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Chemistry, Physics, Biology Groups Respond to Science Standards

Does chemistry get enough attention in the latest draft of common science standards? Are the performance expectations for students clearly written and easy to understand? And what about this whole business of integrating engineering across science disciplines?

These are a few of the issues raised by reviewers from several content-specific groups I recently contacted, including the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, and the National Association of Biology Teachers. All found things to like and some areas for concern.

A second and final public draft of the standards came out last month, with the final product expected in March. The standards are being developed by 26 "lead state partners" in collaboration with experts in science and science education.

I've recently spotlighted some critiques from a Washington think tank that believes science content gets short shrift in the latest draft, and from some engineering advocates who believe that subject has been downgraded since the first draft came out in May of last year.

To be sure, there's no shortage of opinions about the science standards, just as there's no shortage of opinions about what's right and wrong with science instruction in K-12 education today, and what to do about it.

Here's a sampling of what I heard from three groups focused on science and science education.

American Physical Society

The APS review team saw some improvements from the first public draft, but still has some concerns, said Jacob Clark Blickenstaff, the director of teacher education programs at the organization, whose members include physicists in academia, business, and at national laboratories (as well as some high school physics teachers).

The APS review was not cleared for formal approval by the organization, but was endorsed by an APS subcommittee. The review team had eight members, including high school and university physics faculty, physics education faculty, plus a physicist at a national lab and another from industry.

"We had some commendations," Blickenstaff said. "We noticed that many of [our prior] concerns were addressed," such as the addition of explicit attention to the "nature of science." Also, he said the APS team was pleased with changes focused on engineering.

"We like the threading of engineering practices through the whole document, rather than putting engineering as a separate thing," he said. "If these standards as written were implemented, the vast majority of students would have a better experience of engineering education than they're getting now."(Some advocates for engineering education, however, argue that engineering gets short shrift in the latest draft.)

Now for the negative.

For one, Blickenstaff said the new draft places "an overemphasis on qualitative descriptions of phenomena without ever measuring and putting numbers to them. There is very little expectation that students will take numerical measurements," he said. In other words, the standards tend to speak in terms of things being bigger or smaller, faster or slower, but not how much bigger, how much slower, he explained. In addition, he said, "there is very little attention to graphs, creating graphs, interpreting graphs. And since these standards are for all students, that is something we think every high school graduate should be able to do."

Indeed, Blickenstaff argues that the level of math required in the Next Generation Science Standards "is not congruent with" the math in the common-core standards. "We should have more math in these science standards. ... The limits they've put on physics, by not expecting that level of math, means [students] are not getting an adequate experience of what physics is."

Leaving aside such concerns, a big worry Blickenstaff expressed is whether teachers, especially at the elementary level, will be able to successfully teach to these standards. (I'm hearing this worry from a lot of people, by the way.)

"The only way we see these standards in most primary schools is with a science specialist, because the level of both science content and science process skill that the teacher needs to have ... is more than almost any elementary teacher has had to have at this point. So we either will have to re-educate all the elementary teachers out there, or have a science specialist in each school."

American Chemical Society

Mary Kirchhoff, the director of education at the American Chemical Society walked me through some of her organization's concerns with the latest draft, though she also said the updated version was seen as preferable by ACS to the first draft. Its review panel included high school chemistry teachers, K-8 teachers, and faculty involved in teacher preparation in chemistry.

"We still have some significant concerns with the most recent draft," Kirchhoff told me. One key complaint from the ACS, a professional society that represents individuals in all fields of chemistry, is a belief that the standards lack adequate chemistry coverage across the standards. (The review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also lodged this complaint with the standards.)

"In particular, there is a gap in chemistry being presented, with chemistry in grades 3 or 4, and that seems like a big gap," she said. "And there are some pretty big concepts in chemistry that seem to be absent," including acid-base chemistry. "Nowhere do they learn about acids and bases. This was probably part of the tension with making the standards less discipline-oriented, but I think they've missed a few of the big concepts."

In addition, Kirchhoff said she identified some errors in the document, generally found in the "clarifying statements" that follow each performance expectation. "One says dissolving ammonium chloride is a chemical process when in fact it's a physical process," she said. "In another, they used examples of common substances, steam and water. But steam is water. It's the same substance."

Also, Kirchhoff complained about how some of the performance expectations were written. "Some are very clear, but some of them are difficult to digest," she said. She described the language for one such expectation as "tortured."

National Association of Biology Teachers

Of the three organizations, the biology teachers' group seemed to be the most upbeat in its assessment.

"We're enthusiastic about a lot of the standards," said Jacyln Reeves-Pepin, the group's executive director. "We think they're very ambitious. ... They're really addressing some of the skills deficiencies we're seeing."

The review team included middle and high school biology teachers.

In particular, Reeves-Peppin praised the push for students to explore science and develop models. "It puts the onus on the student to think about what they're doing, not just repeat a procedure. It changes the emphasis so the students get to 'own' the knowledge they're obtaining, so they can reflect on what they're doing, and reflect on what they're learning."

She added, "We don't necessarily want [all students] to become scientists and engineers, but we need them to think that way."

Reeves-Peppin added, "The addition of modeling and quantitative steps, skills, especially in the life sciences, is a major step forward."

As for concerns, she suggested that certain standards, especially those touching on evolution and natural selection, "could have had better clarification statements added to them." She also echoed the concern about pushing for math that better matches the common core. "It isn't up to the common core math, and that can be frustrating."

In the end, Reeves-Peppin said she was encouraged to see evidence in the latest draft that the feedback matters.

"It's very energizing to see that the suggestions that are being made are being taken seriously and put into the standards," she said.

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