Benchmarks for Science Literacy
A tool for curriculum reform
Benchmarks for Science Literacy is the Project 2061 statement of what all students should know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology by the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12. The recommendations at each grade level suggest reasonable progress toward the adult science literacy goals laid out in the project's 1989 report Science for All Americans. Benchmarks can help educators decide what to include in (or exclude from) a core curriculum, when to teach it, and why.
Published in 1993 by Oxford University Press, Benchmarks for Science Literacy emerged from more than three years of work by Project 2061 staff in collaboration with teams of teachers at Project 2061's six School-District Centers, and with scientists and university consultants. It reflects the input of more than 1,300 individuals.
Designing a Curriculum
Benchmarks is not a curriculum, a curriculum framework, or a plan for a curriculum. It provides educators with sequences of specific learning goals that they can use to design a core curriculum—one that makes sense to them and will help students achieve the basic science literacy goals outlined in Science for All Americans. Benchmarks does not advocate any particular teaching methods or curriculum design, nor does it spell out goals for advanced performance. In fact, it encourages greater curriculum diversity than is common today. To help educators as they rethink their curriculum Benchmarks:
- describes levels of understanding and ability that all students are expected to reach on the way to becoming science literate;
- concentrates on the common core of learning that contributes to the science literacy of all students while acknowledging that most students have interests and abilities that go beyond that common core, and some have learning difficulties that must be considered;
- avoids language used for its own sake, in part to reduce sheer burden, and in part to prevent vocabulary from being mistaken for understanding;
- is informed by research on how students learn, particularly as it relates to the selection and grade placement of benchmarks; and
- encourages educators to recognize the interconnectedness of knowledge and to build these important connections into their curriculum units and materials.
Putting Benchmarks to Work
Project 2061 has spent several years considering the implications that specific learning goals such as benchmarks have for curriculum and instruction. At workshops around the country, the project has shared what it has learned with thousands of teachers, supervisors, principals, and state leaders. These workshops introduce participants to standards-based reform and highlight the usefulness of Benchmarks and Project 2061's other reform tools.
Who can benefit from Benchmarks and how? Together, Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy are used by educators, teacher educators, curriculum developers, museums, and others for a variety of purposes:
Crafting Standards and Frameworks. Many states have modeled their own standards or frameworks after Benchmarks and Science for All Americans. A 1996 study of Project 2061's influence on reform revealed that many state curriculum documents cite Project 2061 and its publications as key sources in their bibliographies, quote directly from the project's publications, or organize their own recommendations to parallel the 2061 documents. Some even adopt benchmarks verbatim. Framework writers interviewed for the study reported that Benchmarks strongly influenced decisions on what content to include.
Several national organizations have also used Benchmarks to guide their efforts. The National Research Council drew on Benchmarks in developing its 1996 National Science Education Standards. And national organizations and agencies that support standards-based reform—the Statewide Systemic Initiatives program of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education's Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Program, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development to name a few—have used Project 2061's publications extensively.
Materials Selection and Development. Project 2061 has developed a rigorous procedure—employing the learning goals presented in Benchmarks—that enables educators to evaluate how well curriculum materials match science literacy goals. Educators have been using Benchmarks together with Project 2061's materials-analysis procedure to inform decisions on adopting new curriculum materials and to determine whether and how to improve existing materials. Some curriculum-materials developers use the procedure as they create materials that are aligned with the project's science literacy goals.
Developing and Analyzing Assessment. With the growing consensus on learning goals—benchmarks, standards, and state and local goals—in science and mathematics, it is becoming increasingly important for assessments to address those goals. Using Benchmarks, as well as National Science Education Standards and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards, Project 2061 has developed an approach to analyzing and describing the alignment of mathematics and science assessments with specific learning goals.
Project 2061 intends to form a consortium of educators from several states and school districts who will use the project's assessment-analysis procedure to evaluate the alignment of science and mathematics assessments with their own local and state standards. Ultimately, the consortium will produce hundreds of mathematics and science assessment tasks and items that are aligned with benchmarks and standards.
Teacher Training. Colleges of education across the country incorporate Benchmarks into their science methods courses. Prospective teachers become familiar with the content of the benchmarks; study the education research that guides their careful grade-level placement; and consider how to focus lessons, teaching methods, and assessment on specific learning goals.
Informal Education. In support of K-12 science education reform, museums and science centers across the country are beginning to consider national, state, and local standards in developing their exhibits and programs. They find the specificity of Benchmarks and Science for All Americans useful in interpreting their local or state standards, many of which are based on these publications. Museums also use Benchmarks to select appropriate themes for science exhibits, train docents in what to expect children of certain ages to know and be able to do in science, and plan professional development for teachers.
Benchmarks and National Standards
Where they address common areas—that is, natural science content—the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards(NSES) and Project 2061's Benchmarks for Science Literacy are highly consistent. In fact, the National Research Council relied heavily on Benchmarks in drafting its content standards, as stated in the introduction to NSES
The many individuals who have developed the content standards sections of the National Science Education Standards have drawn extensively on and made independent use and interpretation of the statements of what all students should know and be able to do that are published in Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences gratefully acknowledges its indebtedness to that seminal work by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061 and believes that use of Benchmarks for Science Literacy by the state framework committees, school district curriculum committees, and developers of instructional and assessment materials complies fully with the spirit of the content standards. (NSES, p. 15)
Both visions of science literacy promote reducing the current glut of topics in the curriculum and emphasize understanding of ideas central to science literacy over memorization of vocabulary. And although they are organized differently, in most cases Benchmarks and NSES place ideas in the same grade ranges.
Both Benchmarks and NSES represent years of work by experts in science and education; the extensive overlap between the two documents and the concurrence of the National Science Teachers Association signifies an informed consensus on the most important knowledge and skills in science, mathematics, and technology. To help educators use NSES and Benchmarks together more effectively, Project 2061's CD-ROM tool Resources for Science Literacy: Professional Development offers a detailed analysis of the similarities and differences of the two documents.
Benchmarks on Disk
To provide additional assistance to teachers and curriculum planners, Benchmarks is also available on disk in Windows and Macintosh formats. Users can browse through or search the full text of Benchmarks, quickly refer to other sections related to the benchmarks at hand, and consult the research base that informed the content and grade-level placement of the benchmarks.
Benchmarks on Disk features several "growth-of-understanding maps"
of related benchmarks that trace student progress toward particular adult
science literacy goals. Users can create and print their own groups of benchmarks
to get a sense of how ideas in the curriculum connect across grades, disciplines,
or subjects. The collection of maps on Benchmarks on Disk has been
expanded in Atlas of Science Literacy.
With support for standards-based reform and the use of the Internet growing, Project 2061 wanted to make Benchmarks for Science Literacy available in a flexible and widely accessible format. Therefore, Project 2061 has published Benchmarks Online on-line at http://www.project2061.org/publications/bsl/online. Users can browse the full text of Benchmarks by chapter or use keywords to search the entire document. Hypertext links direct the user to cognitive research and bibliographic references.