The results of the general comparison are presented here using the eight NSES content standard categories.

Science as Inquiry

The greatest apparent difference between NSES and SFAA/Benchmarks is in their treatment of inquiry. Both agree that students should understand some important things about scientific investigation, and both agree that there are some skills related to inquiry that all students should retain beyond school as part of science literacy (for example, keeping decipherable notes, sketching comprehensible graphs, constructing a reasonable argument). There is also agreement that students should retain the ability to think critically about reports of research (although SFAA/Benchmarks goes into somewhat more detail on what "critical response" should include). Further, both agree that acquiring such understandings and skills requires that students have carried out some scientific investigations themselves -- and therefore that standards for teaching should require appropriate hands-on work. (Recommendations on teaching scientific inquiry and design are found in Benchmarks essays at the beginning of sections 1B and 3B, respectively.)

NSES goes further, however, in specifying in the content standards that all students should learn to plan and carry out complete scientific investigations--to become, as the document says, "independent inquirers about the natural world." While Project 2061 considers the retained ability to conduct scientific research to be highly desirable for students who will specialize in science-related careers, it considers adult science literacy to be adequately [admirably?] served by the ability to react critically to reports of research, such as commonly appear in the public media. (Such skills are drawn together by SFAA/Benchmarks in the chapter Habits of Mind, along with other skills.)

If "abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry" are included in NSES in the expectation that all science-literate adults will be able to actually carry out, as well as critique, scientific investigations, then there is a legitimate difference in optimism about learning. It is possible, however, that NSES includes inquiry among content standards not so much to foster eventual adult behavior as to establish the necessity of hands-on experiences in inquiry--that is, as a way of giving greater weight to what are actually teaching standards. If that were the case, then the difference in opinion is about neither literacy nor learning, but about the value of separating ends and means in making recommendations for reform.

Also, NSES treats Scientific Inquiry separately from the Nature of Science, whereas SFAA/Benchmarks treats it as part of the Nature of Science, i.e., along with "The Scientific World View" and "The Scientific Enterprise." Perhaps it is a difference of, in the one case, emphasizing inquiry and, in the other, emphasizing an integrated view of science.


History & Nature of Science

NSES packages the history and nature of science together, focusing on general lessons about the nature of science to be learned from studying the history of science. In contrast, Project 2061 treats them separately and argues that history has both instrumental value and value for its own sake:

There are two principal reasons for including some knowledge of history among the recommendations. One reason is that generalizations about how the scientific enterprise operates would be empty without concrete examples. ... A second reason is that some episodes in the history of the scientific endeavor are of surpassing significance to our cultural heritage (AAAS, 1993, p. 237). NSES shows some ambivalence about history. At the 9-12 grade-range discussion, NSES refers explicitly to the historical episodes in SFAA/Benchmarks, but the intended relationship is not clear. The standards on the history and nature of science are closely aligned with the nature of science and historical episodes described in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Teachers of science can incorporate other historical examples that may accommodate different interests, topics, disciplines, and cultures -- as the intention of the standard is to develop an understanding of the human dimensions of science, the nature of scientific knowledge, and the enterprise of science in society -- and not to develop a comprehensive understanding of history (National Research Council, 1996, p. 200 ). The similar discussion for grade-range 5-8 argues against "an overview of the complete history of science." But these statements don't address the intrinsic value of a small number of prominent examples, such as SFAA/Benchmarks include. One interpretation is that the NRC sees no intrinsic value to learning any particular history of science at all. Another interpretation is that the NRC sees any intrinsic value of history to be the provence of the history curriculum. Project 2061 considers science-related goals for the entire curriculum, not just traditional "school science," hence can take a broader view of what content is appropriate.

In any case, NSES goes on to list 16 topics that merit historical treatment, ten that appear to fit the SFAA/Benchmarks episodes plus five more--molecular biology, information & communication, quantum theory, galactic universe, and medical & health technology. The report does not say what all students should learn from them.

Science & Technology

There are two major differences in the approach to this content taken by the two documents. One is that NSES places a great deal of emphasis--consistent with its approach to inquiry--on having all students learn how to carry out design projects as adults, whereas SFAA/Benchmarks emphasizes understanding the nature of design.

Another difference is that NSES covers much less technology ground than SFAA/Benchmarks does. NSES explicitly states that it does not include "technology education" and deals with technology primarily in terms of its relation to science. Besides leaving out some key topics--feedback and control in technological systems and design failure and ways of reducing it are examples--NSES does not include any of the topics in the SFAA/Benchmarks Designed World chapter. (NSES includes Information & Communication and Medical & Health Technology in its list of historical episodes that might be studied, but does not include any specific "fundamental concepts" for them.)

Unifying Concepts & Processes

The NSES content here is similar to that in SFAA/Benchmarks, which is seen more easily when subheadings similar to those in SFAA are used:

NSES SFAA/Benchmarks
Systems, order and organization Systems
Evidence, models and explanation Models 
  physical models 
  conceptual models 
  mathematical models
Constancy, change, and measurement 
Evolution and equilibrium 
Form and function
Constancy and Change 
  stability & equilibrium 
SFAA/Benchmarks does not include classification (Order and Organization) as a general tool of scientific inquiry or as a common theme, although it is given substantial space in the chapter on Diversity of Life. (This neglect was deliberate, a reaction against the excessive emphasis given to classification in traditional science courses, but in hindsight perhaps an overreaction.) Nor does SFAA/Benchmarks include Form and Function as a general theme, although the idea is exercised in sections on design, natural selection, and basic functions of organisms.

Physical Science
Earth & Space Science

The content in these two NSES standards corresponds closely to that found in the SFAA/Benchmarks chapter The Physical Setting. The few differences that do exist between them in what is included and in level of treatment is revealed in the fundamental concept/benchmark-level analysis , and the results are reported below in the section on specific findings. At the general level, the main difference is organizational, with Project 2061 opting to take a more integrated view of the physical sciences. Also coming into play is the difference in style in which the NRC content standards vary topically by grade band, whereas SFAA/Benchmarks holds the major topics constant and varies the substance of each topic at the benchmark level. Table 2 presents a comparison at the topic level.

Life Science

Much the same story holds true in comparing the NSES Life Science standards to the SFAA/Benchmarks chapters The Living Environment and The Human Organism. Table 3 shows how they compare at a general section or topic level.

Personal & Social Perspectives

This NSES standard relates to some content in eight SFAA/Benchmarks chapters. Table 4 lists, without regard to grade level, the topics treated in NSES Personal & Social Perspectives standards and the SFAA/Benchmarks sections it encompasses. That comparison can be a little misleading, however, unless one refers to the benchmark level analysis, since NSES may draw only one or two ideas from a given SFAA/Benchmarks section.

As a matter of focus, the NSES rendition is more explicit than its SFAA/Benchmarks counterpart in preparation for social action, as indicated by casting these standards in terms of environmental protection, population growth, hazards, and the like. But, on the other hand, the learning goals in SFAA/Benchmarks were selected to insure that all graduates of our schools would have the knowledge and skills necessary to deal effectively with whatever social issues present themselves, including population and environment. In spite of its emphasis on social matters, NSES does not draw at all on SFAA/Benchmarks sections Cultural Effects on Behavior, Group Behavior, or Social Conflict.

Table 2
Comparative organization of NSES "Physical Science" and "Earth & Space Science" standards
and corresponding Benchmarks chapter

NSES: Physical Science 


Properties of objects and materials 

Position and motion of objects 

Light, heat, electricity, and magnetism 


Properties and changes of properties in matter 

Motions and forces 

Transfer of energy 


The structure of atoms 

Structure and properties of matter 

Chemical reactions 

Motions and forces 

Conservation of energy and increase in disorder 

Interaction of energy and matter 

NSES: Earth and Space Science 


Properties of earth materials 

Objects in the sky 

Changes in Earth and sky 


Structure of the earth system 

Earth's history 

Earth in the Solar System 


Energy in the earth system 

Geochemical cycles 

The origin and evolution of the Earth system 

The origin and evolution of the universe

Benchmarks: The Physical Setting 

The Universe 

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12 

The Earth 

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12 

Processes that shape the earth 

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12 

Structure of matter 

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12 

Energy transformations 

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12 


K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12 

Forces of Nature 

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12


Table 3
Comparative organization of NSES "Life Science" standard
and corresponding Benchmarks chapters

NSES: Life Science


The characteristics of organisms

Life cycles of organisms

Organisms and environments


Structure and function in living systems

Reproduction and heredity

Regulation and behavior

Populations and ecosystems

Diversity and adaptations of organisms


The cell

The molecular basis of heredity

Biological evolution

The interdependence of organisms

Matter, energy, and the organization

in living systems

The behavior of organisms

Benchmarks: Living Environment

Diversity of Life

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12


K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12


K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Interdependence of Life

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Flow of Matter & Energy

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Evolution of Life

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12


Benchmarks: The Human Organism

Human Identity

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Human Development

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Basic Functions

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12


K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Physical Health

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Mental Health

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12



Table 4
Correspondence of NSES "Science in Personal and Social Perspectives" standard
to Benchmarks sections

NSES: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives


Personal health

Characteristics and changes in populations

Types of resources

Changes in environments

Science & technology in local challenges


Personal health

Populations, resources, and environments

Natural hazards

Risks and benefits

Science and technology in society


Personal and community health

Population growth

Natural resources

Environmental quality

Natural and human-induced hazards

Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges

Benchmarks sections with comparable ideas:

The scientific world view

The scientific enterprise

Technology and science

Design and systems

Issues in technology

The earth

Process that shape the earth

Interdependence of life

Flow of matter and energy

Evolution of life

Human development

Basic functions

Physical health

Mental health

Cultural effects on behavior

Social change

Social trade-offs

Political and economic systems

Global interdependence


Materials and manufacturing

Energy sources and use

Health technology

Harnessing power


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