Students at Troy High School in Fullerton take a hands-on approach to biology… (Robert Lachman )
California schoolchildren would study fewer concepts more deeply and emphasize hands-on investigation over rote memorization of facts under new science standards set for consideration Wednesday by the state Board of Education.
The proposed benchmarks are based on the Next Generation Science Standards, which were unveiled in April by California and 25 others states in the first national effort since 1996 to transform the way science is taught. The standards delve more thoroughly into such often controversial topics as climate change and the impact of genetic engineering on food and medicine.
"These standards eliminate arbitrary limits on hands-on experimentation and replace long lists of facts to memorize with a deeper focus on understanding the crosscutting concepts within and across scientific disciplines," state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement.
The shift to a more practical application of science and engineering concepts comes amid widespread concerns that American students are falling behind global counterparts in their mastery of the critical fields of 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.
Yet jobs related to science, technology, engineering and math are growing three times faster than others, Torlakson said, a trend experts believe will continue in the next decade.
"We owe it to our children and their future" to improve science education, said Phil Lafontaine, a California Department of Education official who helped create the proposed standards.
Some critics argue that California's existing standards are superior to the proposed ones. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based educational policy organization, gave California's standards an A but the new national benchmarks a C — criticizing what it views as an excessive emphasis on practice over scientific knowledge.
Chester E. Finn, the institute's president, said the state's biggest problem wasn't the quality of science standards but its failure to teach them adequately to students. "You've got great standards and lousy achievement," he said.
Laura Henriques, board president of the California Science Teachers Assn., agreed that the new standards would not address the state's broad failure to deliver quality science education. She said pressure to increase test scores in English and math have resulted in a "huge loss of instructional minutes" for science education, particularly in elementary schools.
The teachers group is pushing to require a minimum number of minutes for science education and to give greater weight to the subject in the state measure of academic achievement known as the Academic Performance Index.
But, Henriques said, the new emphasis on "doing" science instead of simply memorizing facts would better engage students and promote learning. There is some evidence to back up that assertion: In the 2011 national assessment, students who did hands-on projects more frequently scored higher on science tests than those who did them less frequently.
Instead of simply reading about motion and stability — a middle school science standard — students might construct a motor with magnets and wire and collect data on how changing the wire's width affects the strength of the magnetic field, Henriques said.
Lafontaine said the emphasis on teaching students how to investigate scientific questions also would equip them with skills to learn about new and emerging fields.
An 80-member team of California educators, scientists and business and industry leaders helped develop the national standards, and a smaller group worked on the proposed state benchmarks after three regional public meetings this spring.
If the standards are passed by the state board, another expert group will develop a plan to put them in place for the 2014-15 school year.