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The 3rd Grade Science Fair: A Common Core Conundrum

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My eight-year old grandchildren Sadia and Gideon worked very hard on their 3rd grade science projects and at first I was very impressed with their tripartite boards and their ability to explain what they were testing. I got to see more of Gideon's project because his team worked at his house with Gideon's father. Sadia and her team worked with one of the other parents. At the end, both Sadia and Gideon were able to explain their hypothesis, procedure, and conclusions, a pretty good explanation of the scientific method for 3rd graders.

My son-in-law, a professional architect, constructed a two-channel ramp by splitting a cardboard tube. Gideon and his teammate raced and timed spheres, marbles, balls, and a series of round objects of different sizes and densities down the ramps to test whether size and density impacted on velocity. They were very involved with the project, largely because they had an exceptional dad to work with. They loved doing the marble races, although I am not sure how much science they learned.

Sadia's team tested whether fruits and vegetables could conduct electricity using a voltmeter. But when she demonstrated the project to me I realized two things. She did not know what electricity was, although she knew it had something to do with "electrons" and where the electricity came from, whether the fruits and vegetables created the electricity or it came from another source. At one point she tested the voltmeter by connecting it to a AA battery and it registered negative current. She thought the voltmeter was broken until I suggested she change the wires to the other side of the battery, reverse polarity, and take a new reading. Sadia is a very good student who follows directions to the letter. But what she had not down is actually experiment, play around with the voltmeter, battery, and fruits and vegetables to actually try to figure out what was happening. It was science without science.

And then I went to view the 3rd science fair on parents' night and saw about 100 other impressive, but nearly identical, tripartite boards explaining the hypothesis, procedure, and conclusions for different experiments downloaded from the Internet. What I realized is that there was little evidence of any of the students having actually conducted experiments or having any real knowledge of what they were presenting. This was a beautifully done Common Core presentation of academic vocabulary with little context or understanding.

I do not blame the teachers who were following Common Core academic guidelines to promote the use of academic vocabulary. I do not blame the parents who helped the children to the best of their abilities. I certainly do not blame the children who worked hard to create lovely projects and learn complex vocabulary.

The culprit is the Common Core Conundrum. As I have written in previous posts, I believe Common Core goals are useful for teachers because they help define what students should be able to do at different stages in school. But the Common Core does not detail what students should actually know about content and concepts or how they should be taught.

In fact, in a section called, "What Is Not Covered By The Standards," it makes clear that the Standards do not address "how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document. Furthermore, while the Standards make references to some particular forms of content . . . they do not -- indeed, cannot -- enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document."

In theory, "A great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers." But that, unfortunately, is only in theory, because teachers are under tremendous pressure to prepare students for standardized assessment that will be used to evaluate students, teachers, administrators, schools, and districts. Third graders will be tested on whether they can define hypothesis, procedure, and conclusion, not whether they actually understand electricity, conductivity, density, velocity, or science, and certainly not whether they can actually organize a scientific experiment.

In New York City, the State Education Department recently imposed a new formula for evaluating teachers. Because teachers are being evaluated based on student performance, a whole new breed of standardized exams will be developed to test students in a variety of subjects previously untested including art, music, and gym. It will be a financial bonanza for testing companies like Pearson, but will sorely impact on what students learn. Expect children, including kindergarten and pre-school children, to be tested on the technical vocabulary of a subject, not how to dribble a ball, draw a family, or sing a song. Science will become memorizing vocabulary for the test, not actually learning science.

I can imagine Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory screaming "P-E-A-R-S-O-N !!!!!"