Science Standards 2.0

The public-comment period ended last week on draft 2.0 of the forthcoming “Next Generation Science Standards,” under development by Achieve, umpteen other organizations, and some two dozen states and promised for release in final form next month. Once released, states will be invited to consider adopting them, much like the Common Core for English and math.

Now ‘til March is not much time to repair this important, ambitious, but still seriously troubled document. The drafters might be wise to take more.

We at the Fordham Institute have a long history of reviewing state science standards, and last week, we submitted our review, feedback, and comments on NGSS 2.0. A team of nine eminent scientists, mathematicians, and educators, prepared our analysis. You can find the full review here, including team members’ bios on page 8. (We previously reviewed Draft 1.0, and Dr. Paul R. Gross, the distinguished biologist who heads the team, also reviewed the National Research Council “framework” on which NGSS is based.)

If states are going to make rational decisions to replace their own science standards with NGSS, it’s only right to insist that NGSS be stronger—clearer, with better content, more rigorous, and more easily applied by teachers—than the standards that states have come up with on their own.

Fortunately for the NGSS team, that’s a low bar. In our most recent review of state science standards, published just a year ago, the Fordham team determined that the clarity, content, and rigor of most state K–12 science standards were mediocre to awful. The review assigned grades of C or worse to three quarters of the states. (Ten flunked altogether.)

Still and all, science education in America is no wasteland. Our reviewers also awarded “honors” grades (B or better) to a quarter of the states for their K–12 science standards. Tens of thousands of our ablest high school students every year earn high marks on Advanced Placement exams in physics, chemistry, and biology. On the 2011 TIMSS science assessment, among fifty-six jurisdictions participating at the eighth-grade level, just twelve produced stronger results than the United States. Remarkably, three of those were U.S. states! (Massachusetts surpassed Taiwan, Minnesota rivaled Finland, and North Carolina was strong, too.) And, of course, at the post-secondary level, the U.S. continues to house many of the world’s premier institutions of scientific research, and their scholars continue to win an impressive share of Nobel prizes and other key awards in scientific fields.

So while nobody should be satisfied with America’s overall performance in science education, it’s also important to keep in mind that, when one sets out to overhaul that system, it’s possible to make it even worse—particularly if, in our effort to raise standards for all students, we wind up lowering them for our best and brightest.

NGSS 2.0 falls into that trap. But that’s not all that’s wrong with it. If the drafters really want their final product to deserve widespread adoption, they still need to solve eight critical problems:

  • In an effort to draft “fewer and clearer” standards to guide curriculum and instruction, NGSS 2.0 (like NGSS 1.0) omits quite a lot of essential content. Among the most egregious omissions are most of chemistry; thermodynamics; electrical circuits; physiology; minerals and rocks; the layered Earth; the essentials of biological chemistry and biochemical genetics; and at least the descriptive elements of developmental biology.
  • As in version 1.0, some content that is never explicitly stated for the earlier grades seems to be taken for granted in the standards for later grades—where it won’t likely be found in students’ heads if the early-grade teachers aren’t prompted by the standards to teach it.
  • Real science invariably blends content knowledge with core ideas, “crosscutting” concepts, and various practices, activities, or applications. Well and good. But NGSS 2.0 imposes so rigid a format on its standards that the recommended “practices” dominate them. The authors have forced practices on every expectation, even when they confuse more than clarify. For example, high school students are asked to “critically read scientific literature and produce scientific writing and/or oral presentations that communicate how DNA sequences determine the structure and function of proteins, which carry out most of the work of the cell.” Here as elsewhere, the understanding of critical content—which should be the ultimate goal of science education—becomes secondary to arbitrary and peripheral activities such as “critical reading” and “oral presentation.”
  • Although the drafters made a commendable effort to integrate “engineering practices” into the science rather than treat engineering as a separate discipline, their insistence on finding such practices in connection with so many standards sometimes leads to inappropriate or banal exercises—and blurs the real meaning of “engineering.”
  • The effort to insist on “assessment boundaries”—which narrow the focus of a standard by setting a ceiling on the content that can be assessed—in connection with every standard often leads to a “dumbing down” of what might actually be learned about a topic, seemingly in the interest of “one-size-fits-all” science that won’t be too challenging for students. Given that what gets tested is generally what gets taught, this will invariably limit how far and how deep advanced students (and their teachers) might go. (The vague assertion that the problem can be dealt with via “advanced” high school courses helps almost not at all.)
  • A number of key scientific terms (e.g., “model” and “design”) are ill defined and/or inconsistently used.
  • Even as the amplitude of new appendices attached to NGSS 2.0 adds welcome explanation of what is and isn’t present and why, it also produces a structure that most users, especially classroom instructors, will find complex and unwieldy. Will a fifth-grade teacher actually make her way to Appendix K to obtain additional (and valuable) information about science-math alignment and some pedagogically useful examples? Will the final version of NGSS omit some of the intervening appendices that have more to do with the philosophical, political, and epistemological leanings of project leaders than with anything of immediate value to real schools?
  • Although the “alignment” of NGSS math with Common Core math is improved, the drafters seem to have consciously limited the amount of math-dependent science that students need to learn. This weakens the science and leads, once again, to a worrisome dumbing down, particularly in high school physics—which, as the reviewers remind us, “is inherently mathematical.” It must also be noted that Appendix K, valuable as it is in making the science-math alignment clear for grades K–5, is essentially AWOL from the middle and high school grades, where it is most needed.

Hope springs eternal. The NGSS team made some worthy improvements between drafts one and two (though they ignored most of our advice), and they have an opportunity—a final opportunity, it appears—to make further repairs.

We surely hope that they do so. While we did not review NGSS 2.0 with an eye toward grading it, we intend to evaluate the final version much as we did state standards—and provide states with a side-by-side that they may use in connection with adoption decisions. We sincerely hope that NGSS 3.0 fares well in such a comparison—but to get to that point, some major modifications will need to be made. And we urge the drafters to take as much time as necessary to accomplish that, for the present draft is problematic in more ways than it is strong.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee

This blog entry first appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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