It doesn’t matter whether you are high school student or teacher in Madrid, Manila, Marietta, Manchester, Moscow, Mumbai, or Montevideo, the chances are that you will study or teach the same concepts in the high school science curriculum. The science concepts that I have shown using “Wordle” (Wordle a neat program for generating ‘word clouds’ from text) may not include all the concepts that you teach, but it reflects the richness of the content of high school science.
In many schools around the world, students are required to take a 2 – 3 hour exit-examination in science (as well as other subjects in the curriculum). And in today’s school environment at the state, national & international level, test scores are use synonymously with achievement. Indeed, the fact that we can attach a number to the test score, and use it compare scores from one school to another, one year to another, makes the notion of a test score even more believable. We’ve come to believe that this test score is the measure of student achievement.
Yet when we look at this word map of science concepts, and note the range of ideas teachers explore with their students, we have to ask: Does a single exit-, high-stakes examination do justice to find out what high school students learn & knoq, and high school teachers present and teach in their classes?
For the past thirty years, there has been a movement, beginning at the state level, to define the science curriculum K -12 by writing statements describing what students should know and learn at the end of various levels of schooling. One of the earliest efforts was in Florida in the 1970’s. There they developed objectives & test items for the K – 12 science curriculum. I speak from experience as I was involved in this process as a researcher at Florida State University, and project director at Georgia State University. Other states followed, and by the early 1990’s, the National Academy of Sciences published the National Science Education Standards. The intensions of the Standards are laudable, with the desire for all students to achieve scientific literacy.
Yet, the notion of standards has led us down a path that needs to be questioned. Once national standards were developed, most states developed their own standards, and then hired test developing firms to design elaborate assessment systems based on the standards. Then in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, corralling school systems, schools, and state departments of education into a situation in which accountability, from “top-down” was the major determinant in the day-to-day life of teachers and students.
In an article entitled Debunking the Case for National Standards, Alfie Kohn, asks if we’ve lost our minds after the “common-standards movement” led by politicians, corporate CEO’s and companies that produce standardized tests, are mandating (nearly all States have bought into this & the Race to the Top Funds requires it), the development of a common set of standards in math and reading. This will lead to common standards in science, social studies and other subjects. And of course, this will lead to a “common set of achievement tests.”
This is a dangerous situation. It’s dangerous because the test score itself is thought of as a real measure of what a student has learned.
The problem with the testing movement and the common standards movement is that it is led by a relatively small group of people, and as Kohn points out, most, if not all, are far removed from the nation’s classrooms. Standards amount to the categorization of objectives (or concept statements) that a particular group thinks students in various grade levels should know or learn. But does it matter if our nation has a set of standards that a small group claims are important, and then forces onto the entire educational establishment in the USA, which is comprised of about 15,000 individual & diverse school systems. Kohn answers this in the following way:
It’s not only that national standards are unnecessary, they’re also based on the premise that “our teachers cannot be trusted to make decisions about which curriculum is best for their schools,” as the University of Chicago’s Zalman Usiskin put it. Moreover, uniformity doesn’t just happen—and continue—on its own. Someone has to make everyone apply the same standards. What happens, then, to educators who disagree with some of them or with, say, the premise that teaching must be split into separate disciplines? What are the implications of accepting a system characterized by what Deborah Meier has called “centralized power over ideas”?
Implicit in following the common standards route is the danger that will lurk in the subsequent tests that will be developed by testing companies—and that danger is in believing that these tests will be a measure of student achievement in our nation’s schools. Teachers need to be seen as decision-makers, and professions who are quite able to work locally to develop curriculum relevant to the students they teach.