Review of MN Science Standards

Corresponding to my last few posts about standards, I came across an interesting review (via Jack Hassard’s blog) called, “The State of State Science Standards” that was done by the Fordham Institute. According to the review, MN’s science standards are only worth 5/10 (which according to their standards is a C). I didn’t pay much attention to the score, but was much more interested in the analysis:

In the comments about “clarity and specificity” the reviewer made the following comment:

For the most part, the presentation of Minnesota’s standards is clear—but specificity sometimes suffers. With respect to the latter, the main weakness lies in the physical sciences and the all-too-common mismatches between the standards and the examples given… A tendency toward needlessly befuddling language is another failing, particularly when straightforward mathematical concepts are at hand. Consider this demand in the chemistry material: Use the kinetic molecular theory to explain the behavior of gases and the relationship among temperature, pressure, volume, and number of particles. (high school chemistry) This expectation could be much more compactly presented as, “Manipulate the equation PV = nRT.”

2 big issues that I have:

1) I would agree that the standards are not very specific. However, I see a lack of specificity as an excellent feature that allows creative flexibility to offer students a variety of possibilities for demonstrating their understanding. Standards that are too specific are very constraining, and MN gets much more specific when providing “benchmarks” (the “mismatched examples” he mentions). For reference, here’s the chemistry standard  that deals with the ideal gas law:

States of matter can be described in terms of motion of molecules and the properties and behavior of gases can be explained using the kinetic molecular theory.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least half a dozen ways that we could address and investigate this standard. Lacking specificity – yes, and that’s a good thing. I don’t need the MN Dept of Ed trying to teach my class for me.

2) The reviewer also makes a serious misstep by equating “manipulating the equation” and a scientific explanation. Apples and oranges! Calculating a number using a formula is NOT the same as understanding what the calculated number means, and explaining its relation to scientific phenomena. Ever hear of the Force Concept Inventory?? There are many students who could perform the basic algebra necessary for physics, but that doesn’t guarantee that they understand the concepts that are connected to those mathematics.

I think this sums up the unreliability of the review:

A curriculum founded on these materials would be a hodgepodge that fails to convey a sense of system to the student. Indeed, it would be an invitation to science by memorization.

This seems to be contradictory to his previous statements – lacking specificity, but somehow also failing to see the big picture… hmmm… not quite sure I see that, nor how it would invite memorization. Making standards more specific, in my opinion, would lead to a tendency to memorize and not worry about the “system” and how it all relates.

You can find a much more thorough discussion of some of the biases and issues with the review, ultimately giving the review a (generous) D.

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