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September 09, 2009
October 09, 2009
While nobody should be satisfied with America's overall performance in science education, it's possible to make it even worse.
Photo by Atli Harðarson
(Updated February 7, 2013 for the Education Gadfly Weekly)
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:
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.