Current state science standards and assessments are derived in part from the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (National Research Council, 1996). The standards for grades 9-12 include seven elements, several of which are quite similar to the goals of laboratory experiences identified by the committee: (1) science as inquiry, including abilities to conduct scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry; (2) physical science; (3) life science; (4) earth and space science; (5) science and technology; (6) science in personal and social perspectives; and (7) history and nature of science.

By 2003, most states had adopted science education standards and curriculum frameworks derived at least in part from the NSES (National Research Council, 1996) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) benchmarks (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). In the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, the federal government strengthened—and added requirements to—existing state educational standards and assessment systems. Among other provisions, the law requires states to administer assessments of science achievement beginning in school year 2007-2008. The law requires that states assess science achievement once each year in each of three grade bands. In order to comply with this federal law, as well as to guide schools and teachers in implementing state science standards, many states have begun to develop and administer annual assessments of students’ science learning.

State Science Standards and the Goals of Laboratories

Throughout the history of U.S. science education, educators and scientists have debated the relative importance of exposing students to many science subjects versus engaging them in deeper study of fewer subjects or concepts. In recent years, state science standards have embodied the former approach, including a broad range of science topics (Duschl, 2004; Massel, Kirst, and Hoppe, 1997). In addition to listing topics, many state standards also call for students to engage in laboratory experiences and to develop understanding of processes of scientific investigation. In theory, state standards could be used as flexible frameworks, guiding integration of laboratory experiences with the teaching of science concepts, in order to progress toward all of the science learning goals identified by the committee. In reality, this rarely happens. Instead, state and local officials and science teachers often see state standards as requiring them to help students master the specific science topics outlined for a grade level or science course. When they view laboratory experiences as isolated events that do not contribute to that mastery of subject matter, and science class time is limited, they may devote little class time to laboratory experiences.

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