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E D U C A T I O N   &   R E S E A R C H

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Choosing the Right Tools

Low student achievement in science has led many states to embrace higher academic standards and, in turn, create new tests to measure student performance against those standards. But efforts to boost learning will have little success if books, lab kits, and other supplies used in science courses are not aligned with the tougher measures, concludes a new guide from a National Research Council committee. This is a critical issue because many teachers base their lessons on such materials.

The guide offers teachers, administrators, parents, and others a proven method to evaluate and select K-12 science instructional materials that will help all students meet higher standards in any school district. It also provides districts with a training plan to help educators or community members systematically sift through an often broad and uneven field of materials.

Essentially, any process of evaluating instructional materials consists of two steps: looking for the desired academic content and judging how that information is presented. The committee’s proffered method is designed to rely more heavily on the professional judgment of evaluators than on scales, formulas, or averages — making it similar to reviews that scientists use to assess each other’s work. It is crucial to adopt materials that promote the learning of important scientific ideas and skills if standards-based education is to become a reality in the nation’s classrooms. — Vanee Vines

Selecting Instructional Materials: A Guide for K-12 Science. Committee on Developing the Capacity for Selecting Effective Instructional Materials, Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education (1999, 121 pp.; ISBN 0-309-06533-X; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $18.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. The study was supported by a grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.

Testing the Tests

The field of educational testing has yet to catch up with the latest research on how people learn. Schoolchildren take standardized exams whose results are typically reduced to a single test score or only general information, such as a student’s ranking relative to peers. These practices not only shed minimal light on what students know and can do, but also offer few clues to help teachers modify classroom instruction, if necessary.

What is needed are assessments that pinpoint sources of students’ difficulties and strengths in a given subject. More-informative testing methods would reveal how students use knowledge for problem-solving activities, for example. Clarifying the nature of academic accomplishment and progress would better equip teachers to help schoolchildren succeed.

To that end, a new Research Council committee has undertaken a study to explore ways to create better assessments through the fusion of cognitive science — or the science of learning — and educational-testing methods commonly used in schools. As part of its work, the study committee will hold workshops to learn more about exemplary assessment practices in selected school districts, and to discuss steps to improve public understanding of test results. A final report is anticipated by spring 2001. — V.V. (See listing under New Projects.)

U.S. courthouse in Wheeling, W.Va.;
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Science in Court

From cases involving contaminated water to intellectual property rights, the courts increasingly are grappling with questions concerning science and technology. Experts take the witness stand to offer testimony on a number of issues, such as statistical analyses of DNA evidence and population studies, leaving bewildered jurors to make their best judgments on matters for which they may have no background or training. To ensure that only sound scientific evidence is presented in the courtroom, federal judges are called on to act as gatekeepers, excluding evidence that does not meet certain standards of scientific rigor.

At the same time, the science and engineering communities are dealing with legal issues of their own that involve subpoenas of data, interpretations of scientific information, privacy of medical data, intellectual property rights, and scientific misconduct.

A new Research Council panel — part of a new standing program on science, technology, and law — will bring scientists, engineers, and members of the legal community together on a regular basis to explore pressing concerns, improve communication, and identify problems for resolution. This panel will comprise about 20 people representing a wide range of expertise — including federal courts, legal associations, industry, academia, and government. It will meet three times a year to discuss critical issues; the first meeting is scheduled for March 2000.

Another activity of the program will be to identify court cases where it might be appropriate for the National Academies to file amicus briefs, providing a formal process for direct input of scientific and engineering information that the courts might otherwise overlook. A Web site also will be developed to point the legal community to relevant National Academies’ studies and activities. — Barbara Rice (See listing under New Projects.)

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