Adoption of National Science and Mathematics Standards

Adoption of National Science and Mathematics Standards

In 1991, Jonathan Kozol published Savage Inequalities, a book that dramatically made public what most people who visit schools have always known – that American children experience shockingly different conditions of schooling. These differences are even more likely to be exacerbated in science education, the most resource-dependent of the academic subjects. Children cannot learn what is not taught. For instance, only 45% of eighth graders report that they do science experiments each week, and only about 52% of the nation’s eighth grade science teachers feel that they have enough materials to teach science.


With the movement toward new standards, some educators and policy-makers fear that simply changing standards without changing the education system that distributes opportunities to learn could result in even greater inequities for children who are poor, in minority groups, learning English as a second language, attending poor schools, or have disabilities. We can define “opportunity to learn” to include the presence of decent, safe science classrooms, certified, qualified science teachers, professional development opportunities for teachers, textbooks, supplies, laboratory equipment, and access to new technology. Crucial to successful adoption of the new science reforms are teachers who understand the reforms well and can translate them into practice. This issue of fidelity between intended reforms and classroom implementation is significant, especially since the existing research suggests that it is hard to achieve.


Professional development is one answer, but the type of professional development needed for science and mathematics reform must be comprehensive, and probably expensive. If successful science and math reform is dependent upon resources as defined above, then poor schools and students could find themselves even further behind as a result of the reform. In a national study of school-level reform of mathematics, it was found that 69 percent of the schools that were involved in significant efforts to improve mathematics defined themselves as “suburban.” These results suggest that opportunity to learn is further limited and stratified; new initiatives are designed to counteract this problem, aiming reform funds at urban schools that are disproportionately poor and disproportionately populated by diverse learners.


The concerns about opportunity to learn are magnified when considering various populations. For instance, do female students in classrooms where gender biases flourish have an equal opportunity to learn? Students who are learning to speak English and students with disabilities have experienced similarly impoverished resources in science and mathematics classrooms as do children in poor schools. What might be done to improve their opportunity to learn, if science and math for all is the goal?


School Organization


Science and mathematics reform may require significant changes in school organization. Teacher participation in decision-making and the redefinition of professional development as an in-school, real-time activity are bound to have an impact on school organization. The new reform suggests that traditional science education with its one-subject-per-year, layer-cake approach be replaced by integrated science that will require what its name indicates, scope, sequence, and coordination, and a different sort of school organization than currently exists.


In order for science and mathematics teachers to work collaboratively on integrated material, common planning time may be necessary. This may be broadened to include teachers from across the curriculum. Teachers of math and science may form teams that include special education and ESL/bilingual teachers, as is already happening in some schools. Longer time blocks to allow for extensive hands-on activities may be required. The demand for access to computer labs in some schools increases as more teachers build those activities into their schedule.


The whole-school reform efforts have encouraged educators to offer a single curriculum that allows all students to have access to high level learning. Ability grouping or tracking is an issue that has been re-examined in the effort to teach all students science and mathematics. Current empirical research on tracking directly dealing with science education is in short supply, although there are more studies available for mathematics. But there is an abundance of empirical research and meta-analyses on tracking in general, substantial qualitative research on the subject, and sophisticated mathematical analysis and modeling of the related subject of student course selection patterns in science and mathematics.


From this body of literature, four general conclusions are relevant to science and mathematics reform for diverse learners:


– Lower track classes are disproportionately populated by minority students (except Asian Americans); working class, low income students; and students with disabilities.


– Students in lower track classes get fewer resources and experience science very differently than students in higher track classes.


– Students in lower track classes achieve somewhat less than their counterparts in heterogeneously grouped classes; students in higher track classes achieve somewhat better, while differences between entire groups under tracked and untracked conditions are not much affected.


– Variations in course selection of gateway science and math courses (chemistry, geometry, etc.) for females and underrepresented groups result in these students being locked out of upper level courses and limit opportunities to pursue science, mathematics, and engineering further.


Consequently, if schools commit to mathematics and science for all, ability grouping practices must be examined. Tracking and low expectations have worked against equity for many groups. However, the science and mathematics programs suggested by the new standards seem likely to lead to new flexibility in allowing for students to progress at varying rates. The new standards promise science and mathematics education that is both broad and deep enough that one would not worry about very young students achieving the standards very quickly. Because the standards are organized in grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12), rather than in a lock-step by grade fashion, it is conceivable that a student who masters the standards in a given band early, might proceed to the next band in a non-graded fashion. Relaxation of traditional, rigid age/grade science holds promise for both high achievers and those who need more time; for instance, some students with disabilities would be served well if allowed to progress more slowly.


Aligning Assessment with Reform


Adoption of national science and mathematics standards and participation in reform are voluntary at the state level, but the reforms and the accompanying standards leave a great deal of room for interpretation at all levels. How will anyone know if state school systems, school programs, or individual teachers are interpreting the standards as they were intended by the developers? This is the fidelity issue, the match of the intended curricula to the implemented curriculum. Clearly, when there are assessments that are aligned with the science and mathematics standards we will have one, but not the only, measure of fidelity and efficacy of the new reforms.


While the United States does have a national assessment system and the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP), funded by Congress and administered through the Education Testing Service is the “Nation’s Report Card.” The new NAEP will provide a bilingual version (English/Spanish), as well as “special sittings” for students with disabilities. Thus, if the measure of seriousness in providing science and mathematics to all via new standards is indicated by a willingness to assess, the NAEP appears to be moving in the right direction.


In the meantime, several states have moved their assessment programs forward at a fast pace. The newer state assessments have been tied directly to their new state curriculum frameworks, which in turn have been influenced by the national science standards. The state assessments, such as the California Department of Education’s Science Assessment, are frequently performance-based, requiring students to solve real world problems with manipulatives, write explanations of their problem solving techniques, and describe what they have learned. If it is true that assessments drive the way teachers teach, then the improved performance-based assessments hold a great deal of promise as a catalyst for improving practice in science and mathematics classrooms. However, it is not entirely clear how changes in assessment will affect various populations of diverse learners.


Documents are to be lauded for their attention to the instructional uses of assessment, the emphasis on what students know and can do, and their explicit attention to equity. But the move towards authentic assessment, performance assessment, and more open-ended forms of assessment has been met with skepticism by some equity advocates. The hope that these assessments can be used to leverage improved curriculum and teaching is counteracted by fears that: 1) initial increases in student disparities will be used to legitimate draconian consequences for minorities; 2) open-ended tasks will be so culturally biased as to stack the deck against poor children; and 3) categorical programs and other efforts to enhance educational opportunity will be improperly monitored or, worse yet, gutted.


Assessment results can be and are used to hold both students and schools accountable for their performance. As states have begun to publish by-school assessment results, schools have been able (and in some cases, encouraged) to exclude students who may not perform well. Also, states (California, for instance) publish each school’s performance relative to other schools that are similar in terms of student social class and other background variables. The reason for these practices is to hold schools accountable only for those things that they are able to do anything about: a student’s entering language proficiency, special needs, and social class are among those things over which schools have no control. Yet practices which exclude student populations can result in an inflation of a school’s performance. For a large-scale example, California’s standing relative to other states on the NAEP reading test would drop if its limited English proficiency students had been included in the assessment. The results of science performance assessments that expose students to novel situations are more closely related to aptitude (and, in turn, related to social class) than those that directly assess school learning experiences. There are equity implications. Simply put, a performance assessment that is based upon the content and experiences of the classroom is more likely to be “fair” than one that asks students to apply principles to new tools or situations that some students have never experienced, but others have.


Ironically, while some students have had opportunities to learn denied them because tracking systems relied upon assessments, it is also true that students who are never validly assessed in science also are denied opportunities to learn. A school’s average scores on current tests are sensitive to the population of students taking the test. Therefore, schools may only administer the tests to those who will score adequately. Students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and African Americans from educationally needy environments may be asked not to attend school during testing days. This is often done under the guise of not wishing to embarrass a student. But if the teacher does not assess student progress in some meaningful way, how can the teacher know what the student is or is not learning, or evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum for a particular population?


For example, many students with disabilities are unable to demonstrate their true level of understanding and competency in science or math under traditional testing conditions. The new standards are particularly promising in that they provide excellent guidance in what students should accomplish and suggest that measurement of accomplishments can be placed on a developmentally sensitive continuum.




For millions of students who represent diverse needs and cultures, children who live in resource poor urban and rural areas, and children who come from cultures that are considered non-mainstream, the future rests in the hands of policymakers, community leaders, and educators they will never meet. These children’s future depends on the conditions of the school they attend. It depends on the quality of the ethos in the schools, on whether these schools are responsive to the students they serve. Most important, these children’s future depends on the quality of teaching that occurs in their classroom.


Concurrently, the quality of teaching and learning that occurs in schools depends on the simultaneous reforming and restructuring of the curriculum, the availability of state-of-the-art materials, and exemplary teacher preparation and professional development programs. Success also depends on teachers having access to information and to program models that have proven effective in helping students of diverse needs and cultures master the new, more rigorous standards, especially in mathematics and science. The issues addressed within this paper, we believe, are critical to the successful implementation of mathematics and science reforms in schools throughout America. Further, we believe that the models cited and the curriculum materials used in them can be replicated by teachers in a wide variety of classroom settings. These materials can enable mathematics and science teachers to respond more effectively to learning needs of their students.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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