Sunday, January 18, 1998

Instilling knowledge

Published in the Columbia Missourian

Think back to when you were in school. Chances are, your teacher had a list of assignments to get through in a given year. Those that didn't get covered were left for the following year or skipped altogether. That's all very different now.

School districts now use academic standards to design effective curriculum for science education. The result is teachers have more focus in the classroom and students benefit from improved continuity.

State and federal funding sources require school districts to adhere to their recommendations yet they each have different guidelines.

Competing for district attention are the national standards, backed by the U.S. Department of Education.

There are the Project 2061 standards put forward by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And there are the Show-Me Standards, designed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and mandated by the state legislature.

They are similar. They all have the goal of improving K-12 science education. They all split curriculum levels the same way: K-4, 5-8 and 9-12. They all stipulate that science education is vital preparation for the world beyond academics. They all cover similar topics somewhere in the curriculum.

The problem for the school district comes in assessment. While the state's goals for learning are to be achieved by the fourth, eighth and 12th grades, the tests are administered in third, seventh and 10th grades.

For example, the third-grade test asks students about food chains and food webs. In Columbia, those subjects are taught in the fourth grade.

While in the primary grades, this forces teachers to cram an extra year of science learning into the K-3 years. Those are years when literacy education is vital. There is not enough time for both, said Becky Litherland, district coordinator of science education.

In the middle grades, the state of Missouri requires the teaching of genetics and natural selection in seventh grade - a subject difficult even for high-school sophomores, Litherland said.

In high school, teachers are left with two years to fill after the final state assessment. Subject matter originally intended for those years is tested before it is ever taught.

The competing sets of guidelines, together with the state-mandated assessment schedule, give Columbia schools some hard choices and, Litherland said: "Local control is costing us more of our education dollars."

Curriculum development has been an ongoing process far longer than government standards have been in place. "We have been changing the science curriculum for 14 years," Litherland said.

It's only in the past two years that she has been working with the national standards to create a Columbia curriculum unique to the district.

Gentry Middle School teacher Laura Jackson helped design the national standards for K-12 science education. Litherland said there is "a real sense of pride" with the local connection, and the local district tends to favor that system over the others.

The national standards, she said, are the result of years of hard work by some of the nation's best science educators and their recommendations make sense to her when others do not.

Teachers are, on their own, doing very good assessment of student performance. They have left behind the multiple-choice tests used for years, but the district's teachers are stuck. They want to teach well. They also want students to do well on tests which adhere to the state standards.

"It's hard to sell at the local level," Litherland said. "You're sitting there with a bunch of teachers and they say, 'Give me what's going to be on the test.'"

One particular national standard of importance to Litherland is "science as inquiry." It used to be called "designing and doing experiments." In Columbia, these experiments are integrated into classes where possible, giving students experience in exploring science for themselves.

A big difference now is the concept of the science fair. In the past, a student may have been told to do a science fair project without much additional help. Now students learn how to think about experiments, how to build them and how to interpret results. It's working. Columbia schools win Missouri Science Olympiad awards year after year.

Although Litherland said she believes standards renew the commitment to teaching excellence, she said she fears that the state testing system asks too much of students too early. She said she isn't happy with the current timetable.

When the state was planning education schedules, Litherland and other science educators asked the department of education to schedule science testing in fourth, eighth and 11th grades.

As all of the state's standards and assessment guidelines are developed, there will be too many tests to have all of them in any one year. The state decided to split testing between third and fourth grades, seventh and eighth grades, and 10th and 11th grades.

Science testing was the second standard implemented in Missouri, which should have given it free choice in the timetable, Litherland said, yet the state decided against the educators' request.

This spring, the first state tests will be administered. Litherland is hopeful but not optimistic. "I think our scores are probably going to be pretty poor," she said. "Our kids aren't going to do as well as I think they could because of this misalignment."

She explained the scores do not measure the quality of science education in Columbia, but merely Columbia's adherence to the state-set curricular time table. In this world of change, though, the legislators are the only people who can help Litherland ease the transition.

The people who set the standards often have a poor grasp of early childhood education, she said. That means they don't understand how much growing and changing occurs from year to year. They don't see the trade-off in primary grades between time spent on science and on literacy education.

"I hope that we'll be able to have good test scores without sacrificing our children," she said. "I want kids to come out of our elementary schools loving science, being successful at science."