Politics & Policy

Science Standards

We can't afford to go light.

Science education in America is already a hot topic, but it’s about to get hotter. A federal committee you may not have heard of is set to vote on a document that could do it long-term damage to the teaching and learning of science in U.S. primary and secondary schools, just when it needs to be strengthened. The timing couldn’t be worse, nor could the signals that this decision will send into states and schools across the land.

As Thomas Friedman shows in his best-seller, The World Is Flat, there is ample reason to worry that America’s longstanding lead in science is slipping away. This could be a calamity for our economy, our security, and our role in global affairs. A recent National Academy of Sciences report concludes that “Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living.”

To reverse this alarming prospect, we must do a better job of teaching students real science content and skills so as to assure that there will be a next generation of scientific leadership–and that everyone else is scientifically literate as well. The first step is to set clear expectations for what schoolchildren should learn, linked to reliable assessments that tell us whether they are learning it.

America’s most respected gauge of student achievement is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a.k.a. “the nation’s report card.” It’s a federally funded testing program that tracks knowledge and skills in specific subjects in grades 4, 8, and 12, and reports progress in relation to three benchmark standards (“basic,” “proficient,” “advanced.”)

Every 15 years or so, NAEP revises and updates its tests and standards, as it should. Overseeing this process is a 26-member panel called the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Education and currently chaired by long-time Bush education ally Darvin Winick, from Houston.

Science’s turn has come, and we had hoped that NAGB would refurbish this important assessment to take account of key developments in scientific knowledge and understanding. Instead, NAGB is expected later this week quietly to adopt a watered down, generally mediocre and error-riddled “framework” for the design of tests by which K-12 science education is to be tracked for years to come.

These are not “high stakes” exams like those required by the No Child Left Behind Act and conducted by the states. Yet NAEP tests, and the frameworks on which they are built, are enormously influential in shaping America’s expectations for K-12 teaching and learning and in determining how good is good enough. Many states and school systems pattern their curricula on NAEP’s frameworks and strive to align their own tests with them.

Along with several colleagues expert in all the relevant sciences, I have reviewed NAGB’s new draft science framework. It’s simply not good enough. This basic science education document, in its draft form at least, earns a grade of “C.” The main problem is its lack of ambition: The focus is on science that students might be expected to remember ten years after leaving school, rather than what they should learn while they’re in school. It is also thin on science content and short on mathematical reasoning–which is integral to modern science. Just as troubling, the “framework” draft contains scientific errors and misleading statements.

We can surely do better. Some states already have. California, arguably one leader of the scientific world, and Massachusetts, certainly another, have developed excellent science standards. The Nation’s Report Card shouldn’t expect anything less. If we continue to demand too little in science of young Americans, how long before China and India (and other hard-charging competitors) leave us behind? We should do everything in our power to stay in front. This draft NAEP framework moves in the wrong direction.

Paul R. Gross is University Professor of Life Sciences emeritus of the University of Virginia where he also served as provost, and former director of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. He is the chief author of a forthcoming review of state science standards to be published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


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