Fordham Institute Review of California Science Standards Given a C-
by Peter A’Hearn
The Fordham Institute recently gave the California State Science Standards an A in its recent “State of State Science Standards” report. The report says the standards are, “Truly excellent.” Pretty cool huh? We’re number one! We’re number one!
These standards have been around since 1998 and have definitely had the time to become central to the way that science is taught in California. And yet in the most recent Nation’s Report Card (NAEP 2009), California ranked second to last in science achievement out of 43 participating states. We beat Mississippi! They had a hurricane that year, what is our excuse? On the NAEP, only 22% of California 4th graders and 19% of California 8th graders were proficient in science. The report is available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2011451.
Maybe the problem is that the “truly excellent” standards haven’t been properly supported. The Fordham report does point out that, “standards alone can’t drive achievement.” But there is evidence that California teachers are doing a good job of teaching the science standards as seen on CST scores. On the California 2009 CST science test for the same year as the NAEP, 49% of 5th graders and 63% of 8th graders were graded proficient in their understanding of the California standards. This is actually frequently the pattern when NAEP scores are compared with state test scores.
So why is there such a great discrepancy between NAEP and CSTs? Perhaps is has to do with the way the tests are viewed. The state tests are high stakes (for schools and teachers, not for students). Anybody who has spent much time in science classrooms lately will notice that a huge amount of time and energy is spent preparing for the state test: taking practice tests, analyzing test data for re-teaching, taking practice tests to prepare for the practice test. In other words, test prep has frequently taken the place of learning and doing science. The result has been an increase in student scores on the state tests.
The NAEP is different. Because it is not high stakes, teachers are not under pressure to prepare kids directly for the test. Without intense cramming, the NAEP actually tests what kids know long term and can apply about science. When California students are asked to apply what they know, they fail miserably as seen in the NAEP results. Anyone who has been to school can understand that there is a difference between what we can memorize and regurgitate when we cram for a test and what we have actually learned that we can use and apply.
So, given the fact that classroom instruction is closely tied to the standards, I would argue that the California standards themselves are a contributing cause of the terrible performance of California students in science. The California standards are based on fundamental misunderstandings about how students learn science. I would label these misunderstanding as; “more is better,” “harder is better,” “being able to give the correct answer means you understand it, “ and “science is a collection of facts.” These are misunderstandings that the authors of the Fordham report share. This is not coincidental, since two of the principal authors of the Fordham report, Martha Schwartz, and Rick Schwartz were also two of the principal authors of the California Science Standards and Science Framework.
Let’s start with “more is better.” The Fordham report praises California’s standards for being thorough and extensive, and for “covering topics rarely seen in other state standards.” They see a few things that they would add, and no topics that are “too much.” This is at odds with research done as part of the recent Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) which found that in the highest achieving countries, standards covered fewer science topics, which allowed for more depth. In California, by contrast there are 28 science standards in 3rd grade, 38 in 5th grade, 45 in 7th grade, and a whopping 87 in high school chemistry. There is simply not the time for students to grapple deeply with these ideas. More effective standards (according to TIMSS) also do not involve much repetition from grade level to grade level. Yet, in California, photosynthesis appears at 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th grades and in high school earth science and biology!
Next, let’s deal with, ”Harder is better.” The Fordham report praises the California standards for their rigor. Rigor is a word that gets thrown around in education without a clear definition. Often the definition is, “I know it when I see it,” as Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography.
The Fordham definition of rigor seems to be, “hard and extensive.” Recent cognitive reports indicate that standards should be challenging, but sensitive to conceptual change that students must undertake to align their prior knowledge with scientific understanding. Introducing the atom and the periodic table, and the very abstract concepts of matter and energy at the 3rd grade level, as the California standards do, does not meet the cognitive standard! In fact, most educated adults could not give a coherent explanation of these concepts.
A better definition of rigor involves higher order thinking. Memorization is low rigor. Being able to do something with knowledge, making predictions, evaluating evidence, asking hard questions, creating something new—these are examples of rigorous understanding. The California standards set a bar for low rigor by beginning each standard with “Students know…” In 4th grade we get this example where knowing interferes with understanding: “Students know how to design and build simple series and parallel circuits by using components such as wires, batteries, and bulbs.” To meet this standard, students don’t actually have to build circuits, just know how to do it.
Asking kids to “know” is the “being able to give the correct answer means you understand it” fallacy. If all we have to do is “know” then memorization is all we need, but we’re not doing science. Science is a both a body of knowledge and way of understanding. Our students need to go beyond “knowing” science; they need to do and apply science ideas to real problems. Research shows that people learn what they apply. By using information and connecting it to what they already know, they build up a conceptual framework in which information is strongly linked and will be remembered.
The California standards do not put science process skills front and center. They tuck them away at the back of the other standards and do not honor them with a paragraph of explanation as they do with the “know” standards. They only count for 10% of the state test score. And anyone who has spent time in California classrooms can see that actually “doing” science is being squeezed out in favor of “knowing” science for the test. One result is that participation in high school level science fairs in the state is rapidly dwindling. It is wrong to separate what we know in science (the content) from how we know it (science process), but the California standards do just that to the detriment of our students.
The last misunderstanding is, “science is a collection of facts.” Once again, the California Standards are “uneven” at best with standards of many different grain sizes. Compare the 7th grade standard “know the function of the umbilicus and placenta during pregnancy” with “know plants and animals have different levels of organization for structure and function including cells, tissues, organs, organs systems, and the whole organism.” In the former statement, students know a fact; in the latter students are asked to understand a core concept in life science. The released items on the CST are often of low cognitive demand, resulting in instruction that focuses on factual answers rather than conceptual understanding. No wonder the students do poorly on NAEP that requires conceptual thinking.
There are some things to like in the California standards and some things that I agree with in the Fordham report. I’m glad to teach science in a state where the Earth is more than 6,000 years old and where dinosaurs and humans weren’t around at the same time. But as a model of standards that lead to excellent science teaching and learning, they leave much to be desired.
Luckily the California legislature (after many years of hard work by CSTA) has finally passed a measure allowing the standards to be revised. California is also one of the states participating in the national development of the Next Generation Science Standards. These look very promising based on the framework. They put science practices (what scientists do) front and center and include engineering as one of the strands along with earth, life, and physical science. They identify central crosscutting concepts that tie all the sciences together. Most excitingly, they seek to describe what students do within each standard by using the scientific processes. In other words, to demonstrate understanding, students do not simply “know”, they build a model, they collect and interpret data, and they support claims with evidence. It is a work in progress, but it seems like it will provide much needed changes to how science is taught in California.
Pete A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is region 4 director for CSTA.
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Responses from Readers:
Peter A’Hearn: Rush hour in little blue circle land.
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