Differentiating Science Instruction and Assessment for Learners with Special Needs, K-8


Kevin D. Finson, Christine K. Ormsbee & Mary M. Jensen

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    In the spring of 1994, the basic idea encompassed in this book was conceived, eventually resulting in grant support from the Illinois State Board of Education's (ISBE) Office of Scientific Literacy. With that support, a collaborative group was formed consisting of university faculty in science education and special education, and of K–8 science and special education teachers from eight school districts. It was through the combination of all these elements that this book had its beginnings. A special thank you is extended to each of the following individuals (teachers, principals, and colleagues) whose contributions and help made the project a success:

    • Cris Altgilbers
    • Carol Anderson
    • Julie Aten
    • Louise Bassett
    • John Beaver
    • Karen Bhear
    • Joan Biswell
    • Patty Bloom
    • Karen Burtch
    • Liz Burton
    • Wayne Caparoon
    • Sherrie Cullen
    • Marie Dunstan
    • Linda Engel
    • Jason Finch
    • Newton Fink
    • Kara Harper
    • Maureen Hazell
    • Carol Holland
    • Dana Jenkins
    • Jane Kliffmiller
    • Gail Lester
    • Edna Lotz
    • Perry Lotz
    • Peggy Ma
    • Sharon Maroney
    • Jack McKinnon
    • Mary McMahon
    • Carolyn Phillips
    • Gwen Pollock
    • Donald Powers
    • Sheila Rafferty
    • Scott Rigg
    • Ida Rosenau
    • Steven Russell
    • Barbara Shrode
    • Barb Spitzer
    • Diana St. John
    • Sarah Talley
    • Judy Trotter
    • Sue Underwood
    • Barb Wagner
    • Carrie Walkington
    • Sherri Zimmerman
    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Charre Todd
    • Science Instructional Facilitator, Science Teacher
    • Crossett Middle School
    • Crossett, Arkansas
    • Sheila Smith
    • Science Specialist/Consultant
    • Jackson Public Schools
    • Ridgeland, Mississippi
    • Robert E. Yager
    • Professor Emeritus of Science Education
    • University of Iowa
    • Iowa City, Iowa
    • Kelli S. Kercher
    • Special Education Team Leader
    • Murray School District
    • Murray, Utah
    • Douglas Llewellyn
    • Director of Science
    • Faculty of Educational Leadership
    • St. John Fisher College
    • Rochester, New York
    • Sharon Schulze
    • Director of The Science House
    • College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences
    • North Carolina State University
    • Raleigh, North Carolina

    About the Authors

    Kevin D. Finson (PhD, Kansas State University) is a Professor of Science Education at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where he teaches elementary and secondary science education courses. His teaching has included middle- and high-school level life, physical, and earth sciences; college-level earth science content courses; a foundations course in strategies and techniques; and graduate courses in instructional theory and program evaluation.

    He has served as a member of the board of directors for the international Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE), and chaired its Professional Development Committee and Inclusive Science Education Forum. He has also contributed to the standards for the Early Adolescent Science Committee of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. He has edited the international Journal of Elementary Science Education, served on editorial boards of several national science education journals, and served on the publications committees of two national professional organizations. During this time, he has maintained a consistent record of his own publication in national refereed and practitioner journals.

    With two primary areas of research interest, the first focuses on making science more accessible to students who have special learning needs. In particular, Dr. Finson explores how teachers can make adjustments and modifications to written materials, procedures, and simple equipment so students who have specific learning disabilities can successfully engage in doing science. The second area of interest focuses on students' perceptions of scientists, which has included development of a framework to guide science educators in dealing with students' conceptions of scientists.

    Christine K. Ormsbee joined the Oklahoma State University College of Education June 2006 as Professor and Head of the School of Teaching and Curriculum Leadership. She holds a PhD in special education from the University of Kansas, a master's degree in special education from Emporia State University, and a bachelor's degree in psychology and special education from Emporia State University. As a faculty member in special education, she teaches an undergraduate introductory special education course and graduate special education methods and research courses.

    With over two decades in the profession, she has established a consistent record of scholarly publications and presentations, which address her interests in providing strategies and supports for teachers who work with children with learning and/or behavioral concerns. Specifically, her research has focused on collaborative processes including peer coaching, co-teaching, and preassessment.

    Very active in teacher education, Dr. Ormsbee is serving her second term as a commissioner on the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation, is a member of the Oklahoma P-20 Education Council, and serves on the advisory board for the Oklahoma Board of Education's State Improvement Grant. She served as an associate editor of the journal Intervention in School and Clinic until 2009 and now serves as a field reviewer for this journal and other special education–related journals.

    Mary M. Jensen has been a Professor of Special Education at Western Illinois University (WIU) in Macomb, Illinois, since 1990. She teaches college students to be outstanding special education teachers for students with mild to moderate disabilities. The special education courses she teaches relate to behavior management methods and characteristics and teaching methods for students with mild to moderate disabilities. Her past experience teaching special education includes working with students in the elementary grades in public school, and with high school students in residential treatment.

    Dr. Jensen has been honored to receive the Outstanding Teacher Award at WIU in 1993 and 2006. In 2008, she won the Teaching With Technology Award and the WIU Provost's Award for Teaching With Technology. In 2009 and 2010, she was a recipient of the WIU Honoring Our Professors of Excellence (HOPE) Award.

    Dr. Jensen makes presentations for professional development at schools, conferences, and for other organizations on a variety of special education topics for teachers and parents. Topics include proactive and positive behavior management methods, differentiated instruction methods, ADHD, social skills, and bully behavior. The programs focus on practical teaching, management skills, and content that will help students with mild to moderate disabilities increase academic achievement and improve social skills and behavior.

  • Resource: Scientific Literacy, Standards, and State Goals

    Vignette with Thomaz

    Thomaz is an elementary teacher who has recently been assigned the task of teaching science to all the fifth-grade classes in his school building. He knows that he needs to select science activities from the current adopted curriculum. Consequently, Thomaz also knows he must have some protocol to follow in selecting curriculum materials. In addition, those curriculum materials need to be suitable for use with students who have been mainstreamed into the classroom. So, Thomaz wonders, where does he begin? What guidelines can he use to select the best curriculum materials, and be sure those materials are appropriate for use with all his students?


    As teachers like Thomaz may realize, the enterprise of science education is vast. Over the past four decades, numerous publications have been produced intended to serve as guides for teachers and teacher educators in their efforts to teach science. Understanding what these publications say is a foundational starting point for teachers. To establish a foundation upon which to build the retooling of science activities and assessments, this book focuses on five of these (four national level and one state level).

    National Standards
    National Science Teachers Association and Scientific Literacy

    The oldest of these publications deals with what constitutes scientific literacy, and was produced during the early 1970s through the auspices of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) by Showalter, Cox, Holobinko, Thomson, and Orledo (1974). Despite its age, Program Objectives and Scientific Literacy does an excellent job of thoroughly dealing with the topic. The subsequent science education literature certainly is filled with numerous articles that contribute different definitions of scientific literacy. Indeed, some of those definitions are much shorter than the one provided in Program Objectives and Scientific Literacy. Sutman (1996), for example, has proffered the definition that

    …an individual is (totally) science literate when that person's background and experiences develop his/her ability and willingness to continue to learn science content on his/her own, to continue to develop and use science processes on his/her own and be willing and able to communicate effectively with others and/or involve others in these experiences and understandings. (pp. 459–460)

    Program Objectives and Scientific Literacy begins by stressing that the principal overall objective of science teaching is the development of satisfactory levels of scientific literacy among all learners. Essentially the document defines scientific literacy as, “that which every person should understand, know, and feel at least to some extent about the realm of science” (p. 1). This has been a goal of science education since the late 1950s, and continues through today. As defined in this document, scientific literacy is divided into seven dimensions, each of which is composed of various elements or factors, as derived from research. Included in these dimensions are:

    • Nature of science refers to the characteristics of scientific knowledge as well as how one comes to learn and understand it.
    • Concepts in science include the “big” or “unifying” ideas that thread through each of the science disciplines.
    • Processes of science are the process skills used to actually do science.
    • Values in science are the qualities of science considered worthwhile or desirable, such as honesty.
    • Science and society and technology refers to the interrelationships between each of these components and how one influences the other.
    • Interest involves one having an interest in science and a positive or favorable attitude toward it.
    • Skills include the knowledge and ability to use a variety of instruments, equipment, devices, machines, and other hardware in the pursuit of doing science.

    Along with Showalter and colleagues' groundbreaking publication, three additional national-level publications will be of help to teachers. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) published by the National Research Council (NRC) in 1996 as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Benchmarks for Science Literacy: Project 2061, published in 1993, both operationally define science literacy throughout their entire texts. A complementary document, crafted by the NSTA and released in 1993, Scope, Sequence and Coordination (SSC) (Pearsall, 1993), provides additional teacher guidance. These three publications help clarify and delineate what quality science education looks like. However, translating that into pragmatic classroom practice is difficult for many teachers. To help, NSTA produced the Pathways publications; in particular, the NSTA Pathways to the Science Standards: Elementary School Edition (Texley & Wild, 1997) and NSTA Pathways to the Science Standards: Middle School Edition (Rakow, 2000) are useful translational tools.

    Even with the Pathways text in hand, teachers should understand that the “scientifically literate” person described in any of these publications does not emerge during a single school year, or even within just elementary schooling—becoming scientifically literate is a growth process that continues throughout life. The work teachers do with their students is but one part in a long sequence of teaching and learning that occurs in each student's lifetime.

    If there is a single theme embedded throughout the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (NRC, 1996) and the AAAS (1993) Benchmarks, it is that inquiry, investigations, and problem solving are critical elements of any science program. The NSES makes explicit points that the ability to do inquiry should be something students develop at each grade range (K–4, 5–8, and 9–12), as well as come to understand the process. Students should be engaged beginning in their early years with investigating and actively constructing ideas and explanations. In the middle grades, students should begin to recognize relationships between explanations and evidence and progress from partial inquiry toward more full inquiry. The AAAS Benchmarks note that scientific inquiry is complex and demanding, is far more flexible than often given credit in textbooks, and is more than just doing experiments (see AAAS, Chapter 1, Section 1B, p. 9).

    Another common theme teachers will recognize throughout each of these standards documents is the science is for all students to learn and do, not just for those in special groups such as accelerated classes. To that end, the standards information presented in these publications should be viewed with the perspective that science can and should be done with both students in the general education population as well as in the special education population. To help teachers get started, the following pages of summarize what these national-level standards publications contain. Teachers are encouraged to go beyond these summaries and locate and become familiar with the original standards documents.

    NRC National Science Education Standards (NSES)
    NSES Learning and Teaching Standards

    The National Science Education Standards (NSES) (NRC, 1996) details what all students must know and be able to do with respect to science learning experiences. These standards provide specific criteria to make judgments about teaching and learning. However, the standards go beyond teaching and learning and examine assessment, programs, and systems (e.g., the system at a national level). In total, NSES emphasizes the clear alignment of learning opportunities to the standards. The phrase all students means there is the expectation that the standards are to apply not to just certain groups of students, but to every student, regardless of background, ambition, or circumstances.

    Some basic principles guide the NSES, including the following:

    • All students should be afforded the opportunity to attain high levels of scientific literacy, and that opportunity should occur regardless of gender, cultural or ethnic background, physical or learning disabilities, future aspirations, or interest and motivation in science.
    • The attainment of science knowledge and understanding is something that all students can accomplish. Students must be given sufficient time to develop the deep understandings of essential scientific ideas rather than more superficial knowledge with many isolated facts.
    • Students must engage in science as an active process if it is to be learned appropriately. They must ask questions, construct explanations of natural phenomena, test those explanations in various ways, and communicate ideas to others.
    • The modes of inquiry that characterize the practice of contemporary science, including rules of evidence and ways of formulating questions, must be reflected in the science done in schools.
    NSES Content Standards

    The NSES content standards are not intended to represent a science curriculum, but are intended to convey the breadth and depth of science knowledge and understanding necessary for a learner to be scientifically literate. The content described in these standards includes structure, organization, balance, and presentation of content, and clearly defines what should be included within specific grade-level ranges. Within each grade-level range, the content standards are split into eight categories: (1) science as inquiry, (2) physical science, (3) life science, (4) earth and space science, (5) science and technology, (6) science in personal and social perspectives, (7) history and nature of science, and (8) unifying concepts and processes. The fundamental understandings reflected in the standards emphasize the need for the following:

    • Representation of central scientific ideas and organizing principles
    • Guidance for fruitful investigations
    • Application to everyday situations and common contexts
    • Linkages to meaningful learning experiences
    • Developmental appropriateness for students at specified grade levels

    Therefore, although not specifying a science curriculum, the NSES content standards certainly clarify what science curriculum should be like and include. This information should help teachers as they select their curriculum.

    NSES Assessment Standards

    The assessment standards focus on the quality of assessment practices designed to measure student attainment and the quality of science learning opportunities. The standards identify the essential attributes of exemplary assessment practices. Those best practices include:

    • Deliberately designing assessments with clear purpose and coordinating them with those purposes while insuring they have internal consistency
    • Measuring student attainment and science learning opportunities with a focus on the science content that is most important for students to learn while reflecting the complexity of the various dimensions described in all the NSES standards
    • Making use of quality assessment processes (e.g., inclusion of authentic assessment tasks, appropriate time periods between assessment measurements, etc.) and the data derived from them so that informed decisions can be made with respect to actions to be taken in improving science education
    • Being aware of and sensitive to biases (gender, racial, ethnic, physical disabilities, language, student experiences, etc.) and avoiding them
    • Making inferences that are sound and refer to the assumptions upon which they are based
    AAAS Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy is divided into key chapters that cover the nature of science, the nature of mathematics, the nature of technology, the physical setting, the living environment, the human organism, human society, the designed world, the mathematical world, historical perspectives, common themes, and habits of mind. Each of the chapters in Benchmarks provides specifics about what learners should know. These are broken down into what is appropriate at specified grade-level ranges: kindergarten through Grade 2, Grade 3 through Grade 5, Grade 6 through Grade 8, and Grade 9 through Grade 12.

    In the nature of science, Benchmarks covers scientific inquiry and the scientific enterprise (the “doing” of science). Patterns and relationships and mathematical inquiry are covered within the nature of mathematics; and the relationship between technology and science, design and systems, and issues in technology are covered under the nature of technology. The physical setting deals with the universe, the earth, processes that shape the earth, the structure of matter, energy transformations, motion, and forces of motion. The living environment deals with the diversity of life, heredity, cells, the interdependence of life, flow of matter and energy, and evolution of life. Human identity, group behavior, social change, social trade-offs, political and economic systems, social conflict, and global interdependence are covered within human society. Agriculture, materials and manufacturing, energy sources and their use, communication, and health technology are addressed in the designed world. The mathematical world looks at numbers, symbolic relationships, shapes, uncertainty, and reasoning. Historical perspectives provides an examination of science throughout human history and how it has led us to where we are now. Common themes examines some of the “big conceptual ideas” of science, including systems, models, constancy and change, and scale. Finally, habits of mind delves into values and attitudes, computation and estimation, manipulation and observation, communication skills, and critical-response skills. As the teacher might discern, many of the terms and broad topic titles are present in the NSTA scientific literacy document and NSES standards described earlier in this chapter.

    NSTA Scope, Sequence, and Coordination; and Pathways

    The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA, 1996) Scope, Sequence, and Coordination (SSC) differs somewhat from the other publications already described in that it places primary emphasis on curriculum reform rather than systemic reform in K–12 science education. However, similar to the other documents, the foundational context of SSC is the development of science literacy. SSC seeks to guide science educators in appropriate directions with respect to the scope of science education programs, sequencing of content and processes in those programs, and coordination amongst and between components of those programs. The document promotes concrete to abstract sequencing of content through a spiraling curriculum approach (i.e., the spacing of and repetition of topics over a time period that is typically seven years). SSC recognizes the interdependence of the various science disciplines, and promotes the integration of them at the middle-school level.

    State Goals for Learning in Science

    A final publication for teachers designing learning in science is their state's goals and standards for science. There are inherent similarities in the core content of each state's definitions of scientific literacy, and teachers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with their own state science education standards. The state goals to apply in science teaching parallel many of those articulated in the national standards documents. They emphasize students will have a working knowledge of the following:

    • Concepts and basic vocabulary in the life and physical sciences and how they apply to life and work
    • Implications and limitations of technological development and its interactions with society
    • Principles of scientific research and their application in simple projects
    • Processes, techniques, methods, equipment, and available technology of science

    Again, although the specific wording varies from state to state, many have language that parallels that from other states, as well as that in the national standards.


    Teachers will find that these aforementioned publications consistently overlap in many areas, yet each is also unique in its focus and in the manner in which the science education enterprise is detailed. As teachers explore these resources, they will also find that different levels of learner performance and acquisition of particular aspects of science literacy are grouped by grade ranges (e.g., K–4, 5–8, and 9–12) rather than being specific to individual grade levels. Most are also divided into different science domains, such as earth science, life science, physical science, society, and so forth. If teachers have a sense of what each of these standards-related documents convey, then they will, at the very least, begin on the road to appropriate science teaching, and, at best, refine their efforts beyond what they presently practice. By following the standards, teachers will embark on the path to selecting the necessary and appropriate science curriculum materials—activities and assessments that will have utility for all their students.


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