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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Science Standards across the States

By: Criss Livingston MA
STEM Education Consultant

In the United States, K-12 science teachers must adhere to rigid state standards that their students are tested and evaluated on as required by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. These standards are designed to teach the core science concepts at specific grade levels. While individual states design the standards, classroom teachers are responsible for implementing them. Many teachers have limited time frames (in the day and for the year) to teach the abundance of science concepts. Due to the limited amount of time, most teachers are rushed to complete the material and find they are unable to go in depth with a concept or explore it further. Also, many aspects of a concept can be often overlooked or left out completely. Experiments and lab time which are important to science because they teach the scientific methods and critical thinking skills are left out. Teaching without going in depth can produce students who are test savvy, but do not have complex problem solving skills.

Science standards are needed to keep pace in the global markets. Some time ago, the United States became concerned about lagging behind their international peers in the science field. In 1995, the National Science Education Standards (NSES) were produced and published in 1996; however these were not accepted by the state legislatures and boards as their state standards. As established by the National Research Council, the NSES are guidelines for the science education in primary and secondary schools in the United States. Currently, there are no National Standards.

The STEM Ed team has discovered that by not having National Science Standards, the United States lacks consistency of science standards from state to state. Currently, each state’s Department of Education develops, writes, and publishes standards of science education which they believe should be taught.

For example, in Virginia, a fourth grader may be studying photosynthesis while a student in Alaska will not learn about photosynthesis until the sixth grade. See: Photosynthesis Table. This is just one of the many problems the STEM Education Center discovered when we created our grade level stratification or GLS terms based on state standards

Another example: The concept of “battery” is not listed in the Alaska or Arizona standards, but becomes an implied term when teaching electricity. While students in California begin learning about the concept of battery in the third grade and continue building upon it in the fourth grade and again in the High School. See: Battery Table.

The STEM Ed team has spent the last few years looking at state standards and analyzing their science concepts to find similarities and differences. Because different states teach the same concept at different grades, it is difficult to compare state test results among the fifty states.
For more information on the Science behind the GLS, please see the STEM Ed’s website: www.stemed.info


Anonymous said...

Standards should not be written so that all students for example in fifth grade across the entire country study photosynthesis at the exact same time. There should be a scope and sequence to the curriculums that include the standards as a guideline. And one thing that is often missing lately in curriculums is the importance of building on what has been learned in lower grades and repeating that topic at a higher level in the upper grades. Even if a child has appeared to have mastered a topic, science changes all the time and that topic should be review again. It is also important that students have opportunities to learn more about what interests them. "Covering" the curriculum often does not allow needed time for students to explore, investigate, etc what may become new ideas and more timely current events. "Lock step learning" where all students are being taught for state tests, exactly the same thing is like making the same kind of soup with the exact same ingredients. No one has time to explore new ingrediates to create a new great tasting soup.
Nevertheless, big ideas and basic skills such as where to find information, should be taught so that Science can be explored with backround skills and the thirst for learning is not hindered by lack of how to get to the waters.

C. Livingston said...

With each state setting its own education standards, it is difficult to measure the quality of any state's education. We are not able to compare apples to apples (so to speak). If concepts were leveled and students across the United States learned the appropriate concepts at the appropriate learning levels, then there would be comprehension and comparison. Furthermore, curriculum needs to have spiraling (concepts taught and built upon) if we are to teach depth and exploration.
Research has shown that the other nations that outperform the United States have a national curriculum. Our curriculum tends to be set by the textbooks that teachers use. Publishers decide on the content of the textbooks based on combining some state standards. Then teachers end up with huge textbooks that have bits and pieces of their science curriculum in them hence making them “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Many teachers try to teach the entire textbook and run out of time. There is no time for in depth teaching or hands on experiments.
In comparison, in other nations, curriculum is set to standards for each grade level. Each topic is allotted enough time to teach it in-depth. Students who move from one end of the nation to another do not have to worry about missed concepts that will lead to gaps in their learning.
The nations that have National Standards have seen a more unified educational front. Imagine the United States being able to have state to state comparisons, hence being able to see the strengths and weaknesses of certain disciplines. Not to mention consistency in post-secondary education across the country so that students can be successful wherever they go to school.
We cannot deny that we are no longer the front runners in Science Education. Other nations have passed us. The United States needs to find a way to be more consistent so that every student achieves and succeeds.

*Countries with National Curriculum:
England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Jordan, Singapore, China, New Zealand, France, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal