LSRI's Jim Pellegrino sees hope for real change in science classrooms under new standards

The nation’s new science curriculum standards are breaking ground for educators and policy makers to shape critical thinkers of the future, as well as to develop the teaching and testing tools to help students meet those goals.

And with deliberate research and planning, this time – unlike other efforts that have unfolded throughout the evolution of public-school accountability and standards – the field has a chance to get it right, said James W. Pellegrino, co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Pellegrino is one of the country’s top experts in learning and assessment. His comments appear tomorrow in the April 19 edition of Science magazine.

“If we rush to build the sort of large-scale external tests of the type we typically do,” he said, “then we’re going to have a problem because kids are not going to be able to do those things” set out in the new standards.

But the education community now has precedent to turn to, he said. Other large-scale assessments, some established and some reconfigured, have been shown to work, and can serve as a model for ways science teachers can prepare students in classrooms. They can also be used to influence new types of tests that accurately measure students’ performance.

“The point is assessment is the key to educational change –it can support it, but it also can completely derail it,” he said.

But with research and time, he added, educators and policy makers can create positive educational change when it comes to science.

“It’s an extraordinary opportunity,” Pellegrino said.

The Next Generation Science Standards, publicly released in early April, are expected to dramatically change the way the subject is taught in classrooms. Like they did with the Common Core State Standards, states will need to adopt NGSS, so the earliest the standards could be introduced in schools would be 2014.

The new standards emphasize depth over breadth, and focus on scientific inquiry to deepen understanding. It no longer will be enough, for example, for a young student to memorize and name the parts of a flower. Now, she also will have to explain how a flower represents a living system and the role of each component in that process.

The goal in part is to cultivate graduates who can be critical of claims made in the media and world around them -– whether global warming, diet trends or medical care -- and make decisions using that information.

As a result of this shift in focus, the way teachers instruct and the way they assess a student’s performance will dramatically change, too. The old tests most students take, Pellegrino said, target a static form of knowledge, and do not address a student’s ability to reason in science. So the current testing system no longer will be enough.

Rigorous research and development should be done before states adopt final tests, he said. Pellegrino also suggested that curriculum and assessment designers look to several tests and practices to use as models, including the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP; the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA; and the new Advanced Placement science tests.

With the new AP biology exam, administrators gave teachers materials to help them redesign their courses two years before the high-stakes exam went into effect. The goal was to help students succeed under the new assessments.

The same care and preparation should be done with NGSS, beginning at the classroom level, he argued.

“The greatest danger is to rush,” he said. “We don’t have to rush.”

Look for his article in tomorrow's special section of Science. We'll post the link here.