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   Minnesota Academic Standards - Science (Working Draft): Some Complaints



   The document appears to be written in some sort of ed-speak jargon
rather than plain English.  For example, the verbs used in the
benchmarks seem to be limited to "describe", "observe", "compare,
"contrast", and so on. This leads to peculiar constructs, like this
Grade 1 - Physical Science - Forces of Nature benchmark:

      Students will observe and describe that magnetism and gravity can
      affect objects without being touched.

   In standard English, it is not possible to "describe that" some fact
is true.  One might "say" that some fact is true, or "admit" it, or
several other things, but "describe that" is not one of them.

   As written, this sentence also suggests that it is magnetism and
gravity (or the students) that are not being touched, rather than the
affected objects.

   A more reasonable benchmark might have read as follows:

      Students will have observed and learned that magnetism and gravity
      can affect objects without the objects being touched.

   Or one could adapt the better Grade 3 - Earth and Space Science - The
Solar System benchmark, "Students will know that the Earth's gravity
pulls objects towards it without touching the objects."

   In the entire document, only one benchmark requires the students to
"learn" something.  This, presumably, was a mistake which will be
removed from the final version of the document.

   Consider this Grade 9-12 - Physical Science - Structure of Matter

      Students will identify protons, neutrons, electrons as the major
      components of the atom, their mass relative to one another their
      arrangement, and their charge.

   I would have said, "protons, neutrons, _and_ electrons", and inserted
a comma after "another", but what does it mean to "identify [...] their
mass relative to one another"?  Perhaps the author was trying to say

      Students will know that the major constituents of an atom are
      protons, neutrons, and electrons.  They will also know how the
      masses and electric charges of these elementary particles compare.

   Suggestion: First, read "Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death
of English?", by Edwin Newman, and/or its sequal, "A Civil Tongue". 
Second, have someone who _does_ speak English fluently, and who did not
write this document, review it before its next release.  (I'm willing to
do it if you can't find anyone better, which is apparently the case.)

   The document was called a "Working Draft", but that is surely no
excuse for the large number of misspellings, awkward constructions,
subject-verb disagreements, apostrophe misuse, inconsistent comma use,
missing words, and so on therein.  We are told that people developing
these standards "were selected, based on their content knowledge and
experience and their passion for academic excellence and high standards
for children."  Would it be too much to ask that they also be able to
write coherently and correctly in the English language?

   My favorite spellings were "wheel and axel" and "vise versa".  Using
simple-minded computer programs to check spelling is no substitute for
real proofreading.  First draft or not, this document is an embarrasment
(or it should be).

   On the bright side, "affect" and "effect" are used correctly

   Finally, it becomes clear why the fine print for a "Strand" is called
a "Sub-Strand", but the fine print for a "Standard" is called a
"Benchmark".  Labeling the detailed performance expectations for the
students as "Sub-Standards" might have given an unfortunate (though
perhaps an accurate) impression.



   Except for grade 1 (presumably an oversight), every grade has a
safety benchmark:

Kindergarten - History and Nature of Science - Scientific Inquiry:

      Students will follow appropriate safety rules concerning the use
      of goggles, heat sources, electricity, glass, and chemicals and
      biological materials.

Grade 2 - History and Nature of Science - Scientific Inquiry:

      Students will follow appropriate safety procedures in their
      investigations. For example, the safe use of goggles, heat
      sources, electricity, glass, and chemicals and biological

Grade 3-5 - History and Nature of Science - Scientific Inquiry:

      Students will follow appropriate safety behavior in their
      investigations. For example, the use of goggles, heat sources,
      electricity, glass, and chemicals and biological materials.

Grade 6-7 - History and Nature of Science - Scientific Inquiry:

      Students will apply established safety rules and guidelines in
      conducting scientific investigations inside and outside the

Grade 8-12 - History and Nature of Science - Scientific Inquiry:

      Students will be able to apply established safety rules and
      guidelines in conducting scientific investigations inside and
      outside the classroom.

   We have "rules", "procedures", and "behavior" which the students
should "follow", "apply", or "be able to apply", but they are
essentially the same for every grade.  Are the hazards of kindergarten
the same as those of high school biology, chemistry, or physics?  Where
does one go to get any specific guidance for useful safety information
related to likely hazards in different grades?

   Do the kindergarteners use Bunsen burners these days?  From what do
their little eyes need protection?  To which chemicals and biological
materials are they exposed?  Did any thought go into these benchmarks? 
It's interesting that in grades 8-12 actual safety is apparently
optional, so long as the students are "able to apply" the proper
"rules and guidelines".


      Bad Science Content

   More distressing than the bad language in the document was the bad
science.  (In some cases it was hard to tell whether the language or the
science was worse.)  Some examples follow.

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   Mass v. Volume

   Consider the following benchmark for Grade 6 - History and Nature of
Science - Scientific Inquiry:

      Students will use appropriate tools and Systems International
      units for measuring length, time, mass, volume, and temperature
      with suitable precision and accuracy.

   The term "Systems International units" seems to be used nowhere else
in the world.  See for example:

      The International System of Units, universally abbreviated SI
      (from the French Le Système International d'Unités), is the modern
      metric system of measurement. The SI was established in 1960 by
      the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM,
      Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures). The CGPM is the
      international authority that ensures wide dissemination of the SI
      and modifies the SI as necessary to reflect the latest advances in
      science and technology.

   So, use the French "Système International d'Unités" or the English
"International System of Units", or just plain "SI units", but let's not
invent new and exotic phrases which, if learned by the students, will at
best cause them embarrassment when they come in contact with people
whose education was not hampered by this document.

   Consider a couple of the benchmarks for Grade 7 - Physical Science -
Structure of Matter:

      Students will distinguish between mass and volume.

      Students will compare and contrast the mass, shape and volume of
      solids, liquids and gases.

   Does a student need to be a teenager before he is expected to
distinguish between "What does that weigh?" and "How big is that?"?
(And "this flows and that doesn't."?)  This is not, strictly, an error,
but surely grade 7 is the wrong place for this standard.

   And going back to the language problems, what does it mean to compare
and contrast the mass of a solid with that of a liquid?

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   A Grade 9-12 - Physical Science - Structure of Matter benchmark says:

      Students will compare and contrast the properties of an element
      and its isotopes and how isotopes can be used in research,
      medicine, and industry.

   Perhaps the _radioactive_ isotopes of various elements have uses in
research, medicine, and industry, but not isotopes in general.

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   Sunlight in Ecosystems

   Here is a standard from Grade 7 - Life Science - Flow of Matter and

      Students will know all energy within an ecosystem originates from
      the sun.

   They may know it, but it's not true.  Let's look at a brief excerpt
from a Web page ("© 1997 The American Museum of Natural History.  All
Rights Reserved.").

      Deep-sea hydrothermal vents support extraordinary ecosystems deep
      beneath the surface of the oceans.  These ecosystems are the only
      communities on Earth whose immediate energy source is not
      sunlight.  Life on Earth, and even possibly on other planets, may
      have formed in environments similar to these.

   These things have been around long enough that they have appeared on
popular public television shows like "Nova".  Their existence should not
be a surprise to the people creating this document.  Moreover, the fact
that they do _not_ get their energy from sunlight makes them interesting
precisely because they differ from the more familiar (but not _"all"_)
ecosystems which do.  The conjecture that they may heve been involved in
the origin of life itself surely adds to their interest and educational
value.  These ecosystems should be _included_ in the standards rather
than having their existence denied by them.

   We are told that "Among the resources used to develop the new
standards were existing standards from other states [...]."  The
Virginia Science Standards of Learning (known by the unfortunate acronym
of SOLs) give as a key concept, "photosynthesis as the foundation of
virtually all food webs".  Note "virtually", not "all".

   In the same group, here's another benchmark:

      Students will know that plants use the energy in light to make
      sugars out of carbon dioxide and water.  They use or store this
      food/sugar/.  Organisms eat plants for the food/sugar and energy,
      and produce carbon dioxide and water.

   Ignoring the extra slash in "food/sugar/", here's what the American
Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has to say about an

      organism  n.  1.  Any living individual; any plant or animal.

   So, if "[o]rganisms eat plants", are we supposed to believe that
plants eat each other?  Do plants "produce carbon dioxide and water"?
This is not my field of expertise.  Is there some new, technical
definition of "organism" which has escaped the notice of the dictionary
editors?  Did the authors, perhaps, intend to say that (some) _animals_
eat plants?

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   According to the "American Heritage Dictionary of the English

      plasma  n.  4.  Physics.  An electrically neutral, highly ionized
      gas composed of ions, electrons, and neutral particles.

   Plasma, in this sense, appears in grade 6 (p. 9), as the (new) fourth
state of matter, (up from the three states of matter in grade 2 (p. 2)). 
I would not call this a fundamental fact, but if there's some reason to
include it, it's fine with me.

   Atoms appear in grade 6 (p. 9), grade 7 (p. 13), and grade 8 (p. 19),
but subatomic particles first appear in grades 9-12 (p. 24, "Students
will identify protons, neutrons, electrons as the major components of
the atom, their mass relative to one another their arrangement, and
their charge.").

   How does one discuss a plasma without electrons and ions?  (What's an
ion?  I see only "ionic bonding", grades 9-12, p. 24.)

   Electricity appears in grade 4.  Electrons appear in high school
(grades 9-12).  Apparently the charge carriers in a wire will remain a
mystery for many years.

   If this document accurately describes the science curriculum, there
seems to be insufficient attention to prerequisites.  A casual reader
might conclude that the members of the subcommittees which handled the
different grade groups did not communicate well with each other.

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   Food Chains, Webs

   Several of the Life Science benchmarks from grades 5, 6, and 9-12
refer to food chains or webs and the roles of "producers, consumers, and
decomposers".  I am not an expert in the life sciences, but this seems
to me to be a highly artificial set of distinctions which complicates
the picture unnecessarily.

   Every organism (animal, plant, or other) has its inputs and outputs.
What makes a plant a "producer"?  It _consumes_ water, carbon dioxide,
soil nutrients, and sunlight.  What makes me a "consumer"?  I may
consume water, oxygen, plants, and animals, but I _produce_ soil
nutrients and food for dung beetles.

      Students will understand that food webs describe the relationships
      among producers, consumers, and decomposers in an ecosystem.

   Would it not make more sense to lose the emphasis on the misleading
categories like "producers, consumers, and decomposers", and concentrate
on the inputs and outputs of _every_ organism in an ecosystem, and the
relationships among them?

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   A benchmark for Grade 8 - Physical Science - Energy Transformations:

      Students will understand that energy is a property of many

_I_ don't understand it.  I don't know what it means.  Which substances
have this "property" of energy?  Sugar?  Salt?  Sand?  Any object above
ground level may have gravitational potential energy.  Is that energy a
property of its substance?  What are we talking about here?

   "Energy" is repeatedly categorized in different ways in the
benchmarks, with no obvious connections between these different types of

   Grade 6 - Physical science - Energy Transformations

      Students will know that energy exists as heat, chemical energy,
      mechanical energy and electrical energy.

   Grade 8 - Physical Science - Energy Transformations

      Students will compare and contrast heat energy, chemical energy,
      mechanical energy and electrical energy.

      Students will know that potential energy is stored energy and is
      associated with gravitational or electrical force, mechanical
      position, or chemical composition.

      Students will differentiate between kinetic and potential energy
      and identify situations where kinetic energy is converted into
      potential energy and vise versa.

   (Some of the benchmarks for grades 9-12 are essentially similar.)

   Ignoring the amusing "vise versa", there seems to be no attempt to
identify any of "heat energy, chemical energy, mechanical energy", or
"electrical energy" with either of "kinetic energy" or "potential
energy".  It's not clear if any of these types of energy have anything
in common, or if they're all distinct.  What are the relationships, if
any?  We do get a connection between potential energy and various
_forces_, but no obvious connection between these forces and the
similarly named types of _energy_.

   This stuff is not exactly in error, but it's easy to see a lot of
apparently related concepts being thrown around with no sign of the

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   Here's one of the benchmarks for Grade 4 - Earth and Space Science -
The Universe:

      Students will know that telescopes magnify distant objects in the
      sky and dramatically increase the number of stars we can see.

   I consider stars to be among the "distant objects in the sky", and
interestingly (perhaps counterintuitively), no existing telescope
provides any useful magnification of a star.  A telescope can provide
useful magnification of nearby objects (like our moon), or _huge_,
"distant objects in the sky", such as a galaxy or a nebula, but not a
star.  See, for example:

      When we look at the moon or a planet through a telescope, we are
      looking at an extended object and as we increase magnification
      under good conditions, we see more detail. However, when we look
      at a star, we are looking at a point source and no matter how much
      we magnify, it is so far away that all we get is a point of light.

   This level of complexity may be beyond the typical grade 4 student,
but it might be better not to require a young student to learn something
which is fundamentally wrong.

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   We are told that people developing these standards "were selected,
based on their content knowledge and experience and their passion for
academic excellence and high standards for children."  I have a BA in
physics (Macalester College, 1973), plus a smattering of graduate study
in that field.  I managed to get through high school and college without
taking any biology courses, so why do I know about the sunlight-free
ecosystems around black smokers on the ocean floor, while the people
preparing this document apparently do not?


      Missing Science Content

   The benchmarks for Grade 7 - History and Nature of Science -
Scientific Inquiry include these:

      Students will know that an understanding of mathematics and the
      use of technology are essential in determining how a scientific
      investigation is conducted and the explanations that can be made.

      Students will present and explain data and findings using multiple
      representations including tables, graphs, mathematical and
      physical models, and demonstrations.

   So, math is good.  But why, then, is there not a single equation
anywhere in the standards document?  There seems to be no mention or any
use whatsoever of any algebra anywhere in the document.  Apparently
students should know that math is "essential", but not actually use it
for anything.

   The benchmarks for Grade 6 - Physical Science - Forces of Nature
include these:

      Students will know that every object exerts gravitational force on
      every other object.

      Students will know that gravitational force between two objects
      depends on how much mass the objects have and on how far apart
      they are.

   All this can be nicely condensed into Newton's law of universal
gravitation, F = GmM/r^2, which seems to appear nowhere in the document.

   Similarly, the similar Coulomb's law (F = kqQ/r^2) is also absent. 
These inverse-square central-force laws are fundamental, yet missing.

   There are several benchmarks which deal with basic electricity and
circuits.  Electric current is mentioned (as in "DC current", that is,
Direct Current current), but there is no mention of the concepts of
potential difference (voltage) and resistance, and Ohm's law (V = IR) is
also absent.  (Which makes sense, I suppose, if you don't know about
voltage or resistance.)  The units of ampere, volt, and ohm, are, of
course, absent.  Series and parallel circuits?  Not here.

   A Grade 9-12 - Physical Science - Energy Transformations benchmark

      Students will use the concepts of inertia, force, velocity, and
      mass to describe the motion of an object.

and in Motion:

      Students will explain the relationship between force, mass, and

   Is "F = ma" buried in there somewhere?  If not, why not?  If so, why
is it invisible?  How about v = d/t (speed = distance / time), or
a = v/t (acceleration = speed / time)?  (I assume that with no trace of
algebra, any mention of calculus is _absolutely_ out of the question.)

   Also, inertia, force, and mass are not used to "describe the motion
of an object".  Its position, velocity, and acceleration are.  Forces
may cause or change motion, and mass (inertia) affects these changes. 
(Remember F = ma?)

   There is an occasional mention of "direction" as in "speed or
direction", but the terms "scalar" and "vector" never appear.

   A Grade 9-12 - Physical Science - Motion benchmark:

      Students will describe the relationship among energy, work and
      power both conceptually and quantitatively.

   I'd be happier if the student could relate work, force, and distance,
as in W = Fd, but that's another of those pesky equations.

   I found no sign of any reference to rotational motion: angular
position, velocity, or acceleration; torque; moment of inertia.  The
terms "centrifugal" and "centripetal" never appear.  The motion of a
satelite is beyond the scope of these standards.  The periodic table is
mentioned, but not periodic motion.  The motion of a pendulum is beyond
the scope of these standards, and with it, terms like simple harmonic
motion, period, frequency, and amplitude.  Naturally, "resonance" is not
mentioned, and certainly not nuclear magnetic resonance, as in (nuclear)
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technology of some current interest.

   The difference between mass and weight is not mentioned.

   Conservation of energy is mentioned.  Conservation of momentum is
not.  This might be expected, as momentum itself is not mentioned. 
Analysis of a collision is beyond the scope of this document.

   Conservation of mass or matter is mentioned, but not conservation of
electric charge.  Conservation laws as a class, one of the foundations
of science, are not mentioned.

   There is no mention of fields, such as electric, magnetic, or

   Subatomic particles beyond the basic three, such as mesons,
neutrinos, and quarks, are not mentioned.  Radiometric dating is
mentioned, but not radioactivity.  Alpha, beta, and gamma rays/particles
are nowhere to be found.  (It's all Greek to me.)  Decay?  Half-life? 
Transmutation?  Strontium-90?  Cobalt-60?  Not here.  This would be a
good place to discuss exponential decay, but that might require an

   Waves, wavelength, and something suggesting wave speed (without
actually naming it) are mentioned in the benchmarks beginning in grade
7, but frequency is not mentioned, and thus neither is the fundamental
relationship, c = f*[lambda] (speed = frequency * wavelength).  There is
no mention of the distinction between longitudinal and transverse waves,
nor of polarization.  What is monochromatic light?  Coherent light? 
Lasers must be beyond the scope of these standards.  What's the speed of
sound?  Of light?  Oh, those are numbers.  With units.  Clearly they
have no place here.  "Doppler evidence" is mentioned, but the Doppler
effect itself, standing waves, interference, harmonics, and phase are
also absent.

   In high school, "Students will know that photons behave as both
particles and waves", but what do they know about waves?

   There is no mention of lenses or images, or indices of refraction,
let alone prisms or diffraction gratings.  (Or diffraction or
refraction at all.  Or Snell's law, another equation.)  The operation of
a simple camera is beyond the scope of these standards.

   Fluids, buoyancy, and the Bernoulli effect do not appear.  The reason
a helium-filled balloon rises is beyond the scope of these standards.

   There is nothing quantitative about heat.  Specific heat and heat
capacity are absent.

   There is nothing quantitative about almost everything.  Scientific
notation is not mentioned.  Can physical science be taught without the
use of very small and very large numbers?  Or _any_ numbers?

   Is the concept of significant digits/figures hidden inside "precision
and accuracy"?  One can only hope.

   Graphs disappear completely from the benchmarks after grade 8.  One
of the Grade 7 - Physical Science - Motion benchmarks says:

      Students will represent the motion of an object on a graph.

   Assuming (perhaps rashly) that this involves a graph of displacement
versus time, there is no mention of the slope on such a graph, or,
obviously, the significance of the slope, namely the speed of the
object.  A graph of _speed_ versus time, and the significance of its
slope would, I suppose, be beyond the scope of these standards.

   There is no mention of conversion of quantities in one system of
units to similar quantities in a different system of units.  The US,
unfortunately, does not work exclusively in SI units.  How many watts in
a horsepower?  The ability to convert miles to kilometers or
miles/gallon to liters/(100 kilometers) may be useful someday.

   Speaking of units, dimensional analysis is, of course, absent.

   My chemistry background is weak, but I notice that terms like
"concentration", "mole", "valance", "oxidation", "reduction", and
"polymer" are absent.  ("One word: 'plastics'.").  Avogadro's number,
being a number, is, of course, absent.

   "Nucleic acids" are mentioned, but not plain old acids and bases, or
pH.  No electrolytes or any other solutions, or, as noted elsewhere,
ions.  The ideal gas law (another pesky equation) is absent, but that is
consistent with the near absence of the concept of pressure.

   Spectrometer?  Chromatography?  Not here.

   I assume that a chemist could think of some other fundamental items
which are also beyond the scope of this document.

   My biology background is even weaker than my chemistry background,
but even there, some significant items are obviously missing.  There is
some mention of photosynthesis, but no explicit mention of chlorophyll.

   Reproduction and population growth are mentioned, but not the
exponential character of such growth.  (Saved from yet another pesky

   DNA and RNA appear, but not nucleotides or base-pairs, or the letters
A, C, G, and T (or what they stand for).  A polymerase chain reaction? 
No point, as "genome" does not appear, so how one analyzes DNA to
discover it would be out of place.

   The benchmarks for Grade 6 - Life Science - Organisms are:

      Students will know that cells are the fundamental units of life.

      Students will know that most organisms are single cells.

      Students will know that all organisms are composed of cells.

   This is nice, but where does a virus (not mentioned in the document)
fit into this scheme?  Even if a virus is not considered an organism,
doesn't it deserve a mention?  What about a prion?  Mad cows everywhere
will feel slighted.

   Doppler evidence, Mendel's law, and Punnett squares are the closest
things in the document to the name of any scientist, living or dead. 
Could not the History and Nature of Science strand be expanded to
include a few of the people responsible for all this stuff?

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   While this list may seem long, I fear it only scratches the surface.

   It is possible that some or all of these items may be dealt with in
the courses, even though absent from this document, but if they do not
appear in the standards document, for how long is that likely to remain

   Perhaps some effort should be put into creating a "laundry list" of
concepts and even (gasp!) equations with which a student might be
expected to have some familiarity.  Such a "laundry list" is not a
substitute for a coherent curriculum, but it does help to discover
what's missing.


   General Complaints


   Many of the benchmarks seem to have been written in ways which
accomodate the creation of the multiple-choice test questions which, I
assume, will be used to evaluate the students' mastery of this material,
rather than being coherent expositions of important and useful material.

   It's not clear that being able to identify a soybean plant as a
"producer" and a farmer as a "consumer" will demonstrate a mastery of
anything other than how to make it through one more pointless
multiple-choice test.

   Of course, this quality is shared with the Math standard.  Has anyone
ever seen stem-and-leaf plots in the wild?  In a world where a digital
computer may be found on almost every desk, I suspect that they are
confined exclusively to the world of K-12 education.  They are
convenient on a multiple-choice test, though.

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   It's clear that many people have put a lot of effort into the
creation of this document, and the fact that they are willing to appear
at public meetings and listen to long lists of complaints from people
like me, who have little good to say about it, is certainly admirable. 
Defining and specifying a complete science curriculum for K-12 schools
is clearly a complex and difficult undertaking.

   The fact remains that this document is badly flawed.  It might be
worth looking at how this could happen.  What is wrong with the way the
work was done, and the way the workers were selected, that could lead to
such a miserable result?  Is this bad luck or bad management, or a
systems failure, or what?  Or is this result seen as a success?

   Am I judging this document by the wrong standards?  Should it include
an introduction which would lay out its goals and set appropriate

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   Research and Validation

   It appears that, good or bad, like the Profile of Learning, these
standards are about to be imposed on the whole state whether they are
good or bad.  In the real world, it is common to run some kind of pilot
study to determine the effectiveness of such a change before imposing
such a revolution, untested, on the organization as a whole.  I have
never heard an explanation of why it is not possible to do this for
education standards in Minnesota.

   At the public meeting in Forest Lake, more than one speaker bemoaned
the lack of research which would justify various aspects of one of the
standards.  Why don't we _do_ some before we make everyone in the state
take the consequences of this proposal?  Having been through the Profile
of Learning, now moving toward the Minnesota Academic Standards, do we
really need to run the experiment on the whole state every time?


   Steven M. Schweda                            2003-10-23

© 2017 Steven M. Schweda.