Next Generation Science Standards: Repairs needed

In July 2011, the National Research Council released its Framework for K-12 Science Education, intended to serve as the basis for a new set of “next generation” science standards (NGSS) for primary-secondary-school science in the United States. Since then, twenty-six states came together, working with Achieve and a vast team of writers, to develop those new standards. They hope to do for science what the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association did for English language arts and math: develop expectations that are at least as clear and rigorous as the best state standards and that many states may adopt in common, presumably then to be joined by common assessments. Unfortunately, a careful review of version 1.0 indicates that this laudable but ambitious goal remains a considerable distance away.

There's still work to be done on the NGSS.
Photo by Andrew Magill.

It’s important for the country that the NGSS endeavor yields a high-quality result, which is why we set out to scrutinize the first draft. (It was released for public comment in May. A revised draft is expected late this year with the final standards due in 2013.) We assume that, like the Common Core State Standards initiative that preceded it, many changes will be made on the basis of constructive feedback and recommendations.

We at Fordham have a long history of evaluating state, national, and international standards in science and other core subjects. Indeed, we’ve reviewed state science standards three times: in 1998, in 2005, and again during the past year. While a few states have done a good job, most have not. In our most recent science review, twenty-six of them earned D or F grades. Just seven were in the A range.

If U.S. students boasted strong science achievement, the quality of a state’s standards might not matter so much. Unfortunately, as the latest NAEP results show yet again, young Americans know very little about this vital subject. Fewer than one third of eighth graders met NAEP’s “proficient” standard. And even the most casual look at TIMSS or PISA results confirms that they lag far behind the world’s leading nations.

That is why it is so important that Achieve and its partners get the NGSS right. These standards will function in a number of places as the foundation upon which the rest of the science-education system is built. And getting them right can point curriculum writers, assessment developers, teachers, and administrators in sound directions and set our nation on a path towards improved science achievement.

To that end, the clearest and most rigorous of today’s state, national, or international science standards could provide worthy guides and models for the NGSS drafters. And so, of course, might the NRC’s Framework.

Particularly because of the intended link between that framework and the NGSS drafting process, we asked one of the nation’s most respected scientists, biologist Paul R. Gross, to evaluate it with an eye toward how strong a foundation it would provide the NGSS authors. In his analysis, Dr. Gross found much to praise (and Fordham awarded the Framework a solid B+). But he also noted that

if the statue within this sizable block of marble were more deftly hewn, an A grade would be within reach—and may yet be for the standards writers, so long as their chisels are sharp and their arms strong.

Why strong arms and a sharp chisel? Because along with much solid science, Dr. Gross found within the NRC Framework some worrisome tendencies that could easily mislead standards-writers and yield an unsatisfactory product.

Paul Gross also led the Fordham team that just finished reviewing the first draft of the NGSS. And it appears, regrettably, that its drafters ignored the potential pitfalls that he had flagged.

Consequently, they stumbled into three big ones:

  • They went overboard on “scientific practices,” seemingly determined to include some version of such practices or processes in every standard, whether sensible (and actionable, teachable, assessable) or not. This led to distorted or unclear expectations for teachers and students and, often, to neglect of crucial scientific content.
  • At the same time, paradoxically, the drafters left too much to curriculum developers by omitting (or leaving implicit) much crucial science content. This happens because much content is over-summarized; many standards lack the detail that is indispensable for their use in curriculum planning; and essential prior content sometimes vanishes. It may be assumed but nowhere is it explicitly stated.
  • The alignment between the NGSS draft and the Common Core math standards is weak. There are only infrequent and vague references to important mathematics content that is often necessary to support rigorous science standards, especially in physical science in the upper grades. At the same time, however, the NGSS sometimes reference or expect the use of math content or procedures earlier in the grade sequence than the Common Core provides. That means, for states that adopt both the CCSS math standards and the NGSS, students may be unprepared for the math that their science lessons require—even as, in other places, they may possess mathematical prowess that the science standards fail to exploit for the benefit of more sophisticated and complete scientific knowledge.
The NGSS authors have much work still to do to ensure that the final draft is a true leap forward in science education.

In short: Our reviewers judge that the NGSS authors have much work still to do to ensure that the final draft is a true leap forward in science education. Fortunately, they have ample time to make the necessary changes.

To that end, our reviewers offer four recommendations:

  • Eliminate scientific “practices” statements where they are empty, distracting, or not readily assessable.
  • Bring into the revision process a few independent scientists, not previously involved with the drafting, to check every standard in their disciplines for errors and ambiguities (including assessment challenges) and to recommend corrections for any that they find.
  • For the indispensable parts of natural science that require the use of mathematics, get one or more advisors who are well-versed in both the science and its component mathematics, and who also know the CCSS-M, to revise the relevant standards.
  • Make sure that the next version includes a single, clear, fully searchable document that can be read and used by school-district specialists and classroom teachers. The complex “web module” and multiple documents of the first draft may be useful to some but will prove difficult to apply in the final stages of curriculum design and classroom instruction at the district and school levels.

To repeat: It’s important for America’s and our children’s futures that this come out well. NGSS1.0 got the process started. But NGSS2.0 need to be a lot better.

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