California Approved Nearly 30 Science Textbooks. But Are They Truly Aligned to Standards?

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 09, 2018 5 min read
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California has selected nearly 30 textbooks purportedly aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, a move that will likely affect the science curriculum marketplace, but leaves lingering questions about alignment and quality in a time when educators are struggling to put the complicated standards into action.

Nearly all of the major publishers put forth a series for California’s adoption—even Pearson, which plans to exit the curriculum market—as well as small, homegrown publishers, and others that can trace their origins back to National Science Foundation funding back in the 1990s.

The Golden State’s board of education gave 29 out of 34 submitted materials the green light at its meeting Thursday. Falling short were three series by TPS Publishing, one by the Carolina Biological Supply Company, and one by Knowing Science.

“The state board is committed to supporting our teachers with quality instructional materials that have been subjected to a rigorous vetting process,” said board Vice President Ilene Straus in a statement. “We are pleased with the list adopted today and look forward to seeing how these materials help our teachers.”

The standards, released in 2013 and largely modeled on a 2012 NSF framework, have been adopted by 19 states and the District of Columbia. They put a much heavier emphasis on “doing” science, via the process of generating hypotheses and collecting data, than on simply memorizing concepts like electromagnetism and weather patterns.

California is also one of the first states to adopt materials purportedly aligned to the NGSS. Nationally, the state’s textbook-adoption process has long been the tail wagging the curriculum dog, and while its process is less influential than it was a few decades ago, publishers tend to aim their materials to the state’s frameworks and then tweak them for other states.

Oregon appears to be the only other state that has completed an adoption of NGSS-related materials, while Louisiana’s reviews are ongoing; so far, it has only given one series top marks. (If I’m missing a state, please holler.) Florida, though not an NGSS state, adopted versions of some of the same texts as California back in August.

Vetting NGSS Science Textbooks

California materials go through a three-tiered review, by panels of outside reviewers, then by the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, and finally for approval by the state board of education. Recommendations typically don’t change drastically from level to level. This year the IQC and state board made no changes from the review panels’ recommendations.

Curriculum alignment can be a tricky, subjective thing to gauge, especially on standards as complex as the NGSS. California’s decision does provide some insights, most tellingly in its critiques of the five rejected book series.

For example, a 4th grade lesson in one of them, “Wiggly Worm,” was dinged for not using “authentic and meaningful” real-world scenarios: “The lesson presented is not authentic nor real world as worms do not use a life jacket or use boats,” state reviewers wrote.

In another, the texts didn’t give students enough chances to generate and analyze scientific data: “Students are neither given empirical evidence, nor are they given opportunity to obtain empirical evidence in the form of graphs, data, charts, etc., on which to base their argument.”

Here’s another example, in which a series was dinged for not modeling a phenomenon: “While this segment does have students model the phases of the moon, per the science practice, it does not have them make sense of the seasons through modeling, but rather provides the explanation that the Earth has an axis and then has students show how that creates the seasons.”

Nevertheless, the books California did adopt seemed to suffer from some problems. A simple search through the recommendations turned up about 80 factual errors that the state asked publishers to correct.

By giving most series a thumbs-up, California has also given districts a lot of choices in materials. That offers flexibility on the one hand, but also raises questions about which ones really get the job done.

Taking the Next Step

In general, one problem with state reviews is that they often are limited to a correlational analysis of pieces of the materials to each standard, said Matt Krehbiel, the director for science at Achieve, a nonprofit that helped states craft the NGSS and now offers tools to districts to judge alignment. (Krehbiel did not participate in the Calfornia process and hasn’t extensively perused its reviews.)

“But the big, important part of these standards is that students are making sense of phenomena and driving solutions to problems,” he said. “You could technically have a correlation to all the bits of the standards but not do that—and it’s a pretty big lift to take materials that aren’t doing that and make it happen on your own.”

Be sure to check out our special report, STEM Education: Opening Gateways to Learning and Careers

The bottom line, Krehbiel said, is that there’s no substitute for cracking the books on your own.

“Oftentimes, it’s tempting to use another person’s evaluation as a proxy for digging into materials, but I think it’s really important to make sure they’re doing what you need them to do,” he said. “If it doesn’t give you the information you need, taking a set of materials someone else says is good is probably not your best choice.”

California county offices of education are participating in a project to train districts to conduct their own aligment reviews which picks up steam later this year, so that should help some districts make some finer-grained distinctions among the approved materials.

But time is a factor, too, observers said.

“My sense is that people have been waiting a really long time,” said Sam Shaw, the science director for EdReports, an independent reviewer of curriculum. “California was one of the first to adopt the standards, and people are going to start making decisions for the 2019-2020 school year.”

Here are a few other NGSS curriculum efforts worth watching. EdReports hopes to unveil its first science reviews in early 2019. And recently, OpenSciEd—another nonprofit, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and some other philanthropies—tapped Jim Ryan, the former STEM director in the San Francisco district, to lead its effort to create an open-source NGSS curriculum beginning in middle school. And there are some homegrown efforts to develop materials too, from this story lines project to this collaborative to design assessments.

Photo: Devlin Griffin, Kollin Coleman, and Ledger Hardy test a nest they engineered with aluminum foil to see if it will support the weight of a raw egg. Such lessons illustrate basic concepts in physics, biology, genetics, and ecology in a science lab at Hutchens Elementary School in Mobile, Ala. —Meggan Haller/Keyhole Photo for Education Week-Filr

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.