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Maryland in joint effort to change science education

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Maryland has joined a multi-state campaign to improve science education — a move that will lead to a greater emphasis on analytical and conceptual thinking.

As part of the 20-state effort led by the National Academy of Sciences, Maryland will help write new standards that determine what is taught in schools from kindergarten through high school.

The new science teaching will encourage students to examine concepts that cross the boundaries of physics, biology and chemistry, said Stephen Pruitt, vice president of content, research and development at Achieve, a nonpartisan, nonprofit that is coordinating the effort. More engineering will be infused into lessons and students will be asked to use the concepts rather than just memorize facts.

Students and parents will see a greater emphasis on writing and thinking more analytically, said Mary Cary, assistant state superintendent for instruction. In addition, teachers will cover less material in their courses but require students to think more deeply about what they are learning.

"The reason we are excited is that we want our voice at the table" in decisions about how science will be taught, Cary said. Maryland already has a science curriculum, but it will be revised after the initiative is completed in a little over a year. It will likely be several years before students see a difference in the classroom.

Maryland public school students are already taught evolution and global warming, and that will not change when the move is made to the new standards.

Much of the state's economy is driven by its large research universities and biotech, technology and aerospace companies. But critics, including college presidents and teachers, have emphasized the need to improve science teaching in public schools, particularly for elementary school students and high-achieving high school students.

"We have a lot of work to do," said Cary. "We can see it on our [state test results]. We can see it with the amount of time that is being devoted, particularly at the elementary level."

Teachers have given science and social studies lessons fewer minutes in the school day since the federal No Child Left Behind Act dictated testing of reading and math from grades three through eight. Science is tested, but the results don't count toward the rating of schools. Maryland began testing students on their science knowledge several years ago.

On the most recent round of national science tests, Maryland scored in the middle of the pack of states — a relatively poor outcome when compared with its reading and math results.

While 40 percent of the state's eighth-graders scored proficient or better in math, 28 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or better in science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous test given to a sampling of students in a variety of subjects. Baltimore students had some of the worst scores among 17 urban districts in the nation.

The other states involved in the science initiative are Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

Development of the new standards began some time ago in conversations among education policy-makers and scientists who saw the need for improvements in science education. In July, the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, released a framework of ideas and practices in the sciences and engineering that should be taught to students by the time they graduate from high school.

The core ideas were put together by a committee of scientists and educators.

Those ideas will be put into a grade-specific list, detailing what should be taught as students move through their school years. States involved in writing the standards have committed staff time and promised to provide feedback on ideas. Maryland must also consider adopting the standards.

Maryland already has adopted the common core standards, a similar national effort for math and language arts.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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