Quick Review – Virginia’s SCIENCE SOL

Quick Review – Clarity, Specificity, Alignment

Proposed Revised Science Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools

October 2009

By Dr. Deborah Wahlstrom

Citizen reviewer

download a pdf copy of this review.

The purpose of this quick review is to take a look at the clarity, specificity, and alignment of Virginia’s science standards as they are presented in the Proposed Revised Science Standards of Learning. I always appreciate the opportunity to provide input related to curriculum. We are fortunate to live and work in a state with a comprehensive review process that encourages public input. So here goes.

I used the document noted below for this review. This document was presented to the Virginia Board of Education on October 22, 2009.

Source Document: Virginia Department of Education, Proposed Revised Science Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools – First Review, October 22, 2009.


These standards have already been through a content analysis, so for my quick review I’ll focus on the clarity of the standards. There are four major elements in the science standards document as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1

Major Elements of Proposed Science Standards of Learning

I’ll be looking at several of the items in the first bullet of Figure 1 for the major elements of the proposed revised standards. More specifically, I’ll focus on the clarity, specificity, and alignment of the skills and content.

 In addition, as part of looking at the science standards, I’ll refer to the range of rigorous science skills and knowledge levels – that as written – are embedded in the science standards as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2

Explanation of the Use of Investigate and Understand in Virginia’s Science Standards

We always want to encourage district staff to develop curricula that meets and exceeds that of the state standards, but in an era of accountability, we also want to be very specific about minimum level expectations to which students will be held accountable. I want to encourage state-level staff to better communicate the specific levels of thinking expected around the content standards. Doing so is key to tight alignment at the classroom level. Following are several examples of how to do this.

Example 1

 Since I’ve got to start somewhere, I started with the first standard in the entire standards document which follows.


A key issue I see with the standards document is that it is written in the passive voice. I highly recommend writing the components of the standard in the active voice. So this component:

Becomes this:

  • Identify characteristics of objects by direct observation.

Now why do I recommend this? A key to alignment at the classroom level is to match instructional activities and assessments to the cognitive level of the standard. In order to do this, the cognitive level must be very clear to teachers. By writing the standards in the active voice, you move the cognitive level of the standard so it is front and center – supporting a greater likelihood of alignment.

As I’ve written about in three of my books, we help ensure higher student achievement when we ensure alignment. Alignment happens at the classroom level and everything we do at the state level should support tight alignment at the classroom level. When you’re working on alignment, you’re always working on the cognitive level of the standard. When you write the standard as I have done above, you put the cognitive level at the very beginning of the statement and this quickly clarifies the learning expectation for students.

Now why is that important? Think of a teacher in the classroom who needs to design and/or choose lessons for this part of the standard. This standard clearly relays – in the first word – that students will identify the characteristics. Think of someone who is writing test items. I’ve just made the likelihood of having aligned test items higher since test items should be at the same level of cognitive thinking as the standard.

Now let’s apply this thinking to examples with other science standards.

Example 2

There are three interactions here that students must know. Here’s how I would rework the three interactions.

  • Differentiate/Distinguish between liquids that will separate when mixed with water and those that will not.
  • Explain that some solids will dissolve in water and some will not.
  • Explain that some substances dissolve more readily/quickly in hot water than in cold water.

Example 3

6.5.a water as the universal solvent


6.5.a Recognize water as the universal solvent.

Example 4

LS.1.a        Organize data into tables showing repeated trials and means.

LS.1.d        Construct models and simulations to illustrate and explain phenomena.

Example 5

Now, let’s take one from physics. I can see that in PH.1, there is an addition of experimental and product design processes. I recommend being more clear about the reiterative part of the design process – which may be new for many teachers.

PH.1.a        Define the components of a system.

PH.1.b        Select and use instruments to extend observations and measurements.

PH.1.c        Record and present information in an organized format.

Again, I encourage staff to tweak the standards so they (1) indicate the expected cognitive level of thinking and (2) are presented in the active voice. These are two critical actions that will lead to tighter alignment – and higher student achievement – at the classroom, school, district, and state levels.

Leave a Reply