Benchmarks and standards as tools for science education reform

George D. Nelson
Director, Project 2061

To many educators, parents, business leaders, and politicians, “high academic standards” have become the last, best hope for saving America’s schools. For some, the milestones along the road to reform are clearly marked: develop high academic standards; hold students, teachers, and schools accountable; then administer rewards and punishments as needed. But most realize that standards are tools that must be used skillfully if they are to get the job done. And not everyone agrees on exactly what the job is that needs doing. Is it to meet the goal of having U.S. students lead the world in science and mathematics? Is this goal consistent with the goal of science literacy for all students which has guided the reform effort in science and mathematics for more than a decade? How far can the development of high academic standards carry the reform movement? What other tools are needed? What are the most critical next steps?

For more than a decade the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has been deeply involved in the movement to reform science and mathematics education around standards. Through Project 2061, its long-term reform initiative, AAAS has been in the vanguard of efforts to define the knowledge and skills that all students should have in science, mathematics, and technology and to center other education reforms on those goals. Project 2061’s strategy is to develop a coordinated set of reform tools educators can use to design curricula keyed to national learning goals but suited to local circumstances—tools that can also be used in selecting and creating instructional materials and assessment instruments and in guiding teacher professional development. Project 2061’s strategy encourages educators to consider the interrelated nature of the education system and the implications that reform in one area will have for all the others.

Through its Directorate for Education and Human Resources, AAAS has worked extensively with a wide variety of community-based entities, such as churches, clubs, museums and science centers, and local media. The goals of these efforts are to expand the participation in science and mathematics of women, minorities, and people with disabilities and to increase public understanding and appreciation of science and mathematics.

With its broad interests in science, policy, and education, AAAS has had opportunities to work with many of those who have a stake in reform, from concerned scientists and engineers to textbook publishers; political, corporate, and foundation leaders; parents and families; university and college faculty; state science supervisors; school district superintendents; high school principals; and classroom teachers. Through its interactions with reformers at every level of the education system, AAAS has come to recognize that, in a nation of some 15,000 school districts, there will be no “one size fits all” approach to reform.

Drawing on the experiences of AAAS and, in particular, Project 2061, this paper begins with a brief look at the current state of K-12 science and mathematics education, a review of the development of benchmarks and standards in science and mathematics, and a look at the current state of science and mathematics education. It will then suggest ways that benchmarks and standards can be put to use at the national, state, and local levels; summarize Project 2061’s work to support standards-based reform; and recommend some next steps for reforming education in science, mathematics, and other disciplines.


Reform sometimes appears to be the great American pastime. Education has been a frequent target of change, and virtually every aspect of schooling has come under scrutiny at one time or another. Reflecting both the benefits and drawbacks of the decentralized nature of the U.S. education system, a dizzying array of reform efforts have shone brightly for a few years then faded. Measuring the impact of any one of these efforts would be difficult, yet there was faith that in the aggregate, they would make a difference. Unfortunately, they have not.
In the area of science and mathematics, the focus of this paper, student achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined steadily from 1970 through the early 1980s from an already unacceptable level (National Center for Education Statistics 1997). The release in 1983 of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform by the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned of a national education crisis, and dozens of reports issued over the next few years supported the commission’s conclusions and called for action.

In response to these alarms, a number of new efforts to improve science and mathematics education began, spurred on by the historic 1989 summit of governors, corporate leaders, and educators in Charlottesville, Virginia. Once again, the reform landscape was soon crowded with projects, initiatives, collaboratives, centers, institutes, partnerships, consortia, and more. The most promising of these to emerge over the past decade or so share two common concerns: improving the quality of science and mathematics education and increasing the accessibility of science and mathematics education to students who had not participated previously. These concerns are reflected in the National Education Goals and their emphasis on high achievement, particularly in science and mathematics, by all students. And implicit in the National Education Goals’ call for improved academic achievement is the “belief that its attainment is dependent on the development of rigorous academic standards” (National Education Goals Panel 1995).


Fortunately, in science and mathematics such standards or benchmarks already exist, although they have yet to be fully implemented in the nation’s schools (Zucker, Young, and Luczak 1996). In 1989, Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science released Science for All Americans, a report to the nation on what constitutes literacy in science, mathematics, and technology and the steps necessary to achieve it. Later that year, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) released its Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, the first set of such guidelines to be labeled “standards.”

By 1993 Project 2061 had gone on to develop Benchmarks for Science Literacy, a coherent set of specific K-12 learning goals to enable educators to help students achieve science literacy by the time they graduate high school. Project 2061’s work on Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy served as a foundation for the subsequent National Science Education Standards (NSES) published by the National Research Council in 1996.

There is a great deal of congruence between the work of Project 2061 and the National Research Council; some estimates put the overlap of content standards and benchmarks at 90% or more (American Association for the Advancement of Science 1997). Similarly, Project 2061’s benchmarks for mathematics are quite compatible with the national mathematics standards developed by NCTM. With regard to philosophy, intent, and expectations, Benchmarks, NSES, and NCTM Standards share the following characteristics:

  • a commitment to reducing the number of topics students are taught, to allow time for them to concentrate on, learn, and retain the most important ideas;
  • a common core of ideas and understandings about science and mathematics that all students should know, with similar grade placement, level of detail, and difficulty;
  • a recognition that some students can and will go beyond the core content—but that currently most do not.

Differences among the documents do exist. To identify where and how the documents differ, Project 2061 has published detailed comparisons of its Benchmarks to each set of national content standards in science, mathematics, and social studies (American Association for the Advancement of Science 1997). Nevertheless, the documents’ strong similarities suggest that standards developers in other content areas will find these useful models for their own work.

There is now broad consensus on learning goals within the scientific, mathematical, and educational communities. Reformers have devoted a good deal of their resources to building this widespread agreement. For example, Project 2061’s Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy taken together with the National Research Council’s science content standards represent the collective wisdom of more than a thousand individual scientists and educators and hundreds of professional organizations, all involved in the development, creation, and review of these national documents.


Although it is too early to measure the impact of science and mathematics standards or benchmarks on student performance, it is important to develop a baseline against which future performance can be measured. A thorough analysis of the currently available data will be invaluable to the reform effort, but is far beyond the scope of this paper. For now, simply drawing attention to some of the more meaningful indicators in science and mathematics education will shed light on changes since 1989.

Student Achievement. According to data presented in the National Science Foundation’s Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education 1995, student performance on a variety of science and mathematics tests has improved slightly over the past 15 years but is still far from a level that is consistent with science literacy. Differences among the scores of various racial and ethnic groups have narrowed, although black and Hispanic students continue to score below their white counterparts. Few differences now exist between male and female performance at the pre-college level, but males score significantly higher in science and mathematics on college entrance exams (Suter 1996).

Newly released data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for 41 countries highlight the continuing problems in U.S. science and mathematics education. While scores for U.S. fourth graders in both science and mathematics ranked in the top and middle tiers respectively, the performance of U.S. eighth graders was only slightly above the median in science and below it in mathematics (Schmidt, McKnight, and Raizen 1996). A great deal more study of the TIMSS data and the TIMSS tests themselves will be required to understand fully what their implications are for U.S. science and mathematics education. What TIMSS, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and other tests do reveal quite clearly is that science literacy is far from a reality for the vast majority of U.S. students (and of the rest of the world as well).

Curriculum and Instruction. The amount of time that elementary students spend studying science and mathematics increased slightly between 1977 and 1993, according to the 1993 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education. More encouraging is the news that greater numbers of high school students are taking mathematics and science courses?56% of high school graduates completed chemistry in 1992 compared to 32% in 1982, and 56% completed algebra II in 1992 compared to 37% in 1982 (Suter 1996).

Nevertheless, taking courses does not guarantee results, as the TIMSS and NAEP data so clearly show. Data from the TIMSS analysis of curriculum and instruction around the world demonstrate significant U.S. shortcomings compared to countries with better-performing students. According to the TIMSS findings, U.S. curricula, textbooks, and teaching lack focus, emphasize quantity over quality, and are all “a mile wide and an inch deep” (Schmidt, McKnight, and Raizen 1997). Indeed, many of the recommendations in Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the national standards in science and in mathematics education attempt to remedy these same shortcomings in curriculum and instruction. The seriousness of the challenge faced by education reformers is compounded by a number of other indicators—that the most common classroom resource is the textbook, that the most prevalent instructional activity in high school science classes is listening to the teacher and taking notes, and that one-half of all high school science teachers believe—contrary to cognitive research findings—that students should “learn basic scientific terms and formulas before learning underlying concepts and principles” (Suter 1996).

There has been a great deal of activity at the state level to develop or revise curriculum frameworks that would guide state policies and teacher practice. According to a review of state frameworks in science and mathematics by the Council of Chief State School Officers (Blank and Pechman 1995), 10 of 16 completed science frameworks claimed to match recommendations from Project 2061’s Science for All Americans and Benchmarks and the National Research Council’s science standards.

For its evaluation of Project 2061’s impact and influence, SRI International examined 43 state frameworks, content standards, or equivalent documents to determine the level of influence Project 2061 may have had on them. In addition, it convened an expert group of 20 educators to assess the quality of the state documents in terms of their adherence to national standards and benchmarks. According to SRI, “despite statements and charts in framework documents that claim alignment with national documents, the reviewers found some common gaps.” In many cases, the frameworks omitted major content areas, simplified concepts, or diluted them. With regard to equity issues, many of the frameworks lacked concrete examples of how the state would ensure science literacy for all students (Zucker, Young, and Luczak 1996).

Teacher qualifications. Nearly 30% of high-school science teachers and 40% of high-school mathematics teachers lack an undergraduate or graduate major in those disciplines or in science or mathematics education. Not surprisingly, less than 5% of elementary school science and mathematics teachers had these majors (Suter 1996). According to the 1993 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (Suter 1996), few science and mathematics teachers spend much time in professional development activities in their field. For example, approximately half of high school science and mathematics teachers surveyed had only 16 hours of in-service education over the previous three years. The survey did show, however, that participation increased between 1986 and 1993 (Suter 1996).

To bring about more widespread, meaningful reform of K-12 education—the standards-based reform envisioned by the National Education Goals Panel—requires the incorporation of benchmarks and standards into many of the important tasks educators perform every day. Decisions on virtually every aspect of education must take into account the long-term goals implicit in high academic standards.


Used wisely, national standards and benchmarks in science and mathematics can give states and school districts a solid conceptual basis for reforming K-12 education. Although standards alone cannot bring about all the necessary reforms, when used with effective implementation tools, they can make it possible to do some things better. For example, educators at the state and local levels can use benchmarks or standards to:

  • Define the territory. State and local curriculum framework developers can use benchmarks and standards to describe the knowledge and skills they want their students to have. By aligning state frameworks with credible, widely-accepted national guidelines, state education leaders will be able to build support for their frameworks more rapidly. They will also be able to take advantage of implementation tools that are being developed to support these national guidelines.
  • Promote K-12 coherence. Research tells us that learning requires making connections between ideas and creating linkages that make sense in a larger context. Unfortunately, as the data from TIMSS indicate, the U.S. curriculum is too often a series of disjointed ideas and experiences, lacking both focus and coherence. This was an important issue for the scientists, mathematicians, and educators who created Benchmarks, so they built into the document itself the conceptual coherence and the cross-grade, cross-discipline connections that are needed.
  • Rationalize curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Decisions about what to teach, how to teach, and how to evaluate what students have learned are among the most important choices educators make. While there are many reasonable criteria for making such decisions, only by carefully evaluating textbooks, teaching strategies, or tests against specific science literacy goals (benchmarks or standards) will we be able to help students achieve those goals.
  • Provide a foundation for teacher preparation and continuing professional development programs. Using benchmarks and standards as the focus of teacher education and professional development programs can help define a base for teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge and for their understanding of standards-based reform and its implications for teaching and learning. Just as standards and benchmarks can bring coherence to the K-12 curriculum, they can also encourage colleges, universities, and school districts to coordinate their teacher education and professional development efforts. Standards and benchmarks can also help states strengthen their teacher certification and placement requirements.
  • Guide efforts to improve achievement for all students. Setting high academic standards for all students—not just for an elite few—contributes to greater equity in the education system. In science and mathematics, the notion that excellence is out of the reach of girls or minority students no longer persists. A core curriculum based on the goal of science literacy for all students will help create a larger and more diverse pool of students who are likely to pursue further education in scientific fields. These same efforts will help all students gain the knowledge and skills they will need in a world that is increasingly shaped by science and technology.

Using benchmarks and standards to accomplish these basic tasks will advance science and mathematics education reform significantly, but the effort has just begun. Educators will need an array of other tools and services before they are able to put benchmarks and standards to work effectively.


With more than 145,000 scientists, engineers, science educators, policy makers, and interested citizens as members and with 300 affiliated scientific societies, AAAS is the world’s largest general science organization. AAAS has been an active participant in K-12 science education reform since the late 1950s, offering programs that disseminate information and ideas to scientists and educators, reaching out to diverse communities, encouraging greater participation by minorities and women in science and engineering, developing instructional materials, and providing leadership and assistance to education reformers. Within AAAS, two major and complementary units—the Directorate for Education and Human Resources and Project 2061—share primary responsibility for education reform.

Through its Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR), AAAS has established a wide array of programs designed to connect schools, homes, and communities in ways that will enhance the educational experiences of all students and increase their access to science and mathematics. More than 50 EHR programs serve as nontraditional—and successful—models for bringing important understandings and skills in science to typically underserved groups, including children with disabilities, girls and women, minorities, and low-income and inner-city youth. EHR’s extensive network of community-based programs has drawn attention to the need for high standards for all children in science and mathematics and has helped people in all parts of the community contribute to science literacy.

AAAS is also concerned with the long-term, systemic reform of science, mathematics, and technology education. While EHR’s programs provide valuable, practical support to communities throughout the country and serve as models for reaching a variety of populations, AAAS’ Project 2061 leads national efforts to develop standards and the tools to implement them. Through Project 2061, AAAS is providing a long-term vision for transforming K-12 science, mathematics, and technology education.

Project 2061

In 1985, as Halley’s Comet last neared the earth, Project 2061’s creators considered the scientific and technological changes that a child just entering school would witness before the return of the Comet in 2061—hence the name. Since then, Project 2061’s two landmark reports—Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy—have greatly influenced the national reform movement by articulating principles to guide reform and setting specific goals for student learning. In particular, Project 2061’s work has been essential to the development of the national science content standards released in 1996 by the National Research Council.

But no matter how well-crafted and well-presented, standards and benchmarks cannot transform schools on their own. Project 2061 is developing a coordinated set of tools to help educators make changes in science and mathematics classrooms, in schools and school districts, and in the education system as a whole. The Project 2061 tool kit now consists of these print and computer-based tools:

Tool Content
Science for All Americans Science literacy goals for all high school graduates
Benchmarks for Science Literacy Grade-specific learning goals leading toward science literacy
Atlas of Science Literacy Growth-of-understanding maps portraying conceptual connections among learning goals
Resources for Science Literacy  
RSL: Professional Development Information and activities to help teachers understand and use science literacy goals
RSL: Curriculum Evaluation (available in 1998) Criteria and methodology for judging instructional materials and tests
Designs for Science Literacy (available in 1998) Guidelines for designing and improving the K-12 curriculum to promote science literacy
Blueprints for Reform and Blueprints Online (available Fall 1997) Perspectives on the education system and needed reforms

In the following section, this paper will describe the essential tasks of reform and how science educators can use the Project 2061 tools to tackle them.

Defining science literacy. Project 2061 began its work by asking the question, “What knowledge and ways of thinking about science, mathematics, and technology are essential for all citizens?” To answer it, Project 2061 drew on the best thinking of experts in the natural and social science, mathematics, and technology to produce its 1989 report Science for All Americans, which includes in its definition of science literacy understandings about:

  • the nature of science, mathematics, and technology (i.e., collectively, the scientific enterprise);
  • the world as currently depicted by science and mathematics and shaped by technology;
  • pivotal episodes in the history of the scientific endeavor;
  • themes that cut across science, mathematics, and technology and shed light on how the world works; and
  • habits of mind essential for science literacy.

As the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states in its recent international study of innovations in science education, “Project 2061 produced a clear and comprehensive vision of what everyone should know about science. Science for All Americans persuades its readers that virtually everything the non-specialist adult should know about science is interesting and worth learning…. Above all, it looks achievable” (Atkin, Bianchini, and Holthuis 1996).

Science for All Americans was also persuasive in laying out reform principles, among them:

  • The first priority of science education is basic science literacy for all students.
  • Science literacy consists of knowledge and skills in science, technology, and mathematics, and their interconnections, along with scientific habits of mind, an understanding of the nature of science, and a comprehension of its role in society and impact on individuals.
  • The topics covered in today’s science curriculum must be significantly reduced to allow students to learn well the ideas and skills essential to science literacy.
  • Education for science literacy requires that students have many and varied opportunities to explore nature in ways that resemble how scientists themselves go about their work.

These principles continue to guide Project 2061’s reform efforts and to influence the larger reform movement. In fact, in 1996, they formed the basis of a joint statement issued by AAAS, the National Association for Teachers of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Identifying grade-level learning goals. Having identified goals for adult science literacy, Project 2061 next considered what those goals might imply for student learning in grade ranges along the way. Research on student learning and the expert advice of teams of school teachers informed the development of Benchmarks for Science Literacy, published by Project 2061 in 1993. In providing a coherent set of specific learning goals on which to base education reforms, Benchmarks shares many characteristics with the national standards in science and mathematics. However, it has some unique features that set it apart and allow it to complement the standards. For example, Benchmarks includes:

  • specific learning goals for four grade levels (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12), providing extra (and much-needed) guidance to elementary teachers;
  • deliberate sequencing of learning goals so that for any topic (e.g., the structure of matter, social trade-offs, the interdependence of life), benchmarks suitable for younger students lay the foundation for increasingly sophisticated benchmarks at later grades; and
  • essays and a summary of relevant cognitive research that help to explain the thinking behind the content and grade-level placement of benchmarks (these help educators to better understand the significance of the benchmarks for curriculum and instruction).

Both Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy have helped to shape the nation’s expectations for what students should learn, notably influencing the content recommendations in the National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards and serving as key references and models for other national and federal reform initiatives.

The OECD report includes among Project 2061’s major accomplishments that “it has generated an example of what nationally driven curriculum reform might look like. As the country began to commit itself to the creation of national standards for the various subjects in the curriculum, Project 2061 was already in a position to offer an illustration, even a prototype, to demonstrate how such standards might play out in practice” (Atkin, Bianchini, and Holthuis 1996).

With a solid consensus on science and mathematics standards and benchmarks at the national level, receptivity at the state level, and increasing awareness at the local level, Project 2061’s aim now is to help educators understand and implement changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment to ensure that students achieve the science literacy goals presented in benchmarks and standards.

Helping educators to understand and promote science literacy goals. The responsibility for promoting science literacy ultimately falls to the classroom teacher. But classroom instruction itself needs to change for students to achieve higher standards in science and mathematics. Many teachers, attempting to cope with an unfocused curriculum and overstuffed textbooks, still teach “a little bit of everything,” according to the recent TIMMS report (Schmidt, McKnight, and Raizen 1997). Ideas central to science literacy are lost in needless detail and compete with less crucial topics. Teachers obviously need more help in understanding and applying the recommendations of reform documents like Benchmarks for Science Literacy or NSES. As SRI International found, “Without high-quality professional development, national standards…may appear to teachers to be little more than attractive, but highly abstract, philosophies” (Zucker, Young, and Luczak 1997).

To help their students move toward higher standards in science, mathematics, and technology, teachers themselves will have to be science literate. However, many K-12 teachers (like most Americans) are not. Even those who are may not fully understand how science literacy goals relate to instruction. Project 2061’s new CD-ROM tool, Resources for Science Literacy: Professional Development brings together a variety of resources to help in both regards.

Resources for Science Literacy: Professional Development
In addition to the full text of Science for All Americans, the Professional Development CD-ROM includes:
  • A science trade books database describing more than 120 books helpful in explaining for the general reader many areas of science, technology, and mathematics. The database links each book explicitly to sections of Science for All Americans so that users can compile a reading list around a particular topic.
  • Descriptions and analyses of 15 undergraduate courses that attempt to foster science literacy; again, links to sections of Science for All Americans are explicit.
  • Detailed comparisons of Benchmarks for Science Literacy to the national standards in science, mathematics, and the social sciences; these show the overwhelming overlap among the documents and explain the differences, making it easier for educators to use both benchmarks and standards when making decisions about curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
  • A guide to cognitive research on how students understand and learn specific concepts central to science literacy.
  • A Project 2061 workshop guide useful in designing professional-development workshops or tutorials that focus on understanding and using benchmarks and standards to improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Resources for Science Literacy provides science educators with an understanding of science literacy, what it requires of students, and how teachers can help students achieve it. The wealth of material on the CD-ROM can serve as the cornerstone of a long-term professional development program that will enhance both content knowledge and teaching craft. Teacher educators can use this tool to rethink their teacher preparation and in-service programs; school districts and individual teachers can use it as the basis for professional development workshops or self-guided study.

Regardless of how well they are prepared to teach to science literacy goals, teachers need support as they try new materials, methods, and schedules in their schools. Moreover, they need encouragement and practice in collaborating with colleagues in other grade ranges and other subjects.

With these requirements in mind, Project 2061 has launched an initiative to improve teacher preparation and training of new teachers at two sites—in Maryland and Colorado—and to develop prototypes for improving teacher preparation elsewhere. The initiative is designed to encourage long-term professional development programs where teachers study science literacy goals, relate them to sound principles of instruction, and practice applying them in the analysis and revision of curriculum materials, instructional strategies, and assessments. It also helps tie teacher preparation programs more closely to national K-12 reform initiatives and to in-service programs in the schools.

Aligning curriculum and assessment materials with benchmarks and standards. Designing a K-12 curriculum that will adequately address a particular set of science literacy goals (Benchmarks, the science standards, or state frameworks) depends on the availability of a pool of curriculum materials aligned with those goals—preferably with effective instructional strategies and assessments built in.

To help identify such materials and encourage the development of new materials, Project 2061 has produced, with the help of hundreds of K-12 teachers, materials developers, and teacher educators, a reliable procedure for analyzing curriculum materials and assessments. Although the procedure was developed using the learning goals in Benchmarks and the science and mathematics standards, subsequent trials indicate that it can also be used with state education frameworks and with learning goals in other subjects—provided they are precise, explicit statements of what knowledge and skills students should acquire and retain. For example, over the past year, Project 2061 has worked closely with the Kentucky Middle Grades Mathematics Teacher Network to adapt the procedure to mathematics using Kentucky’s Mathematics Core Content for Assessment, the national standards for mathematics, and Project 2061’s benchmarks as the criteria for alignment. (See Figure 1 for an example of how the three sets of learning goals treat a particular mathematical concept at very different levels of specificity.) The project is now working with 32 Kentucky teachers who will use the procedure to examine middle-school mathematics materials and to develop workshops to train teachers throughout the state in analyzing materials.

The Project 2061 materials-analysis procedure is rigorous, requiring reviewers to study carefully the meaning of selected science and mathematics literacy goals before closely analyzing a material’s likely contribution to those specific goals. This rigor is essential. Many available curriculum materials, some of them very popular, do a poor job of promoting learning of specific science literacy goals. SRI International found that textbook publishers, however eager to quote the NSES or Science for All Americans and to employ new technological formats, remain unconvinced that they need to change the science content in their materials. With publishers and developers nevertheless making claims about their materials’ alignment to national standards or Benchmarks, it is important to equip educators with a reliable way to evaluate materials for themselves. Also, by training curriculum developers to use the exacting procedure, Project 2061 hopes to encourage them to effectively address science literacy goals in their materials.

The procedure includes sets of explicit criteria against which to examine a material for its match to learning goals and asks for explicit evidence to support any claimed match. This makes the materials-analysis task rigorous and time consuming, but also likely to produce reliable and valid results. Project 2061 is now working with teachers in Kentucky and Philadelphia on ways to streamline the procedure.

In addition to its usefulness in evaluating curriculum materials, several features of the procedure make it a powerful professional development tool for teachers, helping them to change the way they look at curriculum materials.

To make Project 2061’s materials-analysis procedure widely available, Project 2061 is now developing Resources for Science Literacy: Curriculum Evaluation. This CD-ROM/print tool will include (1) detailed instructions for evaluating curriculum materials and assessments in light of Benchmarks, national standards, or other learning goals of comparable specificity; (2) case-study reports illustrating the application of the analysis procedure to a variety of curriculum materials; (3) a utility for relating Benchmarks and national standards to state and district learning goals; and (4) an overview of issues related to developing the procedure, as well as discussion of its implications for education.

Designing a curriculum to promote science literacy. Analyzing curriculum materials is one way for educators to get started on implementing science literacy goals. However, a much larger problem looms for educators: How to reconfigure the entire curriculum to meet science literacy goals and still meet local requirements and preferences. Because refocusing the entire curriculum on science literacy goals is such an enormous undertaking, and one worthy of thoughtful design rather than the stop-gaps that prevail in education, Project 2061 has been developing a new print/electronic tool, Designs for Science Literacy, to guide educators in their K-12 reform efforts.

How might a school district go about designing a curriculum—the entire scope and sequence of subjects and courses across all grades from kindergarten through high school? Designs for Science Literacy first explains general design principles and how they can be applied to the curriculum. Then, looking at the science, mathematics, and technology components of the curriculum together and in relation to the entire K-12 curriculum, Designs sketches some possibilities, envisioning how a curriculum might be configured from high-quality instructional blocks (of various sizes from units to courses). Designs also offers some practical suggestions on how to make near-term improvements that will contribute to long-term reform goals. For example, it discusses (1) how school districts can prepare their teachers and curriculum specialists for reform, (2) ways to reduce the core content of the overstuffed curriculum, and (3) ways to enhance connections across subjects and grades. In doing so, Designs addresses the many considerations and constraints that attend curriculum design.

To further aid in the design of new curricula, Project 2061 is also creating the Atlas of Science Literacy, a collection of ‘growth-of-understanding” maps which depict the sequence and interdependence of knowledge and skills that lead to students’ achievement of particular science literacy goals. These maps reveal not only earlier- and later-grade benchmarks related to a particular learning goal, but also the connections among benchmarks in different areas of science, mathematics, and technology. The graphic representation can help curriculum designers to see which concepts are essential to understanding other concepts, to place concepts and activities at appropriate grade levels, and to notice when they are out of place. A K-12 curriculum developed with connections among benchmarks in mind will pace and relate subjects and courses better. (See Figure 2 for a sample growth-of-understanding map.)

Building awareness for reform. At hundreds of workshops over the past several years, Project 2061 has been promoting the notion of standards-based reform to a variety of audiences. Introducing teachers to Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy helps them to explore science literacy and to see the documents as tools useful for planning instruction, rather than “abstract philosophies— with no relevance to their daily work.

Project 2061’s workshops range from introductory sessions to longer training institutes. The project offers customized workshops for mathematics and science teachers from all grade levels, and also for teacher educators, materials developers, and others. Depending on the interests of the participants, the workshops focus on understanding learning goals; analyzing, selecting, and revising materials; evaluating curriculum frameworks; or using a particular Project 2061 reform tool. Workshops are being developed for all of Project 2061’s new tools to help educators put them to use as quickly and effectively as possible.

Reconfiguring the education system. As Project 2061’s involvement with professional development for teachers indicates, attempting to reform the K-12 curriculum necessarily takes in other aspects of the education system. To explore the complex interactions of all parts of the education system and their influence on curriculum reform, Project 2061 commissioned a dozen concept papers from expert panels in each area. Summaries of the papers and related materials will be released as Blueprints for Reform Online through Project 2061’s World Wide Web site, as well as in book form.

Blueprints for Reform
Blueprints addresses many questions central to standards-based reform, such as:

Assessment: Do current assessment practices work for or against the kind of learning recommended in Science for All Americans (or the science standards)? If against, what will it take to change current approaches?

Business and Industry: In what ways do partnerships between business and education contribute to the attainment of science literacy? Does an emphasis on preparation for work help or hinder the implementation of science literacy goals?

Curriculum Connections: How can connections among the natural sciences, mathematics, and technology be fostered? Between these areas and the arts and humanities?

Equity: Which policies and practices impede the attainment of science literacy by all students, and which foster it? How should “all” be defined?

Family and Community: How are families and communities likely to respond to the recommendations in Science for All Americans or the national science standards? Should they (and how can they) help to endorse, support, or implement science literacy goals?

Finance: What are the costs, in terms of money and other resources, of “science literacy for all”?

Higher Education: What changes in admissions standards, if any, will be necessary to support K-12 reforms to promote science literacy? How should undergraduate education build on science literacy goals devised for K-12 education?

Materials and Technology: What new resources are needed for teachers to help students become science literate? How can existing resources be put to better use?

Policy: Do current local, state, and federal education policies help or hinder the realization of science literacy goals? What changes in laws and regulations are needed and possible?

Research: What kinds of research are needed to improve instruction for science literacy? How can relevant findings be disseminated to influence K-12 educational policies, teaching practices, materials, and curriculum design.

School Organization: What will the realization of science literacy goals require of grade structure, teacher collaboration, control of curriculum materials and assessment, and how time and space are organized?

Teacher Preparation: What changes are needed to produce teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to implement curricula based on science literacy goals?

Project 2061’s work so far helps in answering some of these and other questions raised in Blueprints. Electronic forums and other interactive utilities related to Blueprints Online will encourage more extensive debate of issues central to implementing science literacy goals.


At this writing, a national consensus in favor of standards-based reform appears to be growing. For reform to succeed, it is important now for political and education leaders at every level to stay the course. With its commitment to long-term systemic reform of education, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Project 2061 in particular, offer the following recommendations to the National Education Goals Panel for ways to bring about some of the changes that will eventually help transform the education system.

  • Encourage states and school districts to adopt the widely accepted national benchmarks and standards rather than inventing their own. This will allow educators working at the state and local levels to turn their attention to building understanding and consensus around them and to address other equally important reform tasks. It took three years to create Science for All Americans, three additional years to develop Benchmarks for Science Literacy, and another three years for National Science Education Standards. Thousands of the best scientists and educators were involved and massive resources. Few local communities—even states—are able to replicate such an effort.
  • Encourage school districts, state curriculum committees, and others to look to national efforts like AAAS Project 2061 for tools, training, and support. In addition to Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy, which supply learning goals, Project 2061’s tool kit now includes Resources for Science Literacy: Professional Development and Blueprints for Reform Online. Additional tools—Resources for Science Literacy: Curriculum Evaluation, Designs for Science Literacy, and the Atlas for Science Literacy—should be out within the next year or so. The project also offers workshops and institutes on using science literacy goals to teachers, administrators, teacher educators, policy makers, and others.
  • Support and encourage states and school districts in their efforts to align frameworks, local standards, assessments, and textbook-adoption policies with benchmarks and national standards. Draw on Project 2061’s workshops to provide intensive training for selection committee members to build their understanding of standards-based reform and their skills in identifying curriculum materials and assessments that will help all students achieve science literacy goals. Allow selection committees adequate time to make thoughtful decisions about curriculum materials.
  • Urge publishers and materials developers to create curriculum materials aligned with a specific and coherent set of learning goals, such as those found in Project 2061’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy and national standards. This will involve educating publishers and developers about science literacy goals and reform principles, and making it clear that the market demands changes to textbooks, and materials.
  • Support the development of valid and reliable procedures for evaluating assessment tools (including high-stakes tests such as state mathematics and science assessments, NAEP, and the forthcoming national test for 8th grade mathematics) for their alignment with national science and mathematics content standards. Findings from evaluations of this sort will also influence and encourage the development of new standards-based assessment items and tasks that can be shared by states and school districts.
  • Support states, school districts, private institutions, community organizations, and other entities in their efforts to promote equity in education and ensure high academic achievement of all students.
  • Work with Project 2061 to provide teachers with access to long-term professional development that will increase their content knowledge, improve their access to and use of research about teaching and learning, and further their understanding of standards-based reform and how to put it into practice in the classroom. Teachers of science, mathematics, and technology, in particular, need regular opportunities to update their knowledge in these domains and to interact with their scientific and technical colleagues in industry and the research community.

Project 2061’s focus for more than a decade has been on reforming the science, mathematics, and technology curriculum, and our recommendations reflect that unique perspective. The project’s goal of science literacy for all Americans goes far beyond high scores on tests, more hands-on activities for students, or more attractive textbooks, particularly  these do not also help to promote science literacy.

Our experience tells us that meaningful, lasting reform takes an uncomfortably long time. The temptation to look for quick fixes and short-term solutions is difficult to resist. But leaders must always look beyond immediate needs, however urgent, to achieve more far-reaching goals. What was true in 1989 when Science for All Americans was published remains true today:

“There are no valid reasons—intellectual, social, or economic—why the United States cannot transform its schools to make scientific literacy possible for all students.”


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Atkin, J. Myron, Bianchini, Julie A., & Holthuis, Nicole I. (1996). The different worlds of Project 2061. Paris: Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Blank, Rolf K. & Pechman, Ellen. M. (1995). State curriculum frameworks in mathematics and science:  How are they changing across the states? Washington, D.C.: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Suter, Larry E., ed. (1996). Indicators of science and mathematics education 1995. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Division of Research, Evaluation, and Communication. (NSF 96-52).

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