California: Setting the Standard for Science Teaching: interview with Michael A. Rios

Published December 1, 2000

“Science is an organized body of knowledge and a method of proceeding to an extension of this knowledge by hypothesis and experiment.”
Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg (1912-1999)
“A Letter to a Young Scientist”

With the nurturing of young scientists in mind, Dr. Seaborg’s final contribution to science was his involvement in the design and development of the Science Content Standards for California Public Schools K-12, adopted by the California State Board of Education in October 1998.

Educators in California had struggled to develop science content standards during the 1980s and early 1990s. Their final product prescribed instructional methods, as well as weak content, and the effort was halted by Governor Pete Wilson in 1994. By sticking strictly to content, the subsequent effort involving Seaborg was much more successful.

But adopted standards do not a curriculum make, and the challenge of building that bridge was taken up by high school science teacher Michael A. Rios and his Curriculum Framework and Criteria Committee in science.

Rios, who was appointed chairperson of the committee, had been involved in reviewing the draft science standards as they were being developed over the previous two years. Now his committee faced the task of explaining the meaning behind each of the standards that had been adopted.

Rios, who teaches biology and chemistry in the Montebello Unified School District, received his B.S. in biology from the University of California, Irvine and his M.A. in biology from the University of California, Los Angeles. He received his teaching credentials in biology and chemistry from California State University, Los Angeles. After a few years teaching in the Duarte Unified School District, he joined the teaching staff in the Montebello public schools in 1984 and has been there ever since.

Rios was recognized as a Mentor Teacher for the Montebello school system from 1997-99, when he authored two important science teaching documents for the district: Science Core Knowledge Activities for K-8 and Science Core Knowledge: Biology and Chemistry. He is listed in Who’s Who Among American High School Teachers. Rios recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved in helping to develop the content standards for teaching science in California?

Rios: This is my twentieth year as a classroom teacher in public school, teaching high school biology and chemistry. From that perspective, I could very easily see the gaps in the science education of the students in our district, and I could only imagine what it was like statewide.

I had done a mentor project for my school district dealing with high school biology that tried to get all of our high schools on the same page in terms of the content we were trying to get across to the students. To me, this was a very fundamental and logical step for all California public schools to pursue.

Then, about three years ago, a colleague of mine made me aware of an article in The Los Angeles Times that was about Dr. Stan Metzenberg’s response to the state’s attempt to write science standards. Dr. Metzenberg is a biology professor at California State University, Northridge, and he felt the standards were very watered down and really needed input from scientists to bring up the quality. He had put together a coalition of scientists to do just that, free of charge, and he was asking for some help in reviewing the standards they were writing.

My colleague said, “Hey, this is right up your alley. Why don’t you give him a call?” So I did.

Stan was very enthusiastic and very interested in having a public school teacher involved in the process. They may have been following some work that had been done nationally or in some other states, but they were pretty much inventing the wheel for California and he wanted my reaction as a teacher–and I’m sure a lot of other teachers as well. So he would send me drafts of standards as soon as he got them, just to get my reaction. My involvement was to help with the review of the K-12 grade-level standards related to biology and chemistry.

I was very enthusiastic to actually have standards as a part of public school education in science for K-12 because this is a common-sense thing. Most of my friends who were not in education assumed we already had them, and when I would tell them what I was doing, they were shocked. Typically, when a district adopted a certain set of textbooks there would be a scope and sequence for science education put together by the publisher, but if you moved into another district with a different publisher, there could be a different scope and sequence.

Then you might hear the dinosaur story for the third time and miss a lot of other material. So you’re getting a lot of repetition, a lot of unevenness, and a lot of gaps in your K-12 science education. Maybe you missed out entirely during a year when you had an elementary teacher who was not particularly strong in science and just didn’t do very much of it.

Clowes: Then you became chair of the Framework Committee?

Rios: Right. The Curriculum Framework and Criteria Committee (CFCC). Our job was to develop a draft curriculum framework based on the standards for the Curriculum Commission and to develop textbook adoption criteria for the Instructional Materials Adoption Panel (IMAP).

The people on the IMAP Committee take the adoption criteria and review a publisher’s submissions to see if they meet the criteria and can be placed on the adopted list of books for California public schools. Seventy percent of the state funds that public schools receive for instructional materials must be spent on materials from the state adopted list.

The Framework Committee was not given the discretion to alter, delete, or amend any of the standards. Our responsibility was to describe the meaning behind each adopted standard. For example, if you have a standard in third grade that says we’re going to introduce the idea that plants and animals have adaptations that serve different functions, we would have to explain for the benefit of the teacher what is the focus of this particular standard and what they might do to in their classrooms to teach it.

The standards themselves are really very brief, and we tried to make it easier for the teachers to understand what they meant by putting some flesh on the bone.

I need to mention that, very early on, the Framework Committee adopted a balanced approach where we did not promote any one particular pedagogy. We offered some instructional strategies as suggestions but by no means did we say this is the only way or the best way of doing it, because one size doesn’t fit all. We have suggested many hands-on activities, but we would never go so far as to say that the type of instruction, to be effective, needs to be inquiry-based or any one particular pedagogy.

Clowes: Do the Content Standards translate into a science curriculum for each area–biology, chemistry, and physics–for each grade level?

Rios: The beauty of what we have as a product is that these are grade-level content standards, so that for every grade level, from K-5, what you get is a set of standards for Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Earth Sciences, plus a fourth strand called the Investigation and Experimentation strand. It details the kinds of skills in investigation that a student should develop at that particular grade level.

For example, third-grade teachers should provide instruction using the investigation standards in order to cover the content standards for that grade. There is a structure upon which to build at each grade level and the standards become more sophisticated as you go up each grade level.

When you get to sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, the middle school years, the same structure is there with the four strands I mentioned–including the Investigation one–but now there is a little stronger focus on one strand in particular in each grade. For example, in sixth grade there is a major focus on Earth Science. There still are components of Life and Physical Science, but the main focus is going to be around Earth Science. Then in the seventh grade, the focus is Life Science, and in the eighth grade the focus is Physical Science.

This increasing focus in one area sets you up for high school, where the standards are organized across grades 9-12. That’s because high school students will take courses in different areas in different grades.

This gets into the assessment part of the whole program, the accountability part. Currently in California we are using the SAT-9 as a test for accountability. Although it is not aligned with our California state standards, it has been given as a kind of a national test to see where we’re at. Starting this April, we also will be testing the students for the first time with an augmentation test in science that is aligned with our new standards. That’s when we will get a real idea of how well we’re getting the information across to the students.

Clowes: Is that a statewide test?

Rios: Yes. Before high school students get though ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade, they have to be able to take two of these tests in two different courses. For example, you can take one in a biology course and then take another one in a chemistry course. That’s a graduation requirement–every student must take at least two of these tests. The hope is that by taking two tests, every student will cover at least 50 percent of the high school science standards. I wish it were more but that’s what we settled on.

Of course, you will have some students who may take five tests in their four years of high school because they take a lot of science. But we’ve established a minimum to see if at least that much information is getting across.

At this point, the standards have been published but the science framework still is going through its review process. The Curriculum Commission is just about ready to release the document for field review. After that, it will go to the state board and they will have the final say. I’m looking forward to seeing that document. It represents an awful lot of really fine efforts by very qualified and professional people.

Clowes: So the content is aligned to each grade, the framework is under review, and the assessment part is just beginning. How about the earlier grades in terms of assessments?

Rios: That’s a good question. We are still struggling with the assessment issue. My work as chairman of the Framework Committee really came to an official end in March when we turned over our draft document to the Curriculum Commission. But in terms of testing for science in lower grade levels, we’ve been pushing for a test in the fifth grade to see how well the elementary standards are being taught, and a test in the eighth grade to do the same for the middle school standards. If there is no test, we run the risk of having no accountability.

Clowes: What about consequences? For example, do high school students need to pass the two required tests to graduate, or just take them?

Rios: They just need to take them. There’s no issue in terms of their performance. But the scores generated by a school are certainly going to be published and get back to the community. Therein lies the accountability: seeing where we rank in terms of science with other schools.

There’s also something called the Academic Performance Index, where our scores will be incorporated in some grand formula that will rank public schools. The idea is that these scores are going to be very important pieces of information to get back into the hands of the community and to the boards of education and to the teachers and the administrators to see how well they’re doing. Everyone will want to be able to say they have a great school.

There are some punitive measures I believe the governor has brought out in terms of those schools that do not do particularly well. There has been discussion that administrations will be replaced if necessary, teachers will be replaced if necessary, to improve the academic performance of a particular school. “Accountability” is one of the big buzzwords, of course, and we’re all wondering exactly how it’s going to play out.

Clowes: Concerns have been raised about the quality of science teachers in the United States, most recently by the Glenn Commission. What do you think should be done to improve science education in the United States?

Rios: The first things that come to my mind are incentives and recruitment. You’re just going to have to make teaching more attractive to more qualified and better-educated teachers in all areas, but particularly in science and math.

The other side of this is credentialing. The need for teachers exceeds the supply by a long shot. In California we’re forced to pass out emergency credentials to so many people that maybe have a degree in a particular science but really have not gone through the type of training–the credentialing system–where they hone their craft. We have a very short supply of people, they’re not always fully trained, and to expect that you’re going to be able to compete globally under those conditions is very naive.

To realize that, here we are, a superpower in every respect, and yet our students do not compete on the same level with other students from other countries–it’s embarrassing.

Clowes: One of the comments that was made after the results for the Third International Math and Science Study came out for twelfth-graders was that the U.S. science curriculum was “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Have California’s science standards addressed this?

Rios: I’ve heard that phrase a lot. But, through the work of Dr. Metzenberg and the other consultants, I think what we have are really very rigorous and world-class standards. I don’t think any other state in the union has science standards for K-12 public education that are as rigorous and as comprehensive as ours. If you are teaching science K-12, these standards allow you to be very comprehensive and to build on what students are learning and what they are able to do.

It’s important also to recognize that the standards, as rigorous as they are, are not perfect. It is up to the discretion of the school and the teacher to actually exceed the standards. No one is saying you are limited to just the standards. Teachers need to understand that if they have students who are able to go deeper than the standards for a particular grade level, then by all means take them as far as they can go.

For more information . . .

The Science Content Standards for K-12 public schools in California are available at the Web site of the California Department of Education at