Science Standards Have Yet To Seep Into Class, Panel Says

By David J. Hoff — May 22, 2002 3 min read
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The national science education standards have been the basis for state curriculum decisions, textbook publishers’ new materials, and school districts’ choices for professional development, says a panel of researchers.

But the voluntary guidelines haven’t yet had a significant impact in the most important place: science classrooms.

“We saw little change since the introduction of the standards in how [science] is being taught,” said P. Sean Smith, a senior research associate at Horizon Research Inc., a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based company that conducted the study for the National Science Foundation.

Horizon surveyed science and math teachers on their instructional practices in 2000 and compared their answers against the same set of survey questions administered in 1993. The results were released here this month.

“We saw little to no change in the use of hands-on or inquiry-based learning,” Mr. Smith said, referring to two important themes in the science education standards published by the National Research Council in 1996.

“We have a long way to go before we see changes in what’s happening in the classroom,” added James D. Ellis, an associate professor of teaching and leadership at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Mr. Ellis and Mr. Smith are members of two of the five research groups commissioned by the NRC to review the impact of its science standards. The NRC assigned each group a topic, such as curriculum, assessment, or student achievement, and asked the members to evaluate how the standards had affected that area.

The National Research Council is a part of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific organization.

The national standards define the scientific knowledge scientists and educators say students ought to learn from kindergarten through high school graduation. They encourage schools to cut back on the amount of material they cover in favor of in-depth, hands-on experiences in which students learn the concepts underlying important scientific principles.

In writing the standards, the NRC consulted the work of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association, which each published documents in the early 1990s spelling out what students should know in general terms.

To measure the standards’ influence, the NRC hired researchers to gauge how curriculum, teacher development, testing and accountability, instructional practices, and student achievement have changed since 1996. The teams presented their findings at the research council’s headquarters here May 10.

State Incorporation

Overall, the research teams were in agreement about the findings they presented during a panel discussion that the standards have been instrumental in changing school policies, but that those changes haven’t filtered down to the classroom.

States that have written their own standards have often used the national ones as a starting point.

In the midst of heated debate three years ago over the topic of evolution in the Kansas science standards, for example, few people noticed that the working draft rejected by the state board of education relied heavily on the national standards, Mr. Ellis said.

Most other states have successfully incorporated major pieces of the science standards into their own without controversy, Mr. Ellis said.

While those state standards aren’t having the effect on classrooms that advocates would like, they may soon, others said. Thirty-three states now assess students’ scientific knowledge and skill as part of their testing systems, said Norman L. Webb, the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

By the 2007-08 school year, all states are expected to measure students’ science knowledge at least once, at each level, in elementary, middle, and high school, under the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

The rapid expansion of testing may add to the national standards’ influence on classrooms, especially if the assessments are designed to measure the content specified in the standards.

“The assessments do influence what students learn and what teachers teach,” Mr. Webb said.

But one of the biggest problems with the standards, other panel members said, is that they cover too much material.

While the standards say that teachers should emphasize hands-on- learning, they also list a broad range of scientific principles that students should learn. Teachers are having a hard time finding the time to offer exploratory learning while still covering the content, according to Iris R. Weiss, the president of Horizon Research.

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Science Standards Have Yet To Seep Into Class, Panel Says


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