New science standards on final leg toward adoption

The second draft of new national science curriculum standards, developed in part by a team from California, is set to be released the first week in January for statewide public review.

It's the homestretch for the new standards, which are aligned with national common core standards in mathematics and English language arts and set to replace the existing content goals adopted in 1998.

The California State Board of Education will have the final say, expected in November 2013.

Like the common core standards in English and math, the Next Generation Science Standards are a move back to a more holistic approach to educating kids, said Orange County Department of Education's Dean Gilbert, a member of the California team working with 26 other states to develop the standards.

"The NGSS really does look at what it means to become scientifically literate," Gilbert said. "It opens the door for a multitude of opportunities for school to work. It's less rote memorization and more application of a student's knowledge in the real world."

Standards for science education provide expectations for the development of understanding - what students should learn and when they should learn it - through the entire course of a student's K-12 schooling. The goal of the new standards is for all high school students to be knowledgeable enough in science and engineering to engage in public discussions on science-related issues and to be careful consumers of scientific and technical information.

The standards are designed to enable students to keep pace with constantly-evolving and fast-paced scientific content by teaching them the "big ideas of science" as well as the "how-to's," Gilbert said.

"If scientific literacy is based on the quantity of information that a student memorizes, as some educators believe, and, if the amount of scientific information doubles every three years, then if we look at just the four years of high school, a student's knowledge would be obsolete before then even graduate, said Gilbert. We're moving away from the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum and trying to get kids to focus on key concepts, master specific skills, but most important, to be able to think critically and solve problems."

Upon release of the second draft early in January, local educational agencies up and down the state will host focus group meetings over a period of three weeks to receive feedback and input from educators, parents and any interested members of the community.

Information collected during the public comment period will be incorporated into the document, which will then be reviewed by California's 80-member team of experts - including Gilbert, a science educator for 38 years - for its final consideration.

Once the 27-state coalition signs off on the final standards, California's team will be reduced to about 20 members, who will scrutinize them further to make sure all concerns are addressed. Schools chief Tom Torlakson will present the standards in July to the state board, which will convene two final public hearings before meeting in November to decide on a course of action: Reject the standards, adopt them verbatim or adopt them with modifications.

"We're hoping the public review goes well enough that the state board will accept the recommendation of Superintendent Torlakson to approve the NGSS as the new science standards for the state of California," Gilbert said.

California Department of Education's Phil Lafontaine, director of the Professional Learning Support Division, said it's likely that new legislation will be drafted in the coming year allowing for the creation of the frameworks needed to implement the new standards and for the adoption of instructional materials needed to teach them. Frameworks serve as a kind of user guide' for how to teach the standards.

The legislation is needed because adoption of new frameworks and instructional materials was suspended by the state at the onset of the recession.

The state timeline currently calls for schools to begin formally using the new standards at the start of the 2014 school year but that could be delayed depending on the frameworks and instructional materials progress, Lafontaine said.

With no national science standards ever enacted, states were left to develop their own science education plans; California adopted science standards in 1998. State law requires all students to take two years of science, including biological and physical science, to qualify for a high school diploma.

California standards are broken down by grade level from kindergarten through grade eight. After covering earth, life and physical sciences yearly from kindergarten through fifth grade, students in grade six learn earth science, seventh graders focus on life science, and eighth graders study physical science. High school standards are divided into four scientific disciplines: earth, biology or life, physics, and chemistry.

Along with state content standards, instructors teach investigation and experimentation standards, which are broken into sets, one for kindergarten through eighth-grade students and another for high school students.

Students must take the appropriate California Standards Test for science in grades five, eight, and 10. High school students take earth science, biology, chemistry, physics, or integrated science tests depending on course completion.