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Saturday, March 29, 2008 - Page updated at 06:15 PM

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Washington state begins to revise science education standards

Associated Press Writer

Changing the way Washington teaches math has led to one of the most contentious education debates in recent memory.

Now state education officials on working on what may be an even bigger black hole in Washington education achievement: science education.

Why is everyone so calm?

Kids are doing worse on the science section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning than they're doing in math _ a little more than a third of 10th graders pass the science WASL. Only 2.8 percent of 10th graders learning English as a second language passed the 2007 science WASL. The 10th grade pass rate for African American and Hispanic high school students is less than 15 percent.

Edie Harding, executive director of the state Board of Education, says she doesn't know why the process that started last fall has not attracted much debate. She says the existing state education guidelines for science are just as vague as the math standards were and the two subjects are closely intertwined academically.

The volunteer chairman of the board's science committee says math advocates are more formally organized than science enthusiasts. And the math debate has two distinct sides, which is not possible in science, because there are so many different specialties from earth science to chemistry.

"It's really more about the process of science. We want to make sure people are doing inquiry and data analysis, instead of memorizing rules versus problem solving," said science chairman Jeff Vincent, who is CEO of Seattle-based investment company Laird Norton Co.

The first step in the science transformation process is an independent review of the existing standards. Then public comments will be taken at a series of focus groups in April. A final report by the consultants hired to do the review will guide the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in writing the new standards.

After the new standards are approved by the Legislature, the superintendent's office will pick the two or three science programs at each grade level that best align with the new standards. Then the science WASL will be revised to measure the new standards.

All these steps are supposed to be completed in time for Washington students to learn enough to pass the science WASL, which the Legislature put on hold as a graduation requirement until 2013.

Vincent thinks revising the standards and rewriting the WASL to measure those standards will be the easiest parts of the process. Finding the right instructional materials and attracting and training more science teachers will be the hard parts.

"Science and math are hard work. If your child is like my children, they'd rather not do the hard work part. You need somebody who is going to be able to ... inspire them to do the work," he said.

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Vincent is hoping to create a sense of urgency about the project. He said it has been 20 years since the state began working on education reform.

"We need to take action now. Standards are just the first step," he said at a Wednesday board meeting. "We can't keep pushing this off."

The consultants hired to review the current standards issued a preliminary report in March.

"By and large the Washington state science standards are pretty good," David Heil, president of David Heil & Associates, said Wednesday, while walking the Board of Education through his firm's recommendations. "That said, it's important to note, if you're good, you want to be great. Sometimes that last step is hard to take."

The consultants' recommendations include the following:

_Expand the science requirements to include grades 11 and 12, instead of stopping after 10th grade.

_Make all the standards clearer and better organized.

_Avoid science jargon so all parents can understand what their children are expected to know.

_Introduce some science concepts in earlier grades and increase rigor at all grade levels. They repeatedly pointed to the National Science Education Standards as a document that sets a high bar.

_Pay more attention to "inquiry," teaching students how to figure things out in science.

_Teach students how to design their own experiments, conduct the experiments and then use critical thinking skills to understand what they have learned.

_Enhance the standards for science and technology by adding relevant, real world examples.

_Add personal and social perspectives to the standards, with topics like population growth, environmental quality and natural resources.

____

On the Net:

State Board of Education: http://www.sbe.wa.gov/

National Science Education Standards: http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/nses/

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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