California Board of Ed Defers Decision on Science Standards

In a meeting last week, the California Board of Education chose to defer the final decision on the adoption of new science standards until at least this fall. The new standards emphasize the study of fewer subjects in more depth and board members wanted to give educators a chance to weigh in after they returned from their summer breaks.

Even though the decision has been put off for now, board members – educators, business and community leaders among them – expressed support for the standards, saying that their adoption could lead more students to embrace science and maybe even choose a science-related major in college. Board member Bruce Holaday seemed confident at the meeting that eventually the board was going to approve the adoption.

Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times writes that the new benchmarks are based on the Next Generation Science Standards. Much like the Common Core Curriculum, the standards – which were unveiled this April – were the work of education officials from 26 states with input from experts in the fields of education and science. According to Watanabe, the NGSS is the first time that national science standards have received an overhaul in nearly 2 decades.

The standards emphasize understanding of concepts and hands-on practices such as defining problems, asking questions, designing investigations, analyzing data and using evidence to draw conclusions.

The standards also delve more thoroughly into such often-controversial topics as climate change and the impact of genetic engineering on food and medicine.

The shift to a more practical application of science and engineering concepts comes amid widespread concerns over the low achievement of U.S. students in science and math. Only 21% of California public school eighth-graders scored as proficient in science, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal government project that monitors academic achievement.

Much attention is now being paid to the so-called skills gap as the number of jobs in the science and technology fields is growing while the percentage of students intending to major in science or technology has stalled. According to Chris Roe of the STEM Learning Network, more than 30 large employers like Chevron and Boeing have expressed support for the new standards as one of the building blocks needed to close the gap.

Of course, the path between approval and adoption is going to be long and expensive. A representative of the California Teachers Association who spoke at the meeting said that full adoption will require investment in teacher training to make sure that teachers are prepared to handle the more challenging material.

Some, however, think the standards are weak and focus too much on process and too little on content.

One critic has been the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based educational policy organization. President Chester E. Finn said the national benchmarks excessively focus on practice over scientific knowledge and that California’s current standards are superior.