Cal State

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education

California State University Northridge

Transcript of Stan Metzenberg
(edited by the speaker)
biography of speaker


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Mr. Carroll: Our next speaker is Stan Metzenberg. He has incredible acumen with the work he is doing. He is a committed biologist and interest interested in issues in science education and has already played many important roles within the University and the State of California. The title of his talk is, "Significant Issues in the Drafting of the Science Standards." Please welcome Stan (Applause).

Mr. Metzenberg. Thank you. I would like to give a brief overview of the California Academic Content Standards in Science, and then discuss some of the underlying issues in attempting to write science standards.

The California Science Standards are grade-specific in the range Kindergarten through 8th grade, and then are broken down by specific subject areas for grades 9 to 12. At each grade level, the standards are broken into the content areas of physical science, life science, and earth science, and each grade level has a section entitled investigation and experimentation. In high school, the physical sciences are divided into physics and chemistry.

The enabling legislation for the standards, Assembly Bill 265, set the course for the academic content standards, by calling for

"Statewide academically rigorous content and performance standards that reflect the knowledge and skills that pupils will need in order to succeed in the information-based, global economy of the 21st century".

Content standards were defined as

"the specific academic knowledge, skills and abilities that all public schools in this state are expected to teach and all pupils expected to learn in each of the core curriculum areas, at each grade level tested."

The words "specific academic knowledge" raise a point I would like to focus on, because the level of specificity of science standards is something that varies considerably between states. If we consider an analogy of paintings, we can imagine that a student or teacher is being given a paintbrush and asked to paint a picture. If they are to represent science in some way, how large a paintbrush would we give them? If we give them a broad brush, such as one they might use to paint the side of a house, then they can only draw out long strokes of paint on the canvas and are unable to add any detail. On the other hand if we give them a very fine brush with just a few hairs in it, they will get caught up in the minutiae and be unable to fill the canvas. Both approaches are wrong by themselves, and I think most reasonable people would want to equip a student with a collection of both wide and narrow brushes.

If you look at the structure of the California Science Standards, you will see that the Commission struggled with this issue and resolved it in this reasonable way. Every standard is organized under the umbrella of a more general concept in science. For example in the third grade, there is a set of standards that reads:

2. Light has a source and travels in a direction. As a basis for understanding this concept, students know:

a. sunlight can be blocked to create shadows.
b. light is reflected from mirrors and other surfaces.
c. the color of light striking an object affects how our eyes see it.
d. we see objects when light traveling from an object enters our eye.

One thing that you may have noticed about the standard, is that it made use of the verb "to know." In science you do not get very far if you don't know things. Some of the standards are simple ideas, for example that you could block sunlight to make a shadow. It's almost inconceivable that a typical 8-year old would not have a gut sense about that. Other standards are more subtle, for example the one that says that the color of light striking an object affects how our eyes see it. If you look at a red apple in white light, it looks red. If you look at it under green light, it looks black, but it's the same apple in either case.

If you look at the science standards from different states, you will often see that the writers had a great deal of trouble having the students "know" things. For example in the New Mexico Content Standards and Benchmarks, students recognize, identify, design, describe, explain, compare, evaluate, analyze, illustrate, employ, relate, apply, develop, and demonstrate. It is rare to find the verb know, although it does pop up in a few places. For example, "Students will know and understand properties of Earth Science", whatever that means, or "Students will know and understand the properties of matter". The few times that the standards use the verb "know", it is in an absurd context.

So how did the verb "to know" get such a bad reputation? I think it is because to some people, the verb "know" connotes memorization, or a type of rote repeating of something that has been said. In their view, if you ask a student to know something, you are only asking that they be able to parrot it back. On the other hand to be able "to explain" something is said to indicate a higher order form of thought. Well, one of the first big surprises I had as a new faculty member here, reading essay exams, was that students can explain things without knowing anything at all. On one exam, which we still talk about in my family, I asked my freshmen students to explain the functions of the liver and gall bladder in digestion. Quite a few answered as follows:

"The liver is an extremely important organ that is involved in digestion. Without the liver we would be unable to survive, because we would miss the important function that it provides. The gall bladder is an extremely important organ that is involved in digestion. Without the gall bladder we would be unable to survive, because we would miss the important function that it provides." And so on...

Of course communication of ideas is important, but this experience taught me that students can explain very broad ideas of organ function and survival without any grasp of content.

Everyone wants students to be deep thinkers, but if you were writing standards how would you communicate that to educational stakeholders? If the entire case rests on one word, say the distinction between the verbs "to know" and "to explain", then you are bound to have problems. The Commission struggled with this issue for quite some time and at one point made use of an interesting little book entitled "Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives". Bloom's taxonomy is familiar to educators, although many may only know it as a list of verbs that is an interpretation of the original text. Bloom and his associates attacked the problem of educational objectives and devised a taxonomic structure that separates

  • knowledge as level 1
  • comprehension as level 2
  • application as level 3
  • analysis as level 4

and so on

The taxonomy is broken down still further, so that one might say "analysis of elements is level 4.10, analysis of relationships is level 4.20, etc." For a brief period of time, the Commission issued a draft of the standards that incorporated these numbers as a means of communicating the objective, while trying not to lose sleep over the verb. For example, a standard might read:

Students know that energy from the Sun drives weather patterns on Earth, causing differences in air pressure and creating storms. 2.20

Where the 2.20 indicates to the reader that this was to be comprehended by the student, at the level of interpretation. Well, this wasn't very popular with the public, and the codes were removed. Ultimately, the ability of a standard to communicate educational objective cannot rest either with a single verb, or a taxonomic code. The quality of the writing has to be the form of communication.

For example, the aforementioned standard:

Light has a source and travels in a direction. Students know that sunlight can be blocked to create shadows.

That is a concept that requires higher order thinking by its very nature. And yet, there is also content involved in the statement.

Some people will say that the concept of light is a small idea, and should have been woven into a broader thematic treatment of science. In the California Science Curriculum Framework that was written in the early 90's, science is broken down into broad themes of such as systems and interactions. In the State Challenge Standards written in 1997, one big idea is that

"Systems at all scales (e.g., astronomical, geological, biological, molecular) consist of many interacting parts or subsystems. When these parts combine to form the whole, the whole often has properties that are qualitatively different from the sum of the parts."

A grade 9-12 standard in that document reads: "Every student demonstrates understanding that components of systems, both microscopic and macroscopic, have unique properties and functions; when these components combine to form more complex systems, new properties and functions emerge."

This type of language is extremely common in science standards across the nation. I was just looking at a copy of the Portland Public Schools standards, and in grade 8 there it is...

"Students identify a system's inputs and outputs. Explain the effects of changing the system's components"

There is a vast chasm between an 8th grade standard of that type, and any of the 8th grade standards in California, for example:

Students know galaxies are clusters of billions of stars, and may have different shapes.
Students know the sun is one of many stars in our own Milky Way galaxy.
Stars may differ in size, temperature, and color. "

I don't think it can be overemphasized that California has made a tremendous leap by demanding content in their standards.

I've heard that there may be some visual learners in the audience today, so I've brought a visual aid to try to illustrate a point. If we go back to the analogy of a painting, the California standards are a Cezanne.

Impressionistic portrait by Cezanne

The painting is representative of Mme. Cezanne, however the brushstrokes are not finely detailed. There is quite a bit for the students to fill in for themselves during their lives, and that's just the way science is. You never have perfect portrait of the world - it's always a bit impressionistic. I placed a science standard underneath it, one from California standards,

"The solar system consists of planets and other bodies that orbit the sun in predictable paths".

That's certainly a content area for which many details need to be filled in.

If you are planning to sit down and write science standards when you get home, there are two paintings I would recommend that you not look at. The first is by Raphael, and it is a highly detailed and representative picture of something that is entirely fanciful.

Image of fanciful painting by Raphael

I use it as an analogy for a standard in the San Francisco Unified School District that reads:

Students demonstrate, through explaining and representing [note that they managed to get three verbs in there!] an understanding of non-living and living things and that all living things are made up of one or more cells and that multicellular things have tissue, organs, and organ systems [which is not true].

It goes on to say that students should be able to meet the standard by observing and recording the results of raisins soaked in different liquids to determine the permeability of the cell wall. (unfortunately the students are being misled, the permeability of the cell wall may be an inconsequential part of the picture.) This picture is representative, but not of reality. That is a critical difference between science and art. This is a great painting, but if you represented it as reality in a scientific manuscript you would find that your colleagues would start to take a dim view of you).

Finally, don't look at abstract art, such as this painting by Mark Rothko.

Here you find the broad brush strokes and bold statements, but it is entirely non representative. I equate this picture to a standard from Texas, which may sound familiar:

The student knows that a system is a collection of cycles, structures, and processes that interact. The student is expected to describe some cycles, structures, and processes that are found in a simple system; and describe some interactions that occur in a simple system.

This state has made a tremendous step forward by rejecting the content-free approaches to science education.

I would like to thank you for your time, and particularly for tolerating my stint as an art critic.

Mr. Carroll: Thank you very much, Stan. I enjoy art. At this time I would like to invite the rest of the panel to come up, and we will continue with the presentations and then the discussion.

Go to transcript of Bill Tarr 


Contact the organizers

Postal and telephone information:

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K12 Education

College of Science and Mathematics

California State University Northridge

18111 Nordhoff St.

Northridge CA 91330-8235

Telephone: (Dr. Klein: 818-677-7792)

FAX: 818-677-3634 (Attn: David Klein)