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Middle Grades Science Textbooks: A Benchmarks-Based Evaluation

SciencePlus: Technology and Society. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1997
Earth Science Life Science Physical Science

About this Evaluation Report
Content Analysis
Instructional Analysis
I. [Explanation] This category consists of criteria for determining whether the curriculum material attempts to make its purposes explicit and meaningful to students, either in the student text itself or through suggestions to the teacher. The sequence of lessons or activities is also important in accomplishing the stated purpose, since ideas often build on each other.
II. [Explanation] Fostering understanding in students requires taking time to attend to the ideas they already have, both ideas that are incorrect and ideas that can serve as a foundation for subsequent learning. This category consists of criteria for determining whether the curriculum material contains specific suggestions for identifying and addressing students’ ideas.
III. [Explanation] Much of the point of science is to explain phenomena in terms of a small number of principles or ideas. For students to appreciate this explanatory power, they need to have a sense of the range of phenomena that science can explain. The criteria in this category examine whether the curriculum material relates important scientific ideas to a range of relevant phenomena and provides either firsthand experiences with the phenomena or a vicarious sense of phenomena that are not presented firsthand.
IV. [Explanation] Science literacy requires that students understand the link between scientific ideas and the phenomena that they can explain. Furthermore, students should see the ideas as useful and become skillful at applying them. This category consists of criteria for determining whether the curriculum material expresses and develops the key ideas in ways that are accessible and intelligible to students, and that demonstrate the usefulness of the key ideas and provide practice in varied contexts.
V. [Explanation] Engaging students in experiences with phenomena (category III) and presenting them with scientific ideas (category IV) will not lead to effective learning unless students are given time, opportunities, and guidance to make sense of the experiences and ideas. This category consists of criteria for determining whether the curriculum material provides students with opportunities to express, think about, and reshape their ideas, as well as guidance on developing an understanding of what they experience.
VI. [Explanation] This category consists of criteria for evaluating whether the curriculum material includes a variety of aligned assessments that apply the key ideas taught in the material.
VII. [Explanation] The criteria in this category provide analysts with the opportunity to comment on features that enhance the use and implementation of the curriculum material by all students.

I. Providing a Sense of Purpose

Conveying unit purpose (Rating = Fair)

Each unit in SciencePlus begins with a two-page photograph accompanied by text and questions relevant to the material to come. In grade eight, the photograph for Unit 1: Life Processes depicts a lush rain forest while the text focuses on the ingredients of life. The teacher's notes provide the questions:
Have students imagine what life would be like in such a place. Ask: What would you do for food? What do you think plants or animals who might live in this forest do for food? When answering these questions, students should consider where energy can be found in the forest. [Level Blue, p. 3t]

However, even though the questions are there for students to consider, it is not made clear that they are part of the material's attempt to convey the unit's purpose. Similarly, subsequent questions about the forest canopy and its role in preventing the underlying layers from receiving rainfall and light are not linked explicitly to the unit's purpose. For the most part, the questions provided at the beginning of units are understandable and consistent with the topics to be studied, although they may not be motivating to students.

Another component, called Unit Focus, is intended to provide "interactive suggestions for introducing students to the unit" (p. T27). The Unit Focus for unit 1 suggests that teachers ask students three questions ("identify some of the biological processes that keep them alive,"identify some of the processes that keep plants alive," and consider whether "plants need to exist in order for animals to exist") and then tell them that "this unit explores some of the life processes that all living organisms have in common" (Level Blue, p. 2t). While this is a clear attempt to convey the purpose of the unit to students, the purpose may not be comprehensible or motivating to them.

Chapter introductions follow a common format of involving students in responding to questions related to what will be learned in the chapter and then stating: "Think about these questions for a moment, and answer them in your ScienceLog. When you've finished this chapter, you'll have the opportunity to revise your answers based on what you've learned" (e.g., Level Blue, pp. 4s, 28s, 54s). Some students may see this passage as a statement of purpose, but it is not sufficiently forthright for all students. However, in contrast to the questions in the unit introductions, those in the chapter introductions are more understandable, although not necessarily more motivating to students-as evidenced by the following three examples: (1) "Where do plants get their food? Describe a typical plant. What's inside a leaf?" [Level Blue, p. 4s], (2) "How much of you is water? How does water get from the roots to the top of this tree?" [p. 28s], and (3) "How is the energy in your food released in you? What keeps heat near the Earth's surface?" [p. 54s]).

After the chapter introduction, Chapter 1: Energy for Life clarifies its purpose further in the first lesson. Students are asked to examine a sequence of photographs (?, wheat, cow eating wheat, girl eating hamburger) and to "[f]igure out what should go where the question mark is" (Level Blue, p. 6s). Then the purpose of the chapter is stated: "By thinking [about] and doing the Explorations in this chapter, you will figure out the answer to the question, 'How do plants get food?'" This purpose is returned to at the end of the chapter:

This chapter began with the question, "How do plants get their food?" Has your thinking changed since then? Here are some suggestions to help you organize your ideas.
a. Begin by writing a brief report about how your thinking has changed.
b. Look at the poster your group made. Discuss and write comments on the poster.
c. Produce a new poster and compare it with the first one.
d. Prepare a way to explain to some fifth-grade students how plants get food.
[Level Blue, p. 27s]

Here, the purpose is not only explicit and consistent with what students study, but it is also reverted to at the end of the chapter. Unfortunately, chapter 1 is the exception, rather than the rule; subsequent chapters do not have this feature.

Conveying lesson/activity purpose (Rating = Satisfactory)

Generally, lessons and explorations contain a purpose that is likely to be comprehensible to students and sometimes is related to the unit purpose. Although the purpose may be stated, students are not encouraged to think about it or about what they have learned so far and need to learn next. The three chapters in unit 1 of Level Blue succeed in conveying the purpose of their activities to varying degrees, perhaps because of the different topics they treat. Chapter 1, described below, is in the middle of the range, with chapter 3 being a little better and chapter 2 a little worse.

Exploration 1 in Lesson 1: Where Does the Energy Come From? begins by stating its purpose and linking it to the unit purpose: "Before you get serious about figuring out how plants get food, you have to know what kind of food is in plants. The food in plants is starch." After showing an electron micrograph of starch granules, the text states that "there is another way to tell whether something contains starch, which you will learn in Exploration 1. You will also use the technique later in the unit as you answer the question, 'Where do plants get food?'" (Level Blue, p. 7s). Lesson 2: Where Does Starch the Come From? begins by stating: "In Explorations 2, 3, and 4 you will be figuring out where the starch in plants comes from. As you do the Explorations, think about what light, water, and carbon dioxide could have to do with the starch in plants" (p. 10s). Later in the lesson, under the title "Put It All Together!" (p. 14s), students are told that based on the explorations they have done so far, they can conclude that plants need carbon dioxide, water, and light to make starch, and photosynthesis is defined. Then they are asked why photosynthesis is a good name, given what they have learned in the explorations, and they are informed that their next challenge is to see what plants give off during photosynthesis. At the end of the lesson, students review the process of photosynthesis. Lesson 3: Food Factory Basics relates plant structures to their functions and attempts to connect this to a design problem more generally:

A well-designed structure is a thing of beauty. Architects and engineers strive to design buildings, bridges, machines, and other structures that are elegant as well as efficient and functional. Structures are also found in nature. Take plants, for example. How do they rate in terms of their efficiency? their functionality? their "ingenuity" of design? [Level Blue, p. 17s]

Unfortunately, the link to the unit's purpose (i.e., how the plant's structure makes it an efficient food factory) is not made clear and may be buried among the details of varieties of leaves, stems, and roots (pp. 18-19s). While the explorations of stomates (pp. 20-21s), leaf cross sections (p. 22s), chlorophyll (pp. 23-24s), and discussion topics (p. 25s) all involve students in relating the structures of plants to their functions, only one of the five discussion topics brings general design considerations into the foreground ("Discuss the design of a specific leaf.. In what ways is the leaf well suited for its particular environment? Can you find any 'design flaws'? If so, identify them and suggest improvements").

Justifying lesson/activity sequence (Rating = Satisfactory)

While the Unit 1 Overview (Level Blue, p. 1At) provides a brief summary of the topics treated in each chapter and the Unit Organizer (p. 1Bt) lists the sequence of the lessons and describes them briefly, no rationale is provided for this sequence. However, the order of the lessons and activities is likely to make sense to students. For example, lessons 1 and 2 in chapter 1 go through the reactants and products of the photosynthesis equation systematically and, hence, are sequenced strategically (pp. 5-16s). Lesson 3: Food Factory Basics attempts to connect the structure of plants' organs to their function (pp. 17-26s). However, the activities in this lesson are not always focused on how plants' structures contribute to photosynthesis. Chapter 3 moves from digestion (Lesson 1: Turning Food Into Fuel) to respiration (Lesson 2: Unlocking the Energy in Food) to examining life processes of photosynthesis and respiration in ecosystems (Lesson 3: Maintaining the Balance) (pp. 54-67s). It is quite logical. Within the lessons, a logical order is also evident. For example, in lesson 2 of Chapter 3: Unlocking the Energy in Food, there is the following sequence of activities. First this question is posed: "How is the energy released?" (p. 57s); then the lesson moves to the need for air for "combustion," the role of breathing in taking in air, and the function of the circulatory system in getting air to cells (pp. 58-59s); it continues with how air gets from capillaries to cells (inputs to respiration) and with the products of respiration; it concludes with respiration in plants and a summary of respiration (pp. 59-65s).

II. Taking Account of Student Ideas

Attending to prerequisite knowledge and skills (Rating = Poor)

Although there are important prerequisite ideas for the key life science ideas, SciencePlus does not attend to them. It does not address important prerequisites about matter or advise teachers that the material assumes that students know them. For example, the idea that plants make their food from carbon dioxide and water depends on understanding that air is a substance. Although air is mentioned briefly as matter (Level Green, pp. 202-203s), the text does not attempt to teach this prerequisite idea, nor does it alert teachers that this idea needs to be understood before the key idea is taught. When prerequisite ideas are treated, they are not referred to later on. In grade eight, for example, Lesson 2: Where Does the Starch Come From?, in chapter 1, shows students that carbon dioxide and water are the raw materials for photosynthesis and that starch and oxygen are the products of photosynthesis (Level Blue, p. 16s), but teachers and students are not informed about the seventh-grade treatment of the products and reactants of chemical changes in Lesson 5: Products and Reactants, in chapter 15 (pp. 282-284s). Similarly, the idea that energy exists in different forms and that it cannot be created or destroyed but only changed from one form to another is addressed extensively in grade six in Unit 6: Energy and You (Level Green, pp. 316-334s), but this idea is not used in grade eight in Unit 1: Life Processes to help students make sense of energy transformations in living things (Level Blue, pp. 5s, 24s, 62-65s). Furthermore, SciencePlus does not make connections between its treatment of matter and energy transformations in physical science and life science.

Alerting teachers to commonly held student ideas (Rating = Poor)

Each chapter in SciencePlus begins with a section called Prior Knowledge and Misconceptions that encourages teachers to identify "the kind of information-and misinformation-[students] bring to this chapter" (e.g., Level Blue, p. 4t). However, there is no reference to any of the ideas commonly held by students about the flow of matter and energy in ecosystems that have been documented in research studies. For example, research on student understanding of ecosystems reveals that many students view matter as being created or destroyed, rather than as being transformed (Smith & Anderson, 1986). Students who do see matter as being transformed may view it as being changed into energy, rather than into simpler substances. Many students also may think that plants take in food from the environment, rather than raw materials that they convert to food (Bell & Brook, 1984; Roth & Anderson, 1987; Anderson, Sheldon, & Dubay, 1990). Teachers are not alerted to these popular student ideas.

In one instance, the student text states: "When you started this chapter, you may have thought that plants get their food only from the soil. If you did, you are in good company. That's what the great philosopher Aristotle thought too!" (Level Blue, p. 11s). However, this pronouncement is presented in a rhetorical way and is not direct enough to make teachers aware of the persistent difficulties that students have with the concept of what is food for plants.

In another instance in grade eight, at the end of Chapter 1: Energy for Life, which deals with photosynthesis, students are to compare their new ideas about how plants get food to their initial ideas. The Annotated Teacher's Edition provides the expected answer and lists some of the answers that students may give:

Answers...might include the following new ideas: (1) Plants make food for themselves as opposed to being "fed" by fertilizers. (2) Plants make food in their leaves as opposed to taking food in through their roots. (3) Water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air combine in green leaves to make food as opposed to plants absorbing food that is already made. (4) Sunlight provides energy for food making in plants as opposed to plants needing the sun for warmth only. [Level Blue, p. 26t]

While some of these ideas are indeed commonly held by students and have been documented in the research literature, the information is placed at the end of the chapter, where it can have little effect on warning teachers about common student misconceptions and how persistent these misconceptions are.

Assisting teachers in identifying their students’ ideas (Rating = Satisfactory)

Several questions throughout the chapters may provide teachers with some help in identifying their students' ideas. Such questions are found in components such as ScienceLog, and Prior Knowledge and Misconceptions, as well as in questions interspersed in both the student and teacher editions. In grade six, for example, before being introduced to decomposers, students are asked what would happen if all microorganisms were eliminated from the Earth (Level Green, p. 148s). At the start of Unit 6: Energy and You, they are asked to write a sentence using the word "energy." Then, they are asked: "Where does your energy come from?," "Where does the energy in food come from?" and "What happens to the energy in food after your body burns it?" (p. 314t). They also have to have to use the word "energy" to describe a photograph of an animal eating grass (p. 316s). At the opening of the seventh-grade textbook, students are to decide whether a statement such as, "Most of the energy that humans use to live came originally from the sun," is true (Level Red, p. 2t). Later, in grade seven, they are asked to consider whether the statement, "The sun is the source of my food supply," applies to them (p. 27s). Unit 8: Growing Plants starts by asking students: "What do plants need in order to live?" and "What does soil do for plants?" (p. 500s). In grade eight, before photosynthesis is explained, this question is posed: "Where do plants get their food?"; then students are asked to make a drawing to represent the process by which plants make food (Level Blue, p. 4st). Later, they are asked: "Okay, but how does the plant get food?" (p. 6s). In response, students are to complete a diagram, work in groups to answer the question, develop a poster to represent photosynthesis, and plan how they can test their ideas. Before introducing cellular respiration, the text includes such questions as, "Animals need plants. Do plants need animals in any way?" and "How is the energy in your food released in you?" (p. 54s).

While most of these questions are specific and likely to be comprehensible to students, they are insufficient (for example, there are no questions about what food is), and no suggestions are provided about how teachers can probe students' initial responses further or interpret their responses.

Addressing commonly held ideas (Rating = Poor)

Two experiences are included that could help address students' misconception that plants get their food from the soil, but they are not used in this way. In grade seven, students read about hydroponics and get to grow mustard plants in nutrient solutions without soil (Level Red, pp. 526-527s). However, in grade eight, when they study photosynthesis, their experiences of growing plants without soil are not contrasted to the common misconception that soil is food for plants (Level Blue, pp. 4-16s). In the same unit, students read about van Helmont's famous experiment, which showed that a plant's mass does not come from the soil (pp. 11-12s). However, the questions that follow the reading do not focus adequately on this common misconception. Rather, the question and the answer suggested present the correct idea but do not engage students in contrasting the scientific idea with their own ideas or with the common misconceptions:
But even though he was careful, van Helmont made a major mistake when he concluded that water alone was completely responsible for the increase in mass in plants. What do you think was wrong with his conclusion? [p. 12s]
Van Helmont assumed that water was the only substance that entered the tree. He also assumed that the tree absorbed all of its nutrients through its roots. Van Helmont did not realize that the tree gained a nutrient (carbon dioxide) from the air. [p. 12t]

Even the correct idea is presented in a somewhat distorted way; carbon dioxide is more than "a nutrient." It is the major source of the increase in mass.

The Prior Knowledge and Misconceptions sections at the beginning of each chapter encourage teachers to "[u]se what you find out about your students' knowledge to choose which chapter concepts and activities to emphasize in your teaching" (e.g., Level Blue, p. 4t). Apart from this general suggestion, no specific questions or tasks are proposed to address students' commonly held ideas. Given the extensive, well-documented research related to students' ideas about food, photosynthesis, respiration, matter cycling, energy flow, and digestion, this general statement is inadequate to address these ideas.

III. Engaging Students with Relevant Phenomena

Providing variety of phenomena (Rating = Poor)

SciencePlus does not contain a sufficient number and variety of phenomena to support the different key life science ideas. Few phenomena are provided that could be used to make the key life science ideas plausible; even fewer phenomena are linked adequately to the key life science ideas.

For the idea that food serves as fuel for all organisms (Idea a), only one phenomenon is mentioned briefly, namely: "Perhaps in earlier studies you burned a peanut (or some other food), to find out how much energy it contained" (Level Blue, p. 57s).

To demonstrate the idea that plants make sugars from carbon dioxide in the air and water (Idea c1), SciencePlus includes an activity in which students test leaves for starch and detect starch only on the leaves grown in the presence of carbon dioxide. They are led to conclude that carbon dioxide is necessary for green plants to make starch (Level Blue, p. 14s). While this activity is helpful, it would have been more helpful if the generalization had been extended to other plants. Moreover, students are not informed that iodine turns black only in the presence of starch (and not in the presence of any other substance), so the conclusion that carbon dioxide (and water) are converted to starch is not legitimate.

An activity in which students test for starch in leaves grown in the dark and in the light (Level Blue, p. 10s) could be used to support the key idea that plants use the energy from light to make "energy-rich" sugars (Idea d1). However, this activity is explained in terms of the less sophisticated idea that "light is needed," rather than by the key idea that light energy is transformed into chemical energy.

For the idea that plants get their energy from breaking down the sugars, thereby releasing some of the energy as heat (Idea d2), students are asked to plan and carry out an experiment to study whether plants produce heat when they respire (Level Blue, p. 64s). This activity is explained using the term "respiration," and it is assumed that students understand what the term means.

A few other relevant phenomena are included that are not explained in terms of the key ideas about matter and energy transformations. For example, in grade six, students are to make composts in buckets, observe the changes over several weeks, and record the temperature increases (Level Green, pp. 154-155s). However, this activity is related to the idea that microorganisms are beneficial, but not to the more sophisticated concepts of matter and energy transformations carried out by decomposers.

Providing vivid experiences (Rating = Poor)

SciencePlus provides almost no vivid phenomena across the set of key life science ideas. Of the relevant phenomena described under the previous criterion, two are somewhat efficient: the one in which students detect starch only on leaves grown in the presence of carbon dioxide and the one in which they detect starch only on leaves grown in the light. The other phenomena (for example, the statement about burning a peanut [Level Blue, p. 57s]) are not explained sufficiently to give students a vicarious sense of the phenomena.

IV. Developing and Using Scientific Ideas

Introducing terms meaningfully (Rating = Very Good)

Typically, terms are linked to relevant experiences with phenomena. For example, before being introduced to the term "photosynthesis," students get to observe that water, light, and carbon dioxide are needed for plants to make starch. The text relates students' experiences to the idea that plants make their own food and, only then, introduces the term:
So now what do you think about how plants get food? If you decided, as a result of doing these Explorations, that plants use light, water, and carbon dioxide to make starch, you are right. Plants actually make their own food in their leaves. To do this, they need energy from the sun plus two raw materials: water and carbon dioxide. The process by which plants make food is called photosynthesis. Like many scientific terms, this one is a combination of two Greek words: photo, which means "light," and synthesis, which means "putting together." Given what you learned in doing the Explorations, why do you think the process is called photosynthesis? [Level Blue, p. 14s]

Occasionally, terms are not linked so well to phenomena. For example, the term "decomposers" is used with a photograph of a compost pile, but no evidence is provided that the pile's mass appears to decrease as a result of the decomposing activity (Level Red, p. 31s).

Usually, technical vocabulary is restricted to the terms needed to discuss the important ideas. Although occasionally unnecessary terms, such as "palisade cells" in leaves (Level Blue, p. 21s), are included, food synthesis and breakdown are presented without resorting to technical terms.

Representing ideas effectively (Rating = Poor)

SciencePlus does not contain a sufficient number and variety of representations to make the abstract ideas of matter and energy transformations more intelligible to students. Furthermore, it includes several representations that students are likely to find misleading or incomprehensible. For example, it attempts to draw an analogy between the burning of food and the burning of other fuels. In grade seven, the text states:

You know that an automobile gets its energy from burning a fuel, usually gasoline. Well, a community of living things also gets its energy from "burning" a fuel, but it gets energy in a different way and from a different fuel-food. [Level Red, p. 28s]

In grade eight, students study several photographs and compare the release of energy from food to the release of energy from gasoline and candle wax. They are supposed to notice that all of the cases involve "burning" and require oxygen and that the burning that occurs in cells is the slowest (Level Blue, p. 57st). While this analogy might be helpful, SciencePlus assumes that students are already familiar with the burning of gasoline and does not provide any questions or explanations that clarify the analogy.

Some of the diagrams are likely to be incomprehensible. For example, in grade seven, the text states briefly that plants use energy from sunlight to manufacture their food, which then is used by other organisms "as you can see from the following energy diagram: Sun's energyPlantsAnimalsAnimals" (Level Red, p. 28s). It is not clear that the arrows show the direction of the movement of energy and what this transfer of energy means.

In grade eight, a cartoon depicts a plant eating a sandwich (Level Blue, p. 4s). Such a representation may perpetuate in student's minds the idea that plants eat like animals do. Also, two word equations of photosynthesis differ in how light is represented; the first uses "light" and the second uses "light energy" (p. 16s).

There are two better representations in the eighth-grade textbook. Students are to complete the word equation for photosynthesis and are asked what the arrow means (Level Blue, p. 16s); later, they are asked to compare the word equations for respiration and burning (p. 62s).

Demonstrating use of knowledge (Rating = Poor)

There are no demonstrations of how to use the key life science ideas to explain phenomena or solve problems. Sometimes, in response to questions posed in the student text, the teacher's notes include explanations that use the key ideas (e.g., Level Blue, p. 26t, item 3; pp. 64-65t, item 5). Typically, the responses are brief and are not likely to be helpful for modeling explanations. Moreover, teachers are not instructed to use the responses to demonstrate the use of knowledge. As answers in the teacher's notes, teachers might use them to correct student papers only, so students may never hear or read the correct answers.

Providing practice (Rating = Poor)

SciencePlus is inconsistent in the amount and quality of practice it provides for the key life science ideas. Although it offers novel tasks for three of the key ideas, and it offers only one or none for the others. Opportunities for practice appear in several sections, such as Closure, Reteaching, Extension, and the Challenge Your Thinking questions that appear at the end of each chapter. In the seventh-grade several apt questions are offered in Unit 1: Life Processes for the idea that plants make sugars from carbon dioxide in the air and water (Idea c1): "Why are leaves like food factories?" (Level Blue, p. 70s, The Big Ideas, question 2); "Suggest ways in which [this] statement could be scientifically verified:.'Carbon dioxide is a raw material used in the manufacture of food'" (p. 70s, Checking Your Understanding, item 1b); for the idea that plants use the energy from light to make "energy-rich" sugars (Idea d1), "How is the conversion of energy in photosynthesis similar to the formation of fossil fuels?" (p. 13t); "Suggest ways in which [this] statement could be scientifically verified:.'Plants need sunlight to produce food'" (p. 70s, Checking Your Understanding, item 1i); for the idea that plants get energy by breaking down the sugars, releasing some of the energy as heat (Idea d2), students are asked to devise an experiment to see if respiring seeds give off heat (p. 64s); and "How do living things get energy from food?" (p. 70s, The Big Ideas, question 5). No questions or tasks are given for students to practice using the ideas that plants make their own food, whereas animals consume food (Idea b); that other organisms get energy or building materials from sugars (Ideas c3 and d3); that decomposers recycle matter (Idea c4); or that matter and energy are transferred and transformed repeatedly through ecosystems (Idea e).

V. Promoting Students' Thinking about Phenomena, Experiences, and Knowledge

Encouraging students to explain their ideas (Rating = Poor)

Students are given very few opportunities to explain their own thoughts about the key life science ideas. They have the following opportunities to express and represent their ideas about the role of plants in transforming light energy (Idea d1) and in making sugars for other organisms to use (Idea d3):

  • Students diagram the process of photosynthesis and compare it to diagrams they made earlier. [Level Blue, p. 16t]
  • Students consider and provide evidence to support their response to the question "How Is a Plant Like a Windmill?" [Level Blue, p. 26s]

The same is true for the idea that matter and energy are transferred and transformed repeatedly in ecosystems (Idea e):

  • Students make an energy diagram that contains the terms "producer, sunlight, carnivore, [and] herbivore." [Level Red, p. 30s]
  • Students complete log entries about the meaning of the statement "All meat is ultimately grass." [Level Blue, p. 9s]
  • Students explain and diagram how the energy in a lunch is linked to energy from the sun. [Level Blue, p. 69s]

However, there are no opportunities for students to express, clarify, or justify their beliefs about other key life science ideas. Mainly, they are asked to express their ideas in large group discussions, although journal writing and small group work are included, ensuring that all students can express their ideas. Teachers are not instructed specifically to provide feedback to students, nor are suggestions made about how feedback they could provide help students develop their ideas further.

Guiding student interpretation and reasoning (Rating = Poor)

There are questions at the end of many of the activities, but very few of them target the key life science ideas about matter and energy transformations. When questions do relate to the key ideas, they are rarely helpful in associating phenomena with scientific ideas and are not posed in an increasingly complex sequence designed to develop these ideas.

Only occasionally can the questions at the end of activities in SciencePlus guide students to interpret their investigations in terms of the key ideas. For example, after students observe the presence of starch only on leaves grown in the light, a single question is posed about this observation: "What effect did darkness have on the amount of starch in the plant?" (Level Blue, p. 10s). Two other questions on the same topic focus on the sequence of the steps in the experiment and do not help students to relate the observation to the scientific idea. Later in the same chapter, teachers are advised to heat some starch and have students look at the black substance produced as evidence for carbon (p. 13t). While this activity can support some of the key life science ideas, such as the transformation of carbon dioxide into sugar, no questions follow it. In Exploration 3 (p. 14s), students observe starch production only in the presence of carbon dioxide. They are asked: "Do you observe differing amounts of starch? What do you conclude about the relationship between carbon dioxide and starch in plants?" These questions can be a good start, but they stop short of linking the observation to the concept of the transformation of matter. At the end of the unit, students are told to observe germinating seeds and identify carbon dioxide. They are asked to summarize the results, explain their observations, list conclusions, and compare plant and animal processes (p. 63s). This is a better set of questions, but again, it emphasizes gas exchange in respiration only and does not make clear the idea that the source of the carbon dioxide is in the breaking down of the sugars made in photosynthesis.

SciencePlus misses several opportunities to guide students' interpretation of readings and investigations. For example, after they read about van Helmont's experiment, students are asked separate questions about the data, about evidence that he was a careful experimenter, and about what was wrong with his conclusion (Level Blue, pp. 11-12s). However, there are no questions to help students relate their own ideas (for example, that plants get their food from soil) to the phenomenon or to the scientific idea. Furthermore, no questions are provided that anticipate common student misconceptions or ask students to contrast these beliefs with the scientifically correct ideas (for example, it would be useful to make the following comment to teachers: sixth-graders often think that soil is food for plants, so what would you say to a sixth-grader who thinks that?). Moreover, there are no sequences of questions or tasks of increasing complexity that can help students move toward the scientific ideas.

Encouraging students to think about what they have learned (Rating = Poor)

SciencePlus begins each chapter with a ScienceLog feature that includes three or four questions about the subject of the chapter. Students are to respond to these questions in writing, and, at the end of the chapter, they are asked to review and "revise your original ideas so that they reflect what you've learned" (e.g., Level Blue, pp. 27s, 53s, 69s). Some of these questions target the key life science ideas, as, for example, the following:
All microorganisms have been eliminated from the Earth. Would this be good news or bad news? [Level Green, p. 148s]

Where do plants get their food? [Level Blue, p. 4s]

Do plants need animals in any way? How is the energy in your food released in you? [Level Blue, p. 54s]

However, while students do have opportunities to revise their answers to the ScienceLog questions, they are not asked usually to consider how their ideas have changed.

In one instance in SciencePlus, students are asked specifically to write a brief report about how their thinking has changed. In grade eight, before examining photosynthesis, students are asked, "Okay, but how does the plant get food?" (Level Blue, p. 6s). In response, they complete a diagram, work in groups to answer the question, develop a poster to represent photosynthesis, and plan how they can test their ideas. They are told: "As you do the Explorations in this chapter, see how closely they resemble the plan you suggested on the back of your poster." At the end of the chapter, they are told to go "Back to the Drawing Board" and write a report about how their thinking has changed. They look at their poster and write comments on it, then they produce a new poster and compare it with the first one (p. 27s, question 3). Yet, even in this instance, the suggested answers in the teacher's notes state new answers only, rather than contrasts to the initial ideas.

VI. Assessing Progress

Aligning assessment to goals (Rating = Fair)

For the end-of-instruction assessment, SciencePlus provides Chapter Assessment items, End-of-Unit Assessment items, and Activity Assessment items in a separate Test Generator: Test Item Listing booklet. In addition, the Challenge Your Thinking and Making Connections components in the student text are identified as end-of-chapter and end-of-unit assessments, respectively (Level Blue, pp. T24t, T60t). These components of Unit 1: Life Processes in Level Blue (grade eight) have been examined in terms of the first two assessment criteria. There is also an item bank that is not substantially different from the test and therefore has not examined.

While all of the key life science ideas are treated in the SciencePlus program, most of them are not assessed adequately. The ideas that food provides fuel for all organisms (Idea a) and that decomposers transform dead organisms into simpler reusable substances (Idea c4) are not assessed at all. The idea that plants make their own food, whereas animals obtain their food by eating other organisms (Idea b) is assessed somewhat in a single question: students are asked to "[e]xplain two important reasons why plants are essential to human life" (Unit 1, End-of-Unit Assessment, p. 19, item 12).

The ideas that plants make sugars from carbon dioxide and water (Idea c1) and that while doing so, they use energy from sunlight (Idea d1) are assessed on several occasions. However, most of the questions focus only on the inputs and outputs, rather than also assessing the concept that matter and energy have been transformed:
  • Students write a sentence using the words sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, starch, green plants, and leaves. [Chapter 1 Assessment, p. 1, item 1b]
  • Students write the word equation for photosynthesis. [Chapter 1 Assessment, p. 1, item 2]
  • Students compare a plant leaf to a factory in terms of its reactants, products, and energy source. [Chapter 1 Assessment, p. 1, item 3]
  • Students list the reactants, products, and energy source in photosynthesis in an African violet, respiration in a human, and respiration in a beech tree. [Unit 1, End-of-Unit Assessment, p. 14, item 4]
  • Students make a poster about how plants get their food. [p. 27s, Challenge Your Thinking, item 3]
  • Students continue an imaginary story about plants that fold up their leaves when they are in sunlight. [p. 27s, Challenge Your Thinking, item 5]
  • Students explain why plants' leaves are like food factories. [p. 70s, Making Connections: The Big Ideas, item 2]
  • Students suggest ways to test that "[c]arbon dioxide is a raw material in the manufacture of food." [p. 70s, Making Connections: Check Your Understanding, item 1b

Testing for understanding (Rating = Poor)

In the introduction to Annotated Teacher's Edition, the teacher's edition states: "The authors strongly discourage reliance on recall-based assessment strategies" (p. T58). Indeed, most of the assessment items provided involve the application of the key ideas, rather than questions that can be answered by rote memorization. Most items described above require application of the key life science ideas. However, the number of relevant application items provided is not adequate to test student understanding of the set of key life science ideas.

Using assessment to inform instruction (Rating = Poor)

SciencePlus emphasizes that "[a]ssessment should be ongoing" (p. T58) and claims that the Assessment component at the end of each lesson should be used "to evaluate whether students have grasped the main concepts. If you find that your students need additional help, a reteaching strategy is provided" (p. T28). However, the Reteaching components precede the Assessment components and often are focused on different ideas and skills. For example, after students have been introduced to the iodine-starch test, the Assessment component requires them to use it to test different foods, while the adjacent Reteaching component suggests that students make a poster illustrating how all foods come from plants (Level Blue, p. 9t). In most cases, neither the Reteaching nor Assessment component is aimed at the key life science ideas. For example, after students learn about cellular respiration, the Assessment component does not target any of the key ideas, and the Reteaching activity has students construct a concept map using the words "food," "oxygen," "energy," "carbon dioxide," and "water" (p. 65t).

Only in one instance are the Assessment and Reteaching components focused on the same idea. After examining the photosynthesis process in detail, the Assessment component asks students what would happen to green plants if the sun were blocked for several months. The Reteaching component suggests that students make a diagram that illustrates the process of photosynthesis and shows "the roles that water, carbon dioxide, sugar, oxygen, and sunlight play in the process" (p. 16t).

Furthermore, while some relevant questions are included, SciencePlus does not contain suggestions for teachers about how to probe beyond students' initial responses to understand better where they are in their learning, nor does it contain specific suggestions for them about how to use students' responses to make decisions regarding instruction.

VII. Enhancing the Science Learning Environment

Providing teacher content support (Minimal to Some support is provided.)

The material provides minimal support in alerting teachers to how ideas have been simplified for students to comprehend and what the more sophisticated versions are. Content background notes in the Annotated Teacher's Edition briefly summarize the student text at the beginning of each unit (e.g., Level Green, p. 313A, Unit Overview; Level Blue, p. 1A, Unit Overview), provide a few additional related facts throughout the chapters (e.g., Level Green, p. 326t, Did You Know.; Level Red, p. 14t, Did You Know.), and give some elaboration of special features at the end of each unit (e.g., Level Red, p. 69t, Background; Level Blue, p. 72t, Background). Overall, the teacher content support is brief and highly localized.

The material provides some sufficiently detailed answers to questions in the student text for teachers to understand and interpret various student responses. While the material usually provides correct, well-developed answers to questions, little additional information is provided for teachers on how to field potential student questions or difficulties (e.g., Level Red, p. 35t, Answers to What If.?; Level Red, p. 45t, ScienceLog). In addition, some answers are brief and require further explanation (for example, "Accept all reasonable answers" [Level Green, p. 317t, Focus]).

The material provides minimal support in recommending resources for improving the teacher's understanding of key ideas. While the material presents lists of references (including books, films, videotapes, software, and other media with addresses for ordering) that could help teachers improve their understanding of key ideas (e.g., "Attenborough, David. The Private Life of Plants. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995" [Level Blue, p. 1A]), the lists lack annotations about what kinds of information the references provide or how they may be helpful.

Encouraging curiosity and questioning (Some support is provided.)

The material provides a few suggestions for how to encourage students' questions but gives little support in guiding their search for answers. For example, a few tasks ask students to generate their own questions about the scientific ideas studied (e.g., Level Green, p. 324t, Portfolio).

The material provides many suggestions for how to respect and value students' ideas. Introductory teacher's notes about concept mapping respect and value students' ideas by stating that "there is no single 'correct' concept map" (p. T39), but also give teachers some guidance about general characteristics of good maps. In addition, students and their ideas are highlighted throughout the text. For example, photographs and dialogue balloons present students discussing scientific ideas to be studied (e.g., Level Blue, p. 5s). Students are specifically referenced in some student tasks (e.g., Level Red, p. 554s, Checking Your Understanding, item 1). In addition, the material explicitly elicits and values students' ideas in some text passages (e.g., Level Blue, p. 11s, Water-How Essential Is It?) and in many tasks. For example, teacher's notes for a student writing exercise about the importance of plants for all life state, "Students should be encouraged to express their ideas in their own words" (Level Blue, p. 9t, Starch-Essential for Life).

The material provides a few suggestions for how to raise questions such as "How do we know? What is the evidence?" and "Are there alternative explanations or other ways of solving the problem that could be better?" However, it does not encourage students to pose such questions themselves. Specifically, the material includes a few tasks that ask students how they know something or to provide evidence in their responses (e.g., Level Blue, pp. 9s, 8t, Questions, item 2; Level Blue, p. 26st, item 1).

The material provides many suggestions for how to avoid dogmatism. Introductory teacher's notes provide suggestions for avoiding dogmatism through the use of guiding principles such as, "Anyone can learn science" and "Science is a natural endeavor" (p. T17). Introductory teacher's notes also explain the STS (science, technology, and society) approach of the material that "teaches science from the context of the human experience and in so doing leads students to think of science as a social endeavor" and "emphasizes personal involvement in science" (p. T35). In accordance with the introductory guiding principles, the student text portrays the nature of science as a human activity in which students participate (e.g., Level Red, pp. 38-43s, Exploration 2) and it describes changes over time in scientific thinking (e.g., Level Blue, pp. 11-12s). In addition, the material includes some text passages and special features illustrating the work of particular practicing scientists (e.g., Level Green, pp. 386-387s) and highlighting the contributions of specific cultural groups (e.g., Level Red, p. 56s).

The material does not provide examples of classroom interactions (e.g., dialogue boxes, vignettes, or video clips) that illustrate appropriate ways to respond to student questions or ideas. However, some sense of desirable student interactions may be gained from student dialogues about the scientific ideas studied (e.g., Level Green, p. 317s) and procedural directions and descriptions of student roles in cooperative group activities (e.g., Level Blue, p. 7t, Cooperative Learning: Exploration 1; Level Blue, p. 63t, Cooperative Learning: Exploration 3; pp. T41-T46, Cooperative Learning).

Supporting all students (Considerable support is provided.)

The material generally avoids stereotypes or language that might be offensive to a particular group. Introductory teacher's notes state that the material actively attempts to refute stereotypes by portraying "science as a rewarding, quintessentially human undertaking" and by presenting scientists as "normal people, not aloof geniuses who talk in equations" (p. T17). For example, several photographs include a diverse cultural mix of students and adults (e.g., Level Green, p. 323s; Level Red, pp. 6-7s; Level Blue, p. 73s). In addition, the material's use of multiple writing genres, including traditional expository text and some narrative forms (e.g., Level Blue, p. 62t, Homework), may support the language use of particular student groups.

The material provides some illustrations of the contributions of women and minorities to science and as role models. Most of the contributions of female and minority scientists, however, appear in a few special features at the end of each unit. For example, one Science Snapshot feature focuses on the work of Francine Patterson, a female scientist studying behavior in gorillas, and describes Koko, one of the gorillas Dr. Patterson taught to use sign language (Level Red, p. 68st). In addition, Multicultural Extension teacher's notes within chapters highlight specific cultural contributions related to chapter topics (e.g., Level Blue, p. 59t). All of these sections highlighting cultural contributions are interesting and informative, but may not be seen by students as central to the material because they are presented in sidebars and teacher notes.

The material suggests multiple formats for students to express their ideas during instruction, including individual ScienceLog writing (e.g., Level Green, p. 316s, ScienceLog), cooperative group activities (e.g., Level Blue, p. 6s), laboratory investigations (e.g., Level Blue, pp. 61-62st, Exploration 2), whole class discussions (e.g., Level Green, p. 327t, Closure), essay questions (e.g., Level Blue, pp. 27s, 26t, item 4), concept mapping (e.g., Level Green, p. 318s, In-Text Question B), creative writing (e.g., Level Red, p. 25st, item 2), play acting (e.g., Level Red, p. 43t, Extension), visual projects (e.g., Level Red, p. 15t, Closure), and oral presentations (Level Blue, p. 34t, Reteaching). In addition, multiple formats are suggested for assessment, including individual ScienceLog revising (e.g., Level Blue, p. 27st, ScienceLog), oral discussion (e.g., Level Green, p. 322t, Assessment), essay (e.g., Level Blue, p. 71st, item 6), performance (e.g., Level Blue, p. 9t, Assessment), portfolio (e.g., Level Green, p. 324t, Portfolio), and visual projects (e.g., Level Green, p. 318t, Assessment). In a few instances, the material also provides a variety of alternative formats for the same task (e.g., Level Red, p. 502t, Closure).

The material does not routinely include specific suggestions about how teachers can modify activities for students with special needs. However, the Annotated Teacher's Edition and supplemental resources (including review, reinforcement, and enrichment work sheets and activities with transparencies) provide additional activities and resources for students and sometimes specify ability levels. The Annotated Teacher's Edition includes a Meeting Individual Needs feature that provides activities for students related to chapter topics and specifically designated for gifted learners, second-language learners, and learners having difficulties (e.g., Level Blue, p. 9t; Level Green, p. 324t). For Spanish speakers, there are English/Spanish audiocassettes, which preview each unit in both languages. Also, in the Teacher's Resource Binder and Teaching Resources there are Spanish unit summaries, work sheets, glossaries, and English and Spanish Home Connection letters, which introduce parents to each unit and provide related home activities for students to do with parents. However, the placement of supplemental resources in individual booklets separate from the main text may discourage their use, and the special needs codes within chapters may discourage teachers from using those activities with all students when appropriate.

The material provides many strategies to validate students' relevant personal and social experiences with scientific ideas. Some text sections relate specific personal experiences that students may have had to the presented scientific concepts (e.g., Level Blue, p. 13s). In addition, some tasks ask students about particular personal experiences they may have had or suggest specific experiences they could have. For example, beginning teacher's notes for a lesson about energy flow ask teachers to "[i]nvolve students in a discussion of their community" and then to explain that the biological meaning of community is similar. Next, the teacher's notes suggest extending the discussion by asking students to identify other communities in the natural world and to explain that "energy flows through every community in a similar way" (Level Red, p. 28t, Teaching Strategies). For a few tasks, however, the material does not adequately link the specified personal experiences to the scientific ideas being studied (e.g., Level Blue, p. 6t, Homework).