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The Next Generation of Science Standards

As the nation prepares for common core standards in math and English language arts, a framework to guide new science standards is getting closer.

As the nation prepares for common core standards in math and English language arts, a framework to guide new science standards in elementary and secondary education—where students are showing only mediocre achievement compared to other nations—is getting closer.

Under the 2006 PIS A test, or Program for International Student Assessment, which is sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OE CD), an intergovernmental organization of 30 member countries, U.S. students scored lower on science literacy than their peers in 16 of the other 29 OE CD jurisdictions and six of the 27 non-OE CD jurisdictions. PIS A is taken every three years. The 2009 PIS A results will be available in December.

In light of some problems with science achievement in America's schools, the National Research Council created a project last fall, Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards, and an ad hoc committee to design the new framework that individual states would be able to use for K12 science. The committee of 16 members is being led by Helen Quinn, a professor of physics at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a multipurpose laboratory for astrophysics, photon science, and accelerator and particle physics research. Quinn has been involved in science education and in the continuing education of science teachers. She was an active contributor to the California State Science Standards development process.

"The major criticism of the existing standards is that there are so many standards that you can't possibly teach them," Quinn says. "It's not really that the standards in place now are wrong. It's about moving science teaching and science learning in schools away from memorizing a bunch of disconnected facts to more coherent facts.

Achieve, a nonprofit education reform organization that in part helps states improve assessments, would create science standards from that framework, which states may or may not use. The committee's work builds on previous NR C studies that have summarized research on science learning, including Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8, America's Lab Report, Quinn says. According to Taking Science to School, which was published in 2006, science entails much more than reciting facts or being able to design experiments. The "next generation of science standards and curricula at the national and state levels should be centered on a few core ideas and should expand on them each year, at increasing levels of complexity, across grades K-8," according to the report's executive summary.

The committee will submit in July a draft of recommendations, which will be open for public comment, Quinn says. After the summer public comment period ends, the committee will consider those comments and revise the draft. NR C will publish the committee's complete report in early 2011.