Common Science Standards Deserve ‘C’ Grade, Think Tank Says

By Erik W. Robelen — June 13, 2013 9 min read
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Updated: (11:08 a.m.)

The existing science standards in 12 states and the District of Columbia are “clearly superior” to the Next Generation Science Standards developed by a coalition of states and national organizations, a think tank concludes in a new report.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute gives the standards a middling grade of C, and suggests states are better off looking elsewhere should they wish to overhaul their standards, such as to those in South Carolina or the District of Columbia.

Fordham’s reviewers say the common standards, released in final form in April, omit too much important science content knowledge, and that the heavy focus on science and engineering practices overshadows the learning of core content, among other objections.

“Throughout the [standards], content takes a back seat to practices, even though students need knowledge before they’ll ever demonstrate fluency or mastery of scientific practices,” says a foreword to the report written by Checker Finn and Kathleen Porter-Magee of Fordham.

“We found some good things in it,” Finn, a former education official in the Reagan administration, said more broadly of the standards during a conference call yesterday with reporters. “It is a C, not an F. We found some improvements over earlier drafts. ... But we also found some serious shortcomings.”

He said, “There’s just not enough beef in this bun.”

The Fordham analysis concludes that the standards in 16 states are “clearly inferior” to the Next Generation Science Standards, including Colorado, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. And for another 22 states, the relative quality was “too close to call,” the report said.

It remains to be seen what influence the think tank’s report will have on state adoption decisions. The think tank has been an outspoken supporter of the common-core standards in literacy and math. In April, for instance, Porter-Magee coauthored a commentary on National Review online (and also on the Fordham website), titled “Why Conservatives Should Support the Common Core.”

(By the way, Education Week is hosting a webinar today at 2 p.m. on the Next Generation Science Standards, with a focus on the implementation challenges ahead in states that adopt them. You can register here.

Three States Already Adopted

Already, three states—Kansas, Kentucky, and Rhode Island—have adopted the new standards. The critique may prove of greatest interest to states beyond the 26 that were lead state partners in crafting the standards.

The report, issued today, suggests that Kansas took a step backward in embracing the standards, since its own prior ones received a ‘B’ from Fordham in 2012. Rhode Island and Kentucky, meanwhile, both got ‘D’ grades from Fordham. (Fordham periodically reviews and grades state science standards.)

Asked specifically about Kansas’ decision this week to adopt the common standards, Finn voiced skepticism of the action.

“I hope [the] state board of education knows what it’s doing,” he said, arguing that the standards Kansas is “ushering out the door are superior.”

But Matt Krehbiel, a science education consultant for the Kansas department of education, criticized the Fordham report as using a flawed approach to evaluate the standards, and said the new standards are worthy of embrace for Kansas. He noted that a 60-member team of Kansas experts in science and science education carefully reviewed the standards upon completion and recommended them for adoption. (This same team also provided extensive input into the development of the standards.)

“Respectfully, our committee and expertise disagrees [with Fordham],” he said. “We’ve carefully evaluated these standards, brought together a wide stakeholder group with diverse experiences to evaluate them, and very much stand behind the move in Kansas [to adopt].”

Krehbiel said the standards strike an appropriate balance between science content knowledge and practices, and feature the critical science concepts students need.

“The Kansas group, as they reviewed these standards, focused in on the most essential core ideas that students need to know to prepare them for college and careers and citizenry,” he said, noting that the state team included 11 representatives from postsecondary education who provided a careful look to ensure the standards would adequately prepare young people to succeed in college-level science.

The National Research Council panel that created the framework to guide the standards, recently issued a “fidelity check” that concluded that the new standards are in keeping with that document’s vision for science education. (Fordham separately graded the framework document, giving it a B+.)

Meanwhile, more than 40 U.S. companies signed onto a letter of support for the standards, including IBM, Merck, Microsoft Corporation, and Bayer Corporation.

“We are confident that the Next Generation Science Standards will provide an important foundation to help restore America as the world’s leader in the production of mathematics and science talent,” the letter says.

Fordham is the only organization that currently grades state science standards. Its 2012 report gave about half of states a ‘D’ or ‘F.’. The reviews are based on two broad categories: content and rigor, and clarity and specificity, with scores converted to letter grades.

The Next Generation Science Standards, more than three years in the making, went through two rounds of public comment before they were issued in final form in April. Key tenets of the standards include providing a greater emphasis on depth over breadth in science education and asking students to apply their learning through the practices of scientific inquiry and engineering design.

For those who have been paying close attention, the new Fordham report should not be a big surprise. The think tank began raising concerns about the direction the standards were heading well before they were completed. It submitted detailed comments on both the first and second draft of the standards. In February, it concluded that big problems “abound” in the second and final public draft. And when the final version came out, Finn told me his early look suggested the final version did not change his mind.

To review the final standards, Fordham relied on a team of seven experts in science and engineering, led by Paul Gross, a professor emeritus of life sciences at the University of Virginia and the former director and president of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. You can find information about all seven reviewers in the report, but they include Ursula Goodenough, a professor of biology at Washington State University, and physicist Lawrence Lerner, a professor emeritus in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. (Two math experts will offer further analysis this summer of how the standards address math learning and connect with the common-core math standards.)

‘Vaguely Worded’ Expectations

With regard to content concerns, here are two examples of the critique the report provides:

• In physical science, the coverage of content is “mediocre” in the elementary grades and steadily gets worse in middle and high school, the report contends. “The physical science standards fail to lay the foundation for advanced study in high school and beyond, and there is so little advanced content that it would be impossible to derive a high school physics course or chemistry course from the content included in the NGSS.

• “High school chemistry is largely absent from the NGSS,” the report says. “What little content is included is too often found in vaguely worded performance expectations that assume mastery of knowledge not previously introduced. The standards are further weakened by limitations found in the Clarification Statements and Assessment Boundaries, which place arbitrary caps on the knowledge and skills that will be assessed each year.”

An appendix to the standards document, responding to feedback throughout their development, offers a response to questions about coverage of science content at the high school level.

“In contrast to many current state standards, the NGSS specify content and skills required of all students, and are not intended to replace high school course standards,” it says. “The NGSS are meant to specify the knowledge and skills that will provide a thorough foundation for student success in any chosen field, and can be supplemented with further in-depth study in particular upper-level science courses.”

Porter-Magee made clear in a conference call with reporters that Fordham is not opposed to incorporating science and engineering practices into the standards, but she said the standards simply went overboard, diluting the critical need for students to build science content knowledge.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t feel the NGSS achieved the right balance,” she said. “To do this well, you have to very clearly delineate the content, so you’re using the practices to analyze and think about the knowledge. ... The NGSS too often glossed over or omitted entirely the knowledge students need to make the standards feasible and worthwhile.”

But Carl Wieman, a professor of physics at the University of British Columbia, rejects the notion in the Fordham analysis that practices crowd out content.

“In its repeated criticism that the NGSS are abandoning knowledge in the pursuit of practice, the Fordham reviewers are holding up a false dichotomy, suggesting there is competition between knowledge and practice in the standards,” said Wieman in an emailed statement. “In fact, in its emphasis on the integration of practice and content, the NGSS is calling for knowledge to be learned deeply and usefully, the way scientists learn and use that knowledge.”

Mr. Wieman, an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics 2001, served on the team that reviewed the final National Research Council framework, a document that guided the development of the Next Generation Science Standards.

He said, “The Fordham analysis fails to recognize that the NGSS [performance expectations] can only be satisfied with deep and substantial content knowledge, a much deeper knowledge ... than science education research is showing most students are now achieving even after completing university courses in chemistry and physics.”

Fordham Offers Some Praise

The Fordham report does seem to strike a conciliatory tone at times.

It says of those who developed the standards: “We respect them, we knowledge their hard work, and honor their intentions,” it says.

And it offers some praise, including for the decision to integrate engineering practices into the major scientific domains.

“We also recognize that the drafters faced tough choices in pursuit of their goal of K-12 science standards that are ‘fewer, clearer, and higher,’” it says. “The failure to make such choices can lead to ‘kitchen sink’ standards that then prove essentially impossible to implement.”

Indeed, while the report laments some of the science content left out, it suggests some standards are just about right.

The document includes “many standards that clearly delineate what students need to know and be able to do, including the integration in some cases of altogether worthwhile ‘practices,’” pointing, for example, to a high school standard for earth and space science about the Big Bang Theory.

But, the review says, such examples are “more the exception than the rule when it comes to clarity and specificity. Overall, the standards are difficult to navigate and overwhelmed by vague performance expectations, all of which include practices, even when their inclusion confuses rather than clarifies.”

(An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly reported the number of states with standards that Fordham deemed “clearly superior” to the Next Generation Science Standards.)

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