Confusions in State Science Standards
An Introduction 

 

 

Bernadette Monahan, Jennifer Arey, Cristin Livingston and Heather Smelser

The STEM Education Center

March 2009

 

The importance of science education in the United States is to prepare its citizens for a global economy, disseminate accurate scientific knowledge, and discover new ideas which will enhance the quality of the human experience. The dissemination of accurate scientific information is an important goal for any country. In the United States it is up to the educational leaders in each state to create standards which address these goals.

Each state’s Department of Education develops, writes, and promotes standards of science education which they believe should be taught. These standards are created by each states’ Department of Education. They are created in a committee in conjunction with science teachers, curriculum specialists, university faculty, and leading scientists. These standards are designed to teach core concepts which are considered essential to the understanding and development of scientific knowledge.

These standards are the basis for science education in every public classroom at the state level, to assess student’s knowledge of the standards. In Virginia these standards are called the Standards of Learning or the SOLs. Each state has its own unique name for their standards document. The tests that measure these standards are required by the Federal Government and are a major component of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) which evaluates and compares student achievement between states. See http://www.ed.gov/nclb/accountability/ayp/testing-faq.html#4.

Comparing state science standards is like comparing apples to oranges. Each state has its own interpretation of what should be taught and when, thus providing nearly 50 different approaches. This individual approach to science education can create several problems when trying to compare each state's standards as discovered when we created a term vocabulary list from the standards.

In analyzing the state standards for the purpose of creating a single-query search engine, based on the content being taught at each grade level, we developed a core vocabulary list of standard terms (ST) based on the Virginia Science SOLs. We looked only at the original language found in the Virginia SOL document and excluded all supporting SOL documents such as the curriculum framework, the Enhanced Scope and Sequence Guide, and Standards of Learning Test Blue Print for teachers. This core vocabulary list was designed to allow the user to search scientific education data bases more efficiently and at the appropriate grade level. We also created grammatical variant terms (VT) to help find the concept when it had a grammatical variant.

In developing this list we wanted to confirm what information and what sequence other states were using to teach certain core concepts. We chose to compare California and Texas to Virginia. We divided the list into grade levels Kindergarten through sixth grade, middle school, and high school. We also focused on the standards that addressed the teaching of force, motion, and matter.

An examination of the science standards published by Virginia, California, and Texas reveals some similarities in content as expected, but the differences are surprising. Several possible problems became apparent as we compared these standards including inconsistency in the use of a term to describe a concept, standards taught at different grade levels, not all concepts or standards are taught in each state, and the standards themselves can be vague. Although only three states were compared these problems could be endemic to most.

One possible problem is the inconsistency in the use of a term. In comparing state science objectives, Virginia and Texas seemed to have more similar educational standards as evidenced by the ST lists created for Kindergarten through high school.

Kindergarten standards in both states include movement and physical properties of objects. Where they differ is in the use of exact language to describe a concept. The specific vocabulary used in the Virginia standard provides teachers a precise focus for instruction. This vocabulary is also used in the creation of the standardized test in Virginia. In Texas the standard only implies what should be taught, leaving room for teacher interpretation. Texas gives a broader view of the standard without giving exact vocabulary.

Example:

(VA)K.4

The student will investigate and understand that the position, motion, and physical properties of an object can be described. Key concepts include

a) colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white, and black;)

b) shapes (circle, triangle, square, and rectangle) and forms (flexible/stiff, straight/curved);

c) textures (rough/smooth) and feel (hard/soft);

d) relative size and weight (big/little, large/small, heavy/light, wide/thin, long/short); and

e) position (over/under, in/out, above/below, left/right) and speed (fast/slow).

In Texas the similar standard is less detailed.

(TX)K.5 The student knows that objects have properties and patterns. The student is expected to:

(A) observe and record properties such as relative size and mass, shape, color, and texture;

The vague language found in one document contrasts with the specific vocabulary in the other. Texas’ standards are left to interpretation by the teacher.

Searching for terms can become problematic when the exact term with the same meaning could not be found in the California or Texas standards. One example was searching for the descriptive term, “light”. In Virginia it is a vocabulary term that students would need to use to describe the weight of an object. While “light” is found in the other states’ standards, it referred only to a “light” source such as the sun. Searching for comparative terms required us to dig deeper into standards to find the appropriate content. Searches needed to include Variant Terms (VT) instead of just the Standard Terms (ST) to find all appropriate terms and content.

Another example of the inconsistency of the use of a term to describe a concept is Virginia’s standard 5.3 which uses the terms “opaque, transparent, and translucent,” to describe how visible light behaves. Those terms could not be found in California or Texas thus making it more difficult to determine what should be taught or what term could be used in a search to describe how light behaves.

At the high school level, implied terms are needed in order to teach some concepts. For example, Avogadro’s Principle is explicitly stated in the high school standards in Virginia and Texas, but not in California. This does not indicate that the concept is not being taught in California, but it does suggest there are implied concepts that should be taught also. Avogadro’s principle describes the weight of a mole which is based on our search of the term “mole” which we found in all three states. California is not the only set of standards with implied terms. “Lewis diagram” is stated in the California and Virginia standards, but is not in Texas standards. Another example is in Virginia, where” historical contributions” in understanding electricity are in the original language of the standard, but not defined. The teacher must refer to another document to discover whose historical contributions must be taught.

Teaching implied terms in order to understand a concept adds to the already overwhelming amount of content that is required to be taught. In addition, states often create other documents, such as curriculum guides, to clarify ambiguous standards. Without these documents, teachers must interpret the standard and supplement their instruction without “standard” or statewide uniform guidance. State standards become vague when exact vocabulary is not used; this leads into the next possible problem of the standards themselves being vague.

For example, Virginia’s standard 5.3e states, “historical contributions in understanding light.” It is unclear what historical standards the students are to learn by just reading the standard. While researching, it was found that Virginia has not only the Standards of Learning (SOLs), but also a curriculum framework, an Enhanced Scope and Sequence Guide, and Standards of Learning Test Blue Print for teachers to follow (http://www.doe.virginia.gov/VDOE/Instruction/sol.html scroll down to General Resources). Using four sets of documents to determine what to teach could overwhelm a seasoned teacher let alone a new teacher.

Another possible problem arises when; standards are taught at different grade levels in different states. This could be a problem for teachers and students who move at any time during their school career. For example, a student in the Texas school system will start to learn about force in Kindergarten, a student in the California school system will start to learn about force in the second grade, and a student in the Virginia school system will learn about force in fourth grade (4.2b). Because the standard of force is taught at different grade levels, a student who moves could be at a disadvantage for state testing. Likewise, a teacher who is trained in Virginia, but moves to another state must familiarize themselves with new content. It is also difficult to create a grade level vocabulary list from several states’ standards.

Another example is the concept electricity. In California electricity is taught in the fourth grade, in depth and then not taught again until high school. Therefore a student moving from out of state, who missed the fourth grade in California could lack a basic scientific understanding of the subject needed in high school. In Virginia students are exposed to the concepts of electricity through out their education by revisiting or spiraling of concepts. An effort is made in Virginia to teach basic concepts in a sequential order. This allows movement of knowledge from grade level to the next without large gaps in instruction. when concepts are taught at different grade levels.

Spiraling curriculum is a useful tool that requires a foundation of learning be built before it is expanded upon in successive grade levels. Virginia spirals their curriculum and provides the opportunity for each successive grade level to re-teach and review what was taught in previous grade levels so that students are exposed to skills and vocabulary on a consistent basis.

Example:

Texas standards involve teaching students the properties of materials in Kindergarten, the forms materials can take in First Grade, the motion of an object in Second Grade, and energy in Third Grade. Each grade level’s learning seems to be disjointed from the previous year.

Virginia standards involve teaching the students:

K5: Student will investigate and understand that water flows and has properties that can be observed and tested.

K.5.a water occurs in different states (solid, liquid, gas);

1.3: The student will investigate and understand how different common materials interact with water.

1.3.a some liquids will separate when mixed with water, other will not;

2.3: The student will investigate and understand basic properties of solids, liquids, and gases.

2.3.a mass and volume; and

2.3.b processes involved with changes in matter from one state to another (condensation, evaporation, melting, and freezing)

3.3 The student will investigate and understand that objects are made of materials that can be described by their physical properties.

3.3.a objects are made of one or more materials;

3.3.b materials are composed of parts that are too small to be seen without magnification; and

3.3.c physical properties remain the same as the material is reduced in size.

Finally, it appears that not all content is found or organized in the same manner. Virginia, California, and Texas have standards for different subject areas at the high school level. Once Texas approves the science standards currently in draft form, all three states will have standards for Physics, Chemistry, and Earth Science. However, these same states approach the Biology and Life Sciences content differently. California has “Biology/Life Sciences” standards whereas Virginia and Texas have “Biology” standards. There are also five subjects of standards unique to Texas: Integrated Physics and Chemistry, Environmental Systems, Aquatic Science, Astronomy, and Engineering.

The variation between subject areas in the state standards illustrates the difficulty in comparing standards between the states. It is challenging to find commonalities when each state has standards organized in different subject areas. This discrepancy could lead to a conclusion that certain states provide a more rigorous high school science education than others. Should more states follow Texas and adopt science standards in more areas? Why do Virginia and California not find these same areas important enough for standards? Aligning standards between the states would solve this discrepancy.

However, by taking a deeper look at the standards, including the sub topics for each, surprisingly uncovers several similarities. Comparing the list of key terms extracted from the Virginia science standards to the first occurrence in the California and Texas standards reveals a close alignment between these states. Terms from the Virginia Physics standards match the Texas and California standards twenty-four and twenty-nine times, respectively. The commonalities at the high school level in the Virginia, California, and Texas science standards could be the starting point of defining a set of national standards. An assumption could be made that other states would find these same standards important.

The surprising differences between the science standards published by Virginia, California, and Texas equate to students receiving different levels, amounts, and quality of science instruction. A fair comparison of the science achievement of students across the United States could be impossible with large differences in state standards. States adopt standards as a means of ensuring an identical education for all students and therefore can measure student achievement based on these standards. How can the United States measure, evaluate, and improve the level of science achievement for the country as a whole without common standards?

State standards could benefit from a national vocabulary list of scientific terms or national science standards. This vocabulary list would be based on averaged learning levels (LL), a continuity of concepts, and possible provide clear and concise terms for the science standards. This list could provide a starting point for all states. National science standards or a national vocabulary list based on learning levels could level the “playing field” for states, students and teachers. The comparing of apple to oranges would not occur and science education could be consistent in the United States.

Individual states should no longer act independently of each other if the United States is to compete in the global markets. National standards or even a national vocabulary list could allow a better dissemination of science throughout the United States.