The standards movement has taken on a new life in the form of “shared standards” —or what I think of as a move to standardize standards nationwide.  The idea is that as nearly as possible all of the fifty states in America would have the same K-12 content standards in science.

The standards movement in K-12 science education (math started earlier) started—sans the label—with Science for All Americans in 1989 and Benchmarks for Science Literacy in 1993,  followed by the National Science Education Standards 1995.  In a recent report to the president (September 2010) entitled Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math  (STEM) For America’s Future, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) summarizes that history PCAST STEM Report. It then brings the story up-to-date by describing current efforts to create science standards that can be adopted by most of the states:

Recently, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Institute for Advanced Study looked in depth at mathematics and science education – including content, teaching and learning, and schools and school systems. These organizations concluded that a huge opportunity exists to transform American education by enabling higher levels of mathematics and science learning for all American students. Their report called for “common standards in mathematics and science that are fewer, clearer, and higher, coupled with aligned assessments.”

Shared Standards Movement

These calls for reform have added impetus to an important new effort led by the states to establish shared standards in specific subjects. In 2009 the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), working with Achieve, Inc., and with the college entrance testing organizations ACT Inc. and the College Board, initiated the Common Core State Standards Initiative, focusing on mathematics and English-language arts.89 Teachers, school administrators, and subject matter experts developed the standards, with opportunities for input from a wide range of stakeholders. Final K- 12 standards in mathematics and English-language arts were released in June 2010. As of the publication date of this report, 36 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to adopt – or adapt their standards to align with – the common core standards in mathematics and English language arts. Adoption and alignment of standards can in turn  [be] expected to drive changes in instructional materials, assessments, and professional development.

A complementary effort is under way in science. A committee of the National Research Council is producing a framework that will be used to develop the new science standards.90 The framework is scheduled to be completed by early 2011, with the development of full K-12 science standards by the organization Achieve, Inc., through an iterative process involving states and stakeholders and in consultation with professional groups, to be completed by the end of 2011. It will be very important for state-level groups such as the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to promote the standards as soon as they are completed, so that states can adopt them and begin the work of helping students reach these levels of achievement. (p. 45)

Commission on Mathematics and Science Education. (2009). The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy. Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Institute for Advanced Study. 89 National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc. (2008). Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive A World-Class Education. Washington, DC: National Governors Association. 90 The NRC’s science education framework committee’s work is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

When the NRC science education framework undertaking was announced, I began to think about science standards again. In “Speaking of Standards” (Director’s Notes, Summer 1991 issue of 2061 Today), I said that the project’s next publication would be “Standards for Science Literacy”, but in fact it appeared as “Benchmarks for Science Literacy.” We believed that the latter would be more welcome by potential users. Then, as the standards movemnt gained steam, I wrote in “Standard Can Bite” (Winter 1992, 2061 Today) I urged that in developing science standards, three cautions be kept in mind: ” . . . Vision Counts; Less Is More; and There Is No Magic.” And now, all these years later, with standards issues again rising, I suggested what form design specifications might take and sent them to the Framework committee FJR Standards Specs 02.01.2010. Its main purpose was to emphasize the need for clarity with regard to the language and character of the specifications for the new standards.

In the summer of 2010, the NRC committee released a draft of A Framework for Science Education” with only a few days allotted for public response. Framework Draft 7.12.2010.  That my unsolicited contribution had had no discernable influence on the committee was unmistakable. Far from clarifying the language of and specifications for new science standards, it muddied the waters. My response to the Framework committee FJR Framework Review 7.20.2010 expressed my dismay, as did my letter to the editor of Science in response to an editorial FJR Framework Science letter.

As of February 2011, second draft has yet to be released for comment), if indeed there is to be an opportunity for public feedback.  In the meantime, I offer the following opinions, briefly put:

1.  The effort to increase the quality and similarity of the state science education standards is worth pursuing.

2.  The Framework need be no more than 15 pages, plus or minus a few, once the committee limits its role to setting out specifications for new K-12 science education standards. Specs plus a few examples will do the job.

3.  Such specifications should include these:

  • The language to be used in listing Domains/Standards/Benchmarks, including how Standards and Benchmarks are to be characterized in terms of the verbs to be used (know, understand, grasp, learn, be aware of, explain, give examples of, etc.) and of their “grain size.”
  • The boundaries of “science.”  To what extent and in what form are math, technology, engineering, and social science to be included.
  • The degree to which the history and philosophy of science are to be included as required.
  • Which applications of science—agriculture, medicine, engineering, environment, manufacturing, information and communications, etc.—are to be included, if any.
  • The balance to be reached between the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills.
  • Limits to be observed with regard to the inclusion of technical vocabulary and abstract concepts.
  • The format to be used: sort by grade level or by standard.
  • Degree to draw on existing learning goals—SSFA, Benchmarks, NSES, STL.