriers to teaching and learning: An interpretation of personal experience Science Education, 96 (2), 291-310 DOI: 10.1002/sce.20470

Jack Hassard is Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. He is author of The Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science, Science Experiences, Adventures in Geology, The Art of Teaching Science (2009), Second Edition, Routledge, and most recently, Science As Inquiry (2011), 2nd Edition, Good Year Books. Specialities include science teaching & learning, global thinking & education, geology, web publishing, blogging, writing, and antiquing. His blog is The Art of Teaching Science.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.