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NRC Report on Improving Student Learning in Mathematics and Science: The Role of National Standards in State Policy

In July 1997, the National Research Council's Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education (NRC CSMEE) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) released their report entitled Improving Student Learning in Mathematics and Science: The Role of National Standards in State Policy. The report was prepared by the two organizations in response to a request from the National Education Goals Panel (NEGP). The NEGP asked that the report focus on implementation of national science and mathematics standards at the state level through methods such as "state standards, curriculum frameworks, professional development, and textbook adoption."

The National Education Goals were originally set by the President in 1989 and have since been endorsed by state governors, two Presidents, Congress, and the private sector. To help the states achieve these goals, the NCTM and the NRC developed national standards for mathematics and science education, respectively. Reports such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have directed attention to the role of US education in preparing students and the nation for global competitiveness. For more information on TIMSS, visit AGI's update on the issue. The NCTM and NRC report states that, "At a time when international comparisons have renewed attention to the need for a coherent, powerful direction for science and mathematics education, it is useful to examine how state initiatives can draw from the national standards as they continue their progress in reform." According to the report, the standards include the following:

The NRC and NCTM developed several strategies to ensure that the national standards are used by "those across the nation with responsibility for and interest in mathematics and science education":

The NCTM and the NRC each describe how they have participated in each of the strategies. NCTM describes the various reports they have published that aid in the dissemination and interpretation stages, including Assessment Standards for School Mathematics (1995), Making a Living, Making a Life (1996), and the journal Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. Although NCTM reports that the organization "is not positioned to implement the standards," they define their role as one of leadership in thinking about implementation. NCTM's role in evaluation has been primarily focused in their NCTM Monitoring Task Force, which produces reports that catalyze the process. The task of revising the standards has been taken on by NCTM's Commission on the Future of Standards, which produced a report in April 1996 calling for revised standards in 2000.

NRC describes their dissemination efforts that have taken the form of a World Wide Web page and a brochure, Introducing the National Science Education Standards (1997). NRC has taken on the task of interpretation with several publications: National Standards and the Science Curriculum: Challenges, Opportunities, and Recommendations (1996), Science Teacher Preparation in an Era of Standards-Based Reform (1997), and Science for all Students (not yet released). The NRC's implementation activities mainly take the form of "leadership through the development of products and the convening of groups to support state and local initiatives." NRC reports that they began the evaluation process even before the standards were first released by distributing 40,000 copies to interested individuals and groups for review. Finally, the NRC addresses the strategy of revision by viewing the standards as "a living document, one that would undergo revision at appropriate intervals."

The NRC and NCTM go further to offer five recommendations to state parties, including state-level policy makers such as governors, state legislators, and school boards:

  1. Strengthen state infrastructure
  2. Promote the use of standards-based textbooks and other materials
  3. Develop curriculum that is "high-quality, well-articulated, and standards-based"
  4. Ensure that teachers are well-qualified and highly competent and that their teaching is based in the standards
  5. Establish testing and assessment programs that are consistent with the standards
With each of these recommendations, the NRC and NCTM reported on strategies and methods to help implement them.

1. State Infrastructure
According to the report, states must develop their high standards through consensus and periodic review. The NRC and NCTM cite the process used in North Carolina, whereby an independent organization samples educators and the public about the national standards, soliciting input from everyone. Then, the state standards are subject to recommendations that are formulated using this feedback. Secondly, the report recommends that the state "build a coherent system" for mathematics and science education that focuses on the common goal of students achievement of high standards. The report suggests that states use a systemic approach and utilize the standards developed in the first step to accomplish this goal. The NRC and NCTM also recommend that the long-range plan for improving science and math education involve the broader community and provide support for educators as they implement the standards. In order to implement the standards state-wide, state-level leadership positions must be filled with staff that have expertise in science and math and who are supportive of changing the standards. Finally, strengthening the state infrastructure also requires that states restructure school time so that teachers may work together to implement the standards. The TIMSS study supports this idea, where it found that those countries with very high scores in science and mathematics allowed teachers more time to work together on lesson plans, materials, and other curriculum issues.

2. Textbooks and Other Materials
According to the report, in order to promote the use of standards-based textbooks, states need to implement policies that ensure that selection criteria for the materials is based on standards. The report suggests that independent organizations can provide the best review of materials to ensure that they are standards-based. Finally, the NRC and NCTM recommend that states implement professional development programs that ensure that school personnel are selecting appropriate, standards-based materials.

3. Curriculum
The report defines curriculum as "the way content is designed and used with students. A textbook is not the curriculum." Keeping this in mind, the report recommends that states provide local districts with technical, financial, and material support that will enable them to design and implement programs that meet the math and science standards. Implementation should, at a minimum, do three things: address the long-term nature of the change to standards, identify and coordinate a variety of stakeholders, and gain the required attention from teachers, administrators, and school districts. After implementation, graduation requirements, university placement tests, and university admission requirements should be harmonized so that they meet the new standards. Finally, the report recommends that every school classroom have new technologies in place that support standards-based teaching and learning of science and mathematics. These technologies include computers, calculators, and computer software.

4. Teaching
In order to ensure that "well-qualified, highly competent" teachers are in the classroom, the NRC and NCTM suggest that states accredit only those teacher preparation programs that reflect the mathematics and science standards. In addition, they recommend that states make knowledge and use of standards-based teaching practices a requirement for licensing. Finally, the report recommends that states fund "ongoing, high-quality professional development opportunities for teachers" that are based on the science and mathematics standards.

5. Assessment
The report suggests that learning assessments should be consistent with the standards that have been adopted. The best method to ensure this, according to the report, is to adopt a "mixed assessment model," which includes both multiple choice and performance items along with basic and high-order skills. The NRC and NCTM also recommend that the state or local districts adopt "strong accountability systems that go beyond single-measure tests." They find that intermediate milestones can show that standards are making headway even while the implementation plan is in progress. Examples of intermediate milestones are numbers of students enrolled in reformulated courses, changes in teaching practices, and changes in district policies and curriculum. The report recommends that states collect and use information about learning conditions and opportunities in order to better interpret assessment scores. The report also suggests that states assist schools and communities in understanding, using, and developing action plans based on assessment results. According to the NRC and NCTM, the state's role can range from requiring data collection and use in planning to supporting professional development for teachers and administrators so that they might develop plans themselves based on standards. Finally, the NRC and NCTM believe that states need to promote teacher assessment and student self-assessment in classrooms. "Not only must teachers change their practices, they must also help their students, parents, and the community understand the purposes, procedures, and benefits of such changes."

For information on ordering the report Improving Student Learning in Mathematics and Science: The Role of National Standards in State Policy, visit the National Academy Press website. You can also order the report from the National Academy Press by calling 800-624-6242 or by contacting the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics at 703-620-9840.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Stephanie Barrett, AGI Government Affairs Intern
Last updated August 1, 1997

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