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Originally published Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Streamlined science-education standards debated

Washington's proposed new science-education standards do not make scintillating reading, but the people behind the new guidelines for teachers say their work should make classrooms more interesting for kids.

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — Washington's proposed science-education standards do not make scintillating reading, but the people behind the new guidelines for teachers say their work should make classrooms more interesting for kids.

The guidelines may also provide one of the few bright spots in Olympia this winter, as discussion of the proposed standards give lawmakers a break from debating what to do about the budget deficit.

Of course, implementing the learning requirements would cost money, but teaching educators how to use the new guidelines won't be nearly as expensive as giving them raises or reducing class sizes.

At least one teacher has already been inspired by the new guidelines, without any instruction about how to use them.

"I've used it in my classroom already," said Russ Ballard, a physics and chemistry teacher at Kentlake High School in Kent, who served on the task force designing the new standards. "The philosophy and the intent that came out of this project has influenced my teaching."

Ballard says he is making an effort to help students understand how science influences their lives and how they can apply scientific thinking to other kinds of problem solving and communication.

The task force took an overly complex document and streamlined it, he said.

The first revision of the state's science-education standards since 2003 is organized into four essential learning requirements across all grades from kindergarten to 12th grade. All children should be able to accomplish:

• Systems thinking to analyze and understand complex phenomena.

• Inquiry activities to develop understanding of scientific ideas.

• Application of the science they are learning to solve real-world problems.

• Understanding of the domains of science: physical science, life science, and earth and space science.

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Under these categories come more specific goals concerning the core content kids are supposed to learn at different grade levels.

The new standards require teachers to cover fewer concepts per year, but to do so in a deeper way. The document does not tell teachers how to teach; it provides an outline of the path of learning kids should follow to gather certain science knowledge by the time they graduate from high school.

"In the United States, we teach a mile wide and an inch deep. The folks that are doing better on national standardized tests teach less, more deeply," said Mary McClellan, science director for teaching and learning at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The science-standards revision is part of bigger project to revise the way Washington teaches science and tests its students' academic achievement. The goal is to improve the teaching of science and revise the science section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) before it is scheduled to become a high-school graduation requirement in 2013.

The wake-up call for lawmakers and state officials has been the dismal passing rate on the science WASL. Only 39.7 percent of 10th-graders passed the science WASL in 2008.

A team of more than 30 teachers and scientists worked together to create the new standards.

The process was cooperative, but not without tension, said Cary Sneider, an associate research professor at Portland State University who facilitated the discussion.

"Tension is helpful, because it's through tension that you come up with a better product," Sneider said.

One point of tension was the debate between college science professors and public-school teachers.

The professors wanted to make sure the standards would send them students who were prepared for college-science courses; the teachers said some early drafts covered too much content and were too challenging for some students.

Sneider said the two sides compromised by setting performance expectations at a level that is within the grasp of virtually every student.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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