Dr. Steve Sanchez, former SDE Staff, on "Goals of the standards: Producing scientifically literate students"


April 14, 2004

In August 2003, the former President of the State Board of Education, Dell Archuleta, requested that staff from Curriculum, Instruction, and Learning Technologies (CILT) prepare a briefing on the development of the Science Standards for State Board of Education (SBE) to consider adoption of the revised Science Standards. A copy of this briefing is provided to the participants of the August 14, 2004, Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education (CESE) and New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) seminar.

I hope that this information assists you in developing a better understanding of the development of the current New Mexico Science Content Standards, Benchmarks, and Performance Standards.

Steven A. Sánchez, Ph.D.

Former Assistant Superintendent for Learning Services and

Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Learning Technologies

New Mexico Department of Public Education

I. Process

In June 2002, the SBE directed CILT staff to begin the revision of the existing science content standards, to better define the expectations for learning in science. The Department implemented the SBE approved Standards Revision Process (Attachment A) that emerged from the development of the Language Arts, Social Studies, and Mathematics content standards. The writing and review process engaged educators, scientists, university faculty members, business partners, representatives from public and private organizations, and community members from throughout the state.

The Department researched state and national standards and convened a small group of five experts, composed of educators and scientists, who suggested a three-strand framework that included: Scientific Thinking and Practice; Content of Science; and Science and Society. Following the development of this framework, writing teams composed of primary and secondary science teachers, academics, and science professionals developed the first draft of the science content standards, benchmarks, and performance standards. The writing team took six months to complete their task.

The resulting draft was reviewed through a community "Mega Review," conducted by 35 representatives from organizations throughout the state. Based on feedback from this review, a field draft was prepared by CILT staff members and distributed statewide to all educators and the public at large. During the formal comment period, approximately 200 responses via letters, e-mails, web survey responses, and telephone calls from 24 New Mexico communities were reviewed. Thirty-three percent of the responses were from teachers, 24% from community members, 20% from parents, 4% from administrators, and 18% from other respondents. The responses were categorized in three areas: those in general agreement with the standards, those providing suggestions for changes, and those stating distinct positions or opinions. In addition, the Education Standards Commission was briefed on three occasions during the standards development process.

II. Additional comments and reviews

CILT staff received reviews of the draft standards from New Mexico organizations, including the New Mexico Intelligent Design Network, the Coalition for Excellence in Science Education, and the New Mexico Academy of Science. Dr. Lawrence Lerner, who has reviewed state science standards over the past six years for the Fordham Foundation, stated, "This draft is one of the finest I have read in the course of six years of reviewing science standards . . . . They compare well with, and in some ways surpass, the very best standards adapted to date . . . . They should be adopted pretty much as they stand, so the people of New Mexico can be proud of their science standards." The Fordham Foundation initially gave New Mexico's science standards an "F" grade in 1998, and after some improvements were made in 1999, they received a "C". Dr. Lerner noted that he would give the current draft New Mexico science standards an "A".

CILT staff and the writing teams considered carefully all public comments when refining the working draft.

III. Issues

Several issues and concerns emerged during the development of the standards. These issues are summarized below with explanations of their resolution in the final draft.


Several comments were received relating to the use of specific language.

The language of the standards differs from the language of curricula, as well as from common usage. For example, it is understood that in the standards the terms 'know' and 'understand' are intended to be developmentally appropriate at specific grade levels. In addition, like many other technical terms, the word 'theory' in science is reserved for an accepted collection of ideas, explanations, and testable hypotheses as opposed to the usage in common English, which implies significant doubt. Scientific members of the writing team assisted staff in understanding and thoroughly researching the distinction in the use of words in scientific discourse. All language is intentional and was carefully examined by professional scientists to ensure that the concepts and skills are accurately presented and appropriate for building sound instructional programs.

Coherence and articulation:

Several comments were received related to the omission of certain concepts from specific grades or from specific strands, when these concepts were present elsewhere in the standards.

The standards represent essential K-12 concepts and skills that, as a coherent body of knowledge of scientific understanding, all students are expected to know to become scientifically literate. Schools and districts use the standards to develop local curricula. For example, the high schools strands are not courses; rather, they provide guidance for the development of an array of courses to meet the learning needs of students.

The standards form a spiraling network of concepts, principles, and skills. It is implicit that once an important concept is introduced, it continues to be developed and need not be repeated in the standards at each grade level. Essential ideas are developed over time from simpler, coherent ideas that build upon one another. Instructional design weaves the standards together both horizontally and vertically. For example, Strand I: Scientific Thinking and Practice should be interwoven with content standards in curricula to ensure that content is learned in the context of scientific thinking and practice.

Transitions from K-4 through 5-8 to 9-12:

Comments were received related to which topics should be taught at particular grades.

Some comments reflected a misunderstanding of the difference between standards and curriculum, and other comments related to the transitions from elementary through middle to high school. The K-4 and grade 5 standards form a solid general foundation. In grades 6 through 8, the standards begin to transition from a general to a more focused understanding in grades 9-12 of specific disciplines (i.e., life science, physical science, earth and space science). For example, in grade 6, curriculum can focus on the earth and space sciences, in grade 7 on the life sciences, and in grade 8 on the physical sciences. At the same time, the standards maintain an opportunity for a continued general approach in grades 6 through 8 for those schools that prefer that option.

Standards-based learning:

Several comments raised a concern regarding the number of performance standards and the degree to which students can accomplish the amount of material contained in the standards.

The performance standards are not intended to be taught as a checklist of disconnected facts or concepts. Rather, the benchmarks summarize what students need to understand and be able to do, and the performance standards elaborate those expectations by grade level. As criterion referenced tests (CRTs) are developed that accurately measure the proficiency level of the students against the standards, instructional strategies can be adjusted to meets the needs of the students.

In implementing standards, teachers are guided by the needs of the learner, and curriculum becomes a coherent system that connects teaching, learning, and assessment to the standards. The nature of this system (standards-based learning) uses standards that focus on the most essential things students need to know in-depth ('power standards') with an aligned system of teaching and learning activities to meet diverse student needs. When viewed as a system, the performance standards are not excessive.

Evolution and Scientific Inquiry:

Several comments raised concerns about the evolution of species, the age of the earth, and the nature of scientific inquiry in those contexts.

In preparing the draft document the writing team based its treatment of biological evolution on the following principles:

· Evolution is the accepted scientific theory of the history and development of life on Earth.

· Science is only one approach to knowledge, with limitations as well as strengths.

· The standards convey accepted scientific principles.

· Students should have opportunities to understand mainstream, peer-reviewed, scientific theories.

· No license can be given to allow teaching that imposes a religious belief in the classroom.

While many individuals praised the standards and offered constructive suggestions during the field review, some expressed strong criticisms that focused principally on the 9-12 life-science performance standards in the area of biological evolution and related performance standards in the 9-12 "Scientific Thinking" and "Science and Society" strands. The following statements characterize the general nature of the comments received in this area:

"Evolution is a proven fact; don't describe it with wishy-washy language, just say it's a fact."

"Evolution is false. Darwin was wrong."

"These standards will teach our children that they are just another species, without special dignity."

"Evolution in the standards conflicts with our children's religious beliefs."

"These standards open the door to creationism and Intelligent Design, which are religion, not science."

"Intelligent Design is the truth; please give it equal time."

"Allowing Intelligent Design or other forms of religiously motivated pseudoscience into the standards is unconstitutional."

In addition to these comments from individuals, staff received comments from representatives of organizations, including the New Mexico Council of Churches and a 1999 letter from Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan. Archbishop Sheehan stated,

I don't believe there is any real contradiction between the theory of evolution and the creation of the world by God. The Church has no problem accepting the theory of evolution provided that it is understood that God infuses a human soul at a certain point in the evolutionary process and that in fact God is the force behind the evolution process.

CILT staff carefully considered all these perspectives and studied references when provided. Based on these careful considerations, CILT staff remained confident that the final draft represents the best approach for all children of New Mexico, for the following reasons:

Evolution: Evolution is the accepted scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, and Life Science cannot be taught coherently without the accepted theory of evolution. Modern evolutionary theory has grown far beyond what was proposed by Darwin. To his "natural selection," science has now added mechanisms such as genetic drift, punctuated equilibrium, and sexual selection. These additions have strengthened the theory of evolution, not cast doubt on it. Science has no accepted explanation for how life first arose on Earth, or for how some of life's widespread molecular machinery arose, but this does not diminish the importance of evolution in describing how life has developed during the past 3.5 billion years and in unifying man's understanding of the living world today.

Intelligent Design: Members of the Intelligent Design Network participated in the writing teams, were present at the "Mega Review," were active in the public review, met with staff, and provided valued contributions in all steps of the process. In the final steps of the process, their concerns centered largely on the nature of scientific inquiry and biological evolution. Their issues and concerns were carefully considered to ensure that the NM standards are of the highest quality. However, in-depth analysis reveals that Intelligent Design is not science in that it has posed no testable hypotheses, have not tested their hypotheses, have not submitted such tests for mainstream scientific peer review, and have not gained acceptance in the mainstream scientific community.

Religion: People in New Mexico hold many religious beliefs about the origins of life and Earth, and the special dignity and responsibilities of man. Children of all religious beliefs can feel comfortable with their religious beliefs in public schools guided by these standards. The 9-12 Strand I and Strand III describe the limitations of scientific knowledge and scientific content as well as its strengths and accomplishments. Students of all backgrounds will thereby appreciate that people have different ways of knowing things, and that the scientific approach is only one of those ways-a way that has been very successful in bringing logic and observation to the discovery of how things work, but a way that is always subject to revision. For example, in Science and Society grades 9-12, the standards state, "Understand that reasonable people may disagree about some issues that are of interest to both science and religion (e.g. the origin of life on Earth, the cause of the "Big Bang," the future of the Earth), and "Identify important questions that science cannot answer (e.g., questions that are beyond today's science, decisions that science can only help to make, questions that are inherently outside the realm of science).

By learning about the strengths and limitations of science, students will be better educated and better prepared to integrate science appropriately into the complexities of their own adult lives as parents, citizens, and workers.

Dignity of man: CILT staff saw no merit whatsoever in the argument that these standards teach that man has no special dignity. The very existence of language, science, music, arts, social studies, mathematics, etc. demonstrates without a doubt that man has special dignity and a special role among the creatures living on Earth. In Science and Society grades 9-12, for example, the standards state, "Know that science plays a role in many different kinds of careers and activities (e.g., public service, volunteers, public office holders, researchers, teachers, doctors, nurses, technicians, farmers, ranchers)."

Legal considerations: The New Mexico Constitution is particularly clear about the separation of church and state:

"Article II, section 11: Every man shall be free to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience . . . . No person shall be required to attend any place of worship or support any religious sect or denomination; nor shall any preference be given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship." [Emphasis added]

Courts throughout the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have repeatedly found "Creation Science" and "Intelligent Design" to be religion, not science. Hence, it cannot be taught in New Mexico public schools. Deceptive statements by creation-science advocates about an amendment introduced by Senator Santorum into the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), an amendment that was quickly removed from the Act by other Senators, do not change this fact.

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