Extreme vagueness in science standards:
a case study. 



Working paper by David Wojick, Ph.D.

The STEM Education Center

February 2009

Virginia Standards of Learning are often very vague in a lot of the Earth Sciences content (ES), so we have been studying the problem. Specifically we have been looking at the SOL for astronomy and comparing the high school ES SOL with the 6th grade ES SOL.. (Virginia does not teach any ES in middle school, which is strange in itself. This gap is probably the biggest state-to-state difference we have found so far.)

The problem we found is that in Virginia the HS SOL and 6th grade SOL for astronomy are so vague that they are almost identical. What are the teachers supposed to teach in HS that has not been taught in 6th grade? It is very hard to say, which is a serious problem for the teachers.

So we dug deeper. Virginia has guidance documents that explain the SOL in more detail. These are called Curriculum Frameworks (CF) and can be found here: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/VDOE/Instruction/Science/sciCF.html

We pulled the CFs for HS and 6th grade astronomy. But we found that they are still almost identical. There are some differences but we estimate that 80% of the content is the same. In some cases the 6th grade CF even appears more advanced than HS. See for yourself if you are interested, as a SOL & CF compilation for each grade -- 6 & HS -- is below. Put them side by side and see if you can find the relatively few differences.

Conclusion: It is unclear how high school teachers figure out what to teach about astronomy, that has not already been taught in 6th grade. It cannot be based on the standards. This is potentially a serious problem.

Appendix I -- Virginia 6th grade SOL & CF for astronomy (SOL 6.8) Interrelationships in Earth/Space Systems

SOL 6.8 The student will investigate and understand the organization of the solar system and the relationships among the various bodies that comprise it. Key concepts include:

SOL a) the sun, moon, Earth, other planets and their moons, meteors, asteroids, and comets;

b) relative size of and distance between planets;

c) the role of gravity;

d) revolution and rotation;

e) the mechanics of day and night and the phases of the moon;

f) the unique properties of Earth as a planet;

g) the relationship of the EarthÕs tilt and the seasons;

h) the cause of tides; and i) the history and technology of space exploration.


Curriculum Framework Overview The concepts developed in this standard include the following:

The solar system consists of the sun, moon, Earth, other planets and their moons, meteors, asteroids, and comets. Each body has its own characteristics and features.

The distance between planets and sizes of the planets varies greatly. The outer, ŌgasĶ planets are very large, and the four inner planets are comparatively small and rocky.

Gravity is a force that keeps the planets in motion around the sun. Gravity acts everywhere in the universe.

Planets revolve around the sun, and moons revolve around planets. A planet rotates upon an axis.

As the Earth rotates, different sides of the Earth face toward or away from the sun, thus causing day and night, respectively.

The phases of the moon are caused by its position relative to the Earth and sun.

The Earth is a rocky planet, extensively covered with large oceans of liquid water and having frozen ice caps in its polar regions. The Earth has a protective atmosphere consisting predominantly of nitrogen and oxygen and has a magnetic field. The atmosphere and the magnetic field help shield the EarthÕs surface from harmful solar radiation. Scientific evidence indicates that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

Seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth on its axis and, thus, the angle at which sunlight strikes the surface of the Earth during its annual revolution around the sun.

Tides are the result of the gravitational pull of the moon and sun on the surface waters of the Earth.

The ideas of Ptolemy, Aristotle, Copernicus, and Galileo contributed to the development of our understanding of the solar system.

With the development of new technology over the last half-century, our knowledge of the solar system has increased substantially.

Essential Knowledge, Skills, and Processes: In order to meet this standard, it is expected that students should be able to:

describe the nine planets and their relative positions from the sun.

design and interpret a scale model of the solar system. (A scale model may be a physical representation of an object or concept. It can also be a mathematical representation that uses factors such as ratios, proportions, and percentages.)

explain the role of gravity in the solar system.

compare and contrast revolution and rotation and apply these terms to the relative movements of planets and moons their moons.

model and describe how day and night and the phases of the moon occur.

model and describe how the EarthÕs axial tilt and its annual orbit around the sun cause the seasons.

describe the unique characteristics of planet Earth.

discuss the relationship between the gravitational pull of the moon and the cycle of tides.

compare and contrast the ideas of Ptolemy, Aristotle, Copernicus, and Galileo related to the solar system.

create and interpret a timeline highlighting the advancements in solar system exploration over the past half century. This should include information on the first modern rockets, artificial satellites, orbital missions, missions to the moon, Mars robotic explorers, and exploration of the outer planets.

Appendix II -- Virginia High School SOL & CF for astronomy (ES 4 & 14)

Earth Sciences (ES) 4 The student will investigate and understand the characteristics of the Earth and the solar system.

Key concepts include SOL

a) position of the Earth in the solar system;

b) sun-Earth-moon relationships (seasons, tides, and eclipses);

Curriculum Framework (CF) Expected understanding. Earth is one of nine planets in the solar system.

Essential knowledge and skills: Earth is the third planet from the sun and is located between the sun and the asteroid belt. It has one natural satellite, the moon.

Earth revolves around the sun, tilted on its axis, causing seasons (equinoxes and solstices).

The moon revolves around Earth creating the moon phases and eclipses.

Solar eclipses occur when the moon blocks sunlight from EarthÕs surface, while lunar eclipses occur when Earth blocks sunlight from reaching the moonÕs surface.

The tides are the daily, periodic rise and fall of water level caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon.

Water occurs on Earth as a solid (ice), a liquid, or a gas (water vapor) due to EarthÕs position in the solar system.


c) characteristics of the sun, planets and their moons, comets, meteors, and asteroids; and d) the history and contributions of the space program

CF Expected Understanding. The solar system consists of many types of celestial bodies.

Much of our knowledge about the solar system is a result of space exploration efforts. These efforts continue to improve our understanding of the solar system

Essential knowledge and skills:

The sun consists largely of hydrogen gas. Its energy comes from nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium.

There are essentially two types of planets in our solar system.

The four inner (terrestrial) planets consist mostly of solid rock.

Four of the outer planets are gas giants, consisting of thick outer layers of gaseous materials, perhaps with small rocky cores.

The fifth outer planet, Pluto, has an unknown composition but appears to be solid.

Moons are natural satellites of planets that vary widely in composition.

Comets orbit the sun and consist mostly of frozen gases.

ES.14 The student will investigate and understand scientific concepts related to the origin and evolution of the universe. Key concepts include:


a) nebulae;

b) the origin of stars and star systems;

c) stellar evolution;

d) galaxies; and

e) cosmology including the big bang theory.


Expected Understanding:

The universe is vast and very old.

The big bang theory is our best current model for the origin of the universe.

The solar nebular theory is our best current idea for the origin of the solar system.

Stars have a finite lifetime and evolve over time.

The mass of a star controls its evolution, length of its lifetime, and ultimate fate.

Essential knowledge and skills:

The big bang theory states that the universe began in a very hot, dense state that expanded and eventually condensed into galaxies.

The solar nebular theory explains that the planets formed through the condensing of the solar nebula.

Stars form by condensation of interstellar gas.

The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram illustrates the relationship between the absolute magnitude and the surface temperature of stars. As stars evolve, their position on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram moves.

Galaxies are collections of billions of stars. The basic types of galaxies are spiral, elliptical, and irregular.

The solar system is located in the Milky Way galaxy.