Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2007 Newsletter



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The Influence of National Standards on Science Education

Rodger W. Bybee

In the early 1990s, I began working on the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) as chair of the content working group. In 1995, Diane Ravitch published National Standards in American Education: A Citizens Guide which stimulated a national conversation about standards. As a participant in the national conversation I soon realized several objections to national standards. For example, some expressed concerns about the imposition of values, the potential of a national curriculum, the priority of states rights, the reduction of equality of opportunity, and the very real concern that alone national standards will stand as policies without aligned curriculum programs and improved classroom practices. These and other concerns describe some of the challenges of national standards.

At the same time, I recognized the long-term potential influence of national standards for science education. First, it is the case that national standards can influence all the important components of the educational system. Second, they identify the most fundamental goals-learning outcomes. Third, standards at the national level are necessary for equality of educational opportunity. Finally, I find little reason to have different state and local content standards for science because the basic concepts of science do not vary from state to state.

For more than a decade, national standards have stimulated a national conversation that addresses the questions posed by Cremin. While that national conversation continues, national standards also have been the basis for national, state, and local policies; elementary, middle, and high school programs, and changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. So, I am confident in responding to a question about the past influence of national standards by stating that they have demonstrated one very important characteristic, namely they have changed fundamental components of science education at a scale that makes a difference. Some would certainly question whether the changes have been good or bad. I would argue that on balance, the national standards have had a positive influence on the science education system. This said, the influence has often been weak. That is the bad news. The good news is that the influence of national standards has been continuous and generally in the direction of more coherent, focused, and rigorous state policies, school programs, and classroom practices. After release of the standards in 1996 the National Research Council undertook the task of developing a framework for research in mathematics, science, and technology education. The report has been used to frame questions and guide investigations of the influence of standards (NRC, 2002). There is evidence supporting the generally positive influence of national standards (NRC, 2003, Sunal and Wright, 2006).

In the past year, there have been new calls for national standards from several major urban school districts, the Council of Great City Schools, Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Science Board, and members of Congress. These discussions are simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. They continue the national conversation about what our society needs from a science education, the role of standards, and the requirements for fundamental changes within the science education system. These discussions present the encouraging side of calls for national standards.

The discouraging side of the discussion centers on the fact that we already have national standards for science education. Although the national standards need revision, could be reduced, may be presented in more helpful ways, and should address contemporary social and educational advances, we do have a major national investment in standards. There is very little to suggest that developing new national standards will be endorsed by states, embraced by publishers, accepted by teacher educators, and implemented by test makers.

Revising the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) could meet the aims of those calling for new national standards. A revision would serve an additional aim, namely, signaling the education community that these national standards may continue to be used in the formulation of policies, development of curricula, and foundation for assessments. As an alternative to revision, I would note that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) used the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) and Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) as the conceptual framework for NAEP Science 2009. So, for the contemporary perspective, I argue that we have national standards for the content of science education, what we need is to revise and improve those standards and work for wider understanding, endorsement, and alignment in state frameworks and assessments, teacher education and licensure, and school science programs.

As to the future influence of national standards, it seems there are several significant issues looming on the horizon. One has already been mentioned. The NAEP Science 2009 test will use a framework based on the national standards. This situation suggests minor revision and improvement of current national standards in order to align with the priorities of national assessments from 2009 to 2019.

From its enactment in January 2002 the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has placed time and attention on literacy and mathematics and used assessment results as a means of determining adequate yearly progress for schools attaining desired outcomes. Beginning this year, student achievement in science will be included as an outcome. While the No Child Left Behind is a significant civil rights statement, unfortunately, the mechanisms for implementation are generally a disaster. In the Sputnik era we learned that "teacher proof" curricula were not effective. Now, many educators are realizing that "school punishment" likewise is not an effective reform strategy in the NCLB era.

One omission and a major issue in the use of NCLB as a stimulus for reform has been a lack of instructional materials. We have the policy and assessments but, lack curriculum materials that will facilitate effective science teaching. I think this omission of emphasis on well designed instructional materials will have long-term detrimental consequences for science education.

The continued interest in the public's attention to the United States ranking on international assessments presents another issue for which the influence of national standards would be considered. One of the insights from higher achieving countries is the coherence of their school science curricula and assessments. Continued attention to national standards will serve to increase coherence among the central components of science education. This view builds on the long-term positive benefit of the standards. The national standards do emphasize teaching science as inquiry and this approach holds the possibility of addressing several of the important outcomes that are consistent with recommendations from business and industry-understanding systems, solving complex problems, developing critical thinking, and using evidence as the basis for decisions, (BSCS, 2007).

Finally, there are emerging concerns about America 's economic competitiveness and the need to prepare a 21 st century workforce. Here too, national standards could provide a valuable influence as we consider the needs and appropriate responses for science education.

As I was completing this essay two recent statements underscored the need for national standards. On 4 May, Science had a brief article on the National Science Board report on STEM education. With the headline, "Report Urges More Coordination to Improve Science and Math" the report suggested the need for national standards. And on 8 June, The New York Times carried an article on the release of a U.S. Department of Education report that measured the extent of differences among states' academic standards. The headline, "States Found to Vary Widely on Education" and the articles first sentence, "Academic standards vary so drastically from state to state that a fourth grader judged proficient in reading in Mississippi or Tennessee would fall short of that mark in Massachusetts and South Carolina." tell the story. For me, both of these articles make the case for national standards and the need for well designed instructional materials and assessments (Bybee, 2006, Bybee and Ferrini-Mundy, 1997).

At the same time the Secretary of Education published an editorial in the Washington Post (9 June 2007), in which she argued that national standards would "lower the academic bar" and do little to "address the persistent achievement gap." I argue just the opposite. National standards could raise the academic bar for states and still leave them with the freedom to select materials and provide professional development to achieve higher levels-for all students.

In this brief article I have discussed the influence of national standards for science education. They have provided a central focus for conversation and debate about essential issues and served as a foundation for science education policies, programs, and practices. My conclusion is that the national standards have had and will continue to be a positive influence on science education in the United States .


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. Washington , DC .

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS). (2007). A decade of action: Sustaining global competitiveness. A synthesis of recommendations from business, industry, and government for a 21 st -century workforce. Colorado Springs , CO .

Bybee, R. (February 2006). The national science education standards: Personal reflections. School Science and Mathematics . Vol. 106 (2). p. 57-63.

Bybee, R., and Ferrini-Mundy, J., (October 1997). Editorial in School Science and Mathematics. Vol. 97 (6). P. 281-282.

National Research Council (NRC). (1996). National science education standards . Washington , DC : National Academy Press.

National Research Council (NRC). (2002). Investigating the influences of standards: A framework for research in mathematics, science, and technology education . Washington , DC : National Academy Press.

National Research Council (NRC). (2003). What is the influence of the national science education standards? Reviewing the evidence, a workshop summary. Washington , DC : The National Academy Press.

Ravitch, D. (1995). National standards in American education: A citizen's guide.

Sunal, D. W. and Wright, E. (Eds.) (2006). The impact of state and national standards on k-12 science teaching . Greenwich , CT : Information Age Publishing.

Rodger Bybee is Executive Director of BSCS. He served as chair of the content working group for the National Science Education Standards.



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