Science

Aligned Science Curriculum, Better Scores? Research Finds a Connection

By Sarah Schwartz — December 08, 2023 4 min read
Tele Phillips, left, and Saniyah Sims react as they cut into a bullfrog they are dissecting during a hands-on learning experience for students from the Malone Center on April 19, 2023, at the Lincoln Children's Zoo in Lincoln, Neb. The Science Focus Program Student Council arranged two days of a hands-on learning experience for elementary students from the Malone Center.
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Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the organization WestEd.

Using an elementary curriculum aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards improved students’ science learning, a new study finds.

The research, from the research-and-analysis nonprofit WestEd, examines the Amplify Science 1st grade curriculum—a commercially available program designed to teach to the new standards. The shared expectations, released in 2014, emphasize science practices and investigating scientific phenomena in addition to content knowledge.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have adopted the NGSS, and other states say they have drawn on the standards to develop their own. Still, analyses of the curriculum market have found that high-quality materials to meet this new teaching framework are still hard to find.

This study provides some of the first evidence that available products are helping elementary students achieve these new learning goals, said Christopher Harris, the senior director of science and engineering education research at WestEd and the lead author on the paper.

Harris led a similar study of Amplify’s middle school science curriculum last year, which found that the company’s program improved 7th grade science performance.

Amplify’s curriculum is “part of this new generation and new era of curriculum materials,” Harris said. “This study shows that it enhances early science learning—and benefits literacy development.”

Studying curriculum at scale

Researchers focused on 40 schools in three school districts in California, a state that has adopted the NGSS and approved a recommended list of matching texts. The full sample included 2,035 students. During the 2021-22 year, schools were randomly assigned to either use the Amplify Science program in 1st grade, or continue their instruction as usual.

In schools that used Amplify’s curriculum, students performed 0.24 of a standard deviation better on NGSS-aligned assessment questions—an impact on achievement that the researchers estimate is equivalent to the average student improving their percentile rank by 10 points.

When the study was conducted, there were no off-the-shelf, NGSS-aligned assessments for 1st graders, so researchers created their own, drawing on best practices for science assessment in upper elementary grades, Harris said. Students in the treatment condition also outperformed their peers in an assessment of science vocabulary.

When it comes down to it, the central question that we should all be asking ourselves about any curricula across any subject is, ‘Does it work?’

The Amplify classrooms did slightly better than the control classrooms on a pre-NGSS standardized science test, but the researchers characterized that difference as “negligible.” This test covered general science knowledge, but didn’t assess NGSS practices—such as interpreting data in tables, making predictions, or selecting tools for an investigation.

Amplify isn’t the only elementary science program to have been tested against NGSS standards. Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning, a curriculum designed by researchers at Michigan State University, has been found to raise 3rd graders’ scores on standardized science tests aligned to NGSS.

All of these studies were conducted within the past few years—researchers have just started to test whether new programs designed to teach NGSS standards are working. Large-scale, randomized controlled studies of curricula are rare in general, especially in science, which often receives less attention than subjects such as reading or math.

Matt Reed, the vice president of science for Amplify, said he’s glad that new science materials are starting to be subjected to 3rd party evaluations: “When it comes down to it, the central question that we should all be asking ourselves about any curricula across any subject is, ‘Does it work?’”

Possible connections between science and literacy development

The study also compared the two groups’ performance on a standardized 1st grade reading test. They found that scores on this reading test for the two groups were similar.

That’s a notable finding, said Okhee Lee, a professor of childhood education at New York University who studies science and language learning. Lee was not involved in the WestEd study.

Science advocates have long argued that the subject is given short shrift in elementary school, crowded out by the big blocks of time devoted to reading and math—subjects that are tested annually beginning in 3rd grade, while science is tested less frequently.

Using Amplify’s curriculum requires allocating more time to science than K-5 teachers report they usually spend on the subject in national surveys, the researchers wrote—a tricky proposition for schools under pressure to boost reading scores.

But spending more time on science didn’t dent reading comprehension, Lee said. “You didn’t lose,” she said.

The researchers don’t know for sure why reading scores held steady, but it could be that the science teaching supports literacy development, said Harris. “That you can add science into the mix and still stay on par with kids who are doing their regular English/language arts instruction throughout the year is really intriguing,” he said.

Amplify Science specifically integrates practice with literacy skills throughout the program, Reed said.

And the findings could be reassuring to educators who see spending more time on science as a “risk” to ELA scores, said Harris. Still, he added, schools must evaluate whether programs align with their state standards—and to think about what support elementary teachers, who often don’t come from a science background, may need to implement materials effectively.

“You can take a really good set of curriculum materials, and you can still stumble with them,” Harris said.

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