Guest Opinions

A solution to Idaho’s standoff over the science standards

The uproar over Idaho’s proposed science standards is a grand demonstration of what happens when ideology blinds us to the details and when the push for headlines and sound bites trumps the technical aspects of standards design. This exercise in frustration could have been avoided had a distinction been made between a standard — what students should know and do, and content — what is taught.

The Idaho Legislature did not reject five of the proposed science standards. Only one performance standard for middle school science was rejected. Because no one looked carefully, a cascade of misdirected events unfolded and the door was opened to legislating what to teach.

Four of the items rejected were supporting content and not standards. Supporting content does not belong in a legislated standards document. In fact, Idaho Content Standards for other disciplines do not include supporting content. Curiously, only the proposed science standards contain language that describes content.

The proposed administrative rule the 2017 House and Senate Education Committees had before them was a document containing the Science Content Standards. This document contained a set of performance expectations. These are the “standards.” However, the document also contained supporting content, and this inclusion was problematic.

That’s where the discussion went south. A series of statements on what to teach to meet the performance expectations (standards) came under question because legislating what to teach sets one on a slippery slope. The specificity of the supporting content led to parsing each phrase. Unfortunately many individuals who got involved in the debate intermingled standards and content. A May 20 report in the Idaho Statesman demonstrates the confusion.

There are good reasons for separating the performance expectations — the standards from supporting content. Among these are that in Idaho, standards are legislated. Defining supporting content is micromanaging and should not be done by the Legislature under administrative rules approval. Scientific knowledge is ever changing. What we know today may change tomorrow. Defining content may have the unintended effect of restricting implementation of the performance expectations.

What is a solution to Idaho’s science standards stand off? In my opinion, it’s straightforward. Adopt the performance standards as they are. Doing so would make the format congruent with that of Idaho’s other content standards.

Remove the supporting content from the administrative rules. If school districts and teachers need supporting content for resources or inspiration; sources are easy to find. In fact, teachers should look beyond the supporting content to the science and engineering applications and the big ideas as these are important to consider in designing instruction.

Ideally, standards should not be adopted as administrative rules. This is a bad practice from years of outcome-based education that cannot go away too soon. However, Idaho is not ready to let go of this approach. In the meantime, we can move forward with a better choice than what was presented to the 2017 Legislature. Keep the performance standards and leave the implementation to the local districts.

Mary Ollie began working with Idaho science standards in the 1990s when Idaho attempted to implement performance-based education. Her views on standards have changed as a result of her classroom experiences. She has taught chemistry and physics at the high school level, and chemistry at a local community college.