Seeing all sides of the state's new science standards

The State Board of Education is slated to adopt new academic content standards in science at its June meeting. Lynn Elfner, executive director of the Ohio Academy of Science, and Stan W. Heffner, associate superintendent at the Ohio Department of Education, have been sparring in the press (subscription only) over the proposed standards. The Gadfly asked Elfner and Heffner to address their differences by answering seven key questions about the science standards. Following are their responses, the content of which has not been edited.

Q. What are the most important concepts that standards should embrace?

Elfner: Science as a way of knowing and learning about the natural world should far outweigh learning any statement expressed as principles, theories, concepts, or laws. Technological design—the heart of a modern economy—is missing. Also missing is the interconnected and interdependent nature of contemporary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that demands focus on cross-curricular (especially from English and mathematics), problem-solving and communications skills, and real-world applications required by Am. Sub. H.B. 1. Most 21st Century Skills are also absent. Students gain lifetime benefits from the habits of mind—such as skepticism—acquired by understanding the nature of science. The “skill-less” nature of the draft standards manifests itself also in freshmen college students, many of whom are “skill-less” as noted by Ohio college professors who teach introductory STEM classes. The draft standards do not look like science, technology, engineering, or mathematics as practiced today in Ohio and around the world.

Heffner: Standards are statements of what students are expected to know and be able to do with subject matter at a grade or course level. They also inform teachers about what they should know and be able to teach.

Students proficient in science are expected to know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations; understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and participate productively in scientific practices and discourse. Students need to engage with the foundational concepts in each discipline, explore the implications of these concepts to the real world, utilize technological and mathematical tools, and abide by the rules of evidence.

The revised science standards have been developed in two phases. Phase I addresses the subject matter that students should know (the “what”). Phase II, model curricula, will ensure that the content and skills in the standards are taught (the “how”), and it will include specific expectations for what students should be able to do.

Q. How should science skills be assessed?

Elfner: Science skills should be assessed through direct observation of the student’s ability to do science and communicate it to peers and professionals. These need to be open-ended assessments, both short and long term, and focus, in part, in areas or fields of personal interest or curiosity of students. That’s the primary way to achieve the standards’ vision that students 1) know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; 2) generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations, distinguishing science from pseudoscience; 3) understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and 4) participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.

Heffner: A variety of measures can and should be used to assess science skills. Performance-based assessments, in which students engage in the skills of scientific inquiry, are a highly effective way to assess science skills. Students can best understand how science is done by the doing of science. It is the best way students will gain sufficient understanding of scientific knowledge and scientific processes to enable them to distinguish what is science from what is not science, and to make informed decisions.

Q. What’s the balance between science knowledge, concepts, and science skills?

Elfner: The balance depends on the topic, approach, and purpose, but science skills−such as observation, problem definition, hypothesis development, experimental design, data collection, display and analysis−must be grounded in full understanding of scientific knowledge and concepts (principles, laws) with firsthand experience in the specific topic. Increasingly students see the relevance of science as a tool to solve problems that affect their lives including energy, behavior, health, and the environment. They need both science skills as well as specific content knowledge of concepts.

Heffner: All three must be intimately linked for students to become proficient in science. The balance will shift depending upon the nature of the classroom and the proficiency of individual students, the material to be learned, and the resources available. Phase II of the revised standards provides teachers with information and resources to develop lesson and unit plans targeting the knowledge, concepts and skills that students should know by the end of that grade level.

Q. How much better or worse are these standards than what we have now?

Elfner: The massive reduction in the detailed content of the PK-8 draft standards versus the 2002 standards is most welcome. Strict adherence to the clear, simplified goals, definitions, and robust philosophies in the Overview could thrust Ohio to the forefront of national standards and presage the content of the National standards due in two years. However, beyond the Overview, the draft standards are less effective than the 2002 standards because they avoid content on the nature and workings of contemporary science and are silent on technology and technological design. In the triage approach to reduce content, concepts central to understanding the nature of science were lost in favor of expressing statements. The essential way science works is gone.

Heffner: The revised standards are fewer, clearer, and push for higher cognitive demands. They are evidence and research-based, aligned with college and work expectations and national standards, and internationally benchmarked. They include rigorous content and application of higher order skills and build upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards. We are introducing a new format for teachers to embed scientific inquiry with content and help students reach the higher expectations.

Q. What will these standards mean to teachers?

Elfner: Without significant commitment of time for in-service education, PK-8 teachers will dwell on sterile statements and struggle to make any sense of relating inquiry skills vis-à-vis the statements. Only if coupled with robust in-service will teachers rise above their “favorite” topics or lessons, adhere to the broad range of topics in the draft standards, and implement scientific inquiry as both content and pedagogy. Teachers will have no guidance for technological design—the heart of the 21st Century economy—or the nature of science. This statement in the high school syllabi -- “The following information may be taught in any order” -- will find little support from most teachers who understand the structure of knowledge in a particular field and the importance of building on precursor knowledge. Simply stated, there are logical sequences to teach most subjects, especially science.

Heffner: In addition to the subject matter content to be learned, teachers will also now know what students should have been taught in prior grades, the depth of content that needs to be addressed at their grade, and how that topic will be expanded in later grades. This will facilitate lesson and unit planning. Each content statement will also provide teachers with instructional resources that will include pedagogical suggestions, information on differentiated instruction, misconceptions that can be expected when teaching a topic and connections to other discipline areas. Finally, teachers will also know what cognitive demands students are expected to master and how they will be assessed.

Q. What do these standards mean to students?

Elfner: Certainly, in the short term, students will continue to memorize facts or statements in isolation from scientific skills and 21st Century Skills required by Am. Sub. H.B. 1. The draft standards fail to fully achieve the robust vision that students ought to be able to 1) know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; 2) generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations, distinguishing science from pseudoscience; 3) understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and 4) participate productively in scientific practices and discourse. The Ohio Department of Education has “promised the world” for the content of the model curriculum document to be approved in 2011. However, most schools likely will ignore the non-binding model curriculum document.

Heffner: Students will be challenged to engage more deeply with science and make connections to the world. Beginning in the primary grades, students will be encouraged to observe and ask questions about the environment around them, to develop simple explanations for the observations, and use simple instruments to extend their senses.

By middle school they will begin identifying questions that can be answered through scientific investigations; designing and conducting experiments; describing, predicting, explaining, recognizing alternative explanations; using technological design to explore solutions to problems; using mathematics and technology as appropriate; and incorporating the rules of evidence.

By the end of high school they will have built upon the scientific inquiry and design skills to design more complex investigations utilizing mathematics, technology and other disciplinary skills to enhance their understanding, formulate and revise explanations and models using logic and evidence, and communicate and defend scientific arguments.

Q. How do these standards treat evolution?

Elfner: In a word, “ignored” is how the PK-8 draft treats evolution. As a term, evolution does not appear in the PK-8 document. The PK-8 document only vaguely refers to evolution in terms of extinct organisms (fossils). The majority of Ohio elementary science teachers will not be able to teach evolution, the underlying tenet of modern biology, with this document. For example, natural selection and mutation—underlying concepts of evolution—are missing. For a teacher well-grounded in biology, this will not be a problem because he or she can relate the principles of evolution to the genetic, ecological, and geological material in the PK-8 document. High school teachers fare much better because the biology syllabus covers most of the major principles of evolution. The major weakness of the high school biology syllabus in evolution is the lack of information on microorganisms as they relate to disease, health and industrial applications. On a 0 to 10 scale, the PK-8 standards score a zero and the high school biology syllabus might score an eight.

Heffner: There is no significant change between the current and new standards in the treatment of the science of evolution.

Lynn Elfner is a former public school teacher and represents the Ohio Academy of Science on various committees and panels involving science and education affairs in Ohio. The Academy promotes scientific research and science education and is the annual organizer of Ohio’s State Science Day. Stan Heffner oversees the Center for Curriculum and Assessment at the Ohio Department of Education. He is a former high school principal, school superintendent, and deputy secretary of education and cultural affairs at the South Dakota Department of Education.

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