Draft of Common Science Standards Draws Friendly Fire

By Erik W. Robelen — June 28, 2012 6 min read
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The first public draft of common science standards is encountering some criticism from a prominent teachers’ organization and a Washington-based think tank, with the former complaining of a “lack of clarity and coherence” in the performance expectations, and the latter saying the draft serves up an overdose on scientific “practices” while omitting some key content knowledge that it argues needs to be explicitly included.

In both instances, the feedback is essentially a “critical friend” approach, as the National Science Teachers Association is a partner involved in the development of the standards (and as such, has been privy to earlier, private drafts), and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a strong advocate for producing common science standards.

“The quest for fewer standards has led to overcompression, overgeneralization, and omission,” write Fordham’s set of seven expert reviewers, led by Paul Gross, a professor emeritus of life sciences at the University of Virginia. “Much necessary ‘prior knowledge’ to attain some standards is never supplied. Such omission is in some ways disingenuous, as it will require curriculum developers and teachers to fill in many gaps, expanding thereby the number of explicit standards and their breadth.”

In the introduction to its formal comments, the NSTA said it is pleased to see improvements in the current draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) from earlier iterations it had seen. “However, we continue to have serious and extensive concerns about the current content and architecture of the NGSS,” the group writes in feedback submitted this month.

In May, the first public draft of the common standards was released for public comment. Twenty-six states, from California to Maine and from South Dakota to Georgia, are “lead state partners” in the effort and have been working on the draft in collaboration with a range of educators and experts. The standards are guided by a framework developed by the congressionally chartered National Research Council. For more background, check out this recent story.

Top priorities for the standards-writers include: promoting depth over breadth in science education, ensuring greater coherence in learning across grade levels, and helping students understand the cross-cutting nature of crucial concepts, such as energy and matter, that span scientific disciplines. Another goal is to ensure that students apply their learning through scientific inquiry and the engineering-design process to deepen their understanding.

The deadline for submitting comments on the first round was June 1. Although I’m sure lots of organizations have provided comments on the standards, both the NSTA and Fordham this week shared theirs with me. (I also blogged recently about some concerns raised by advocates for computer-science education.)

In a foreword to Fordham’s comments, the think tank’s president, Checker Finn (a former education official in the Reagan administration) and his colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee make clear the importance of getting the common standards “right.”

“These standards will function in a number of places as the foundation upon which the rest of the science education system is built,” they say. “And getting them right can point curriculum writers, assessment developers, teachers, and administrators in the right direction and set our nation on a path towards improved science achievement.”

Fordham has been a longtime critic of the quality of most state science standards. It recently graded them for the third time, finding about half of states earning a grade of D or F for their standards, while only a handful earned a grade of A or A-minus.

Fordham’s critique of the first public draft of the common standards boils down to a few main points, as Finn and Porter-Magee explain: an over-reliance on “scientific practices"; the neglect of some key scientific content; and inadequate alignment with the Common Core State Standards in mathematics.

On the first issue, they note of the science standards:

“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,” they write. “This led to distorted or unclear expectations for teachers and students and, often, to neglect of crucial scientific content.”

Fordham describes the linkage to the math standards as “weak.”

“There are only infrequent and vague references to important mathematics content, which weaken some of the science standards (particularly in physical science in the upper grades) by omitting, for example, valuable lessons that require use of the relatively sophisticated math that the common core incorporates,” the review says.

Fordham relied on a team of seven scientists and science experts to do the heavy lifting in analyzing the standards and providing detailed feedback.

In closing remarks, those reviewers note: “Our purpose ... is not to pose problems (although we have done so unavoidably). It is to help the NGSS process yield a final product worthy of widespread adoption.”

They add: “The science basics in the underlying NRC framework were sound, as is a good deal of the science evident in this first draft of NGSS. Careful revision ... can yield a quality product, at least as good as the far-too-few outstanding versions that individual states have produced on their own.”

For its part, the NSTA said its “most serious and profound concern” with the draft standards is what it calls the “explicit omission” of a section dealing with “connections to the nature and history of science.” The group notes that a similar section is included in the draft for Connections to Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science.

Furthermore, the group contends that the draft standards fail to adequately distinguish between “what students are to know and be able to do, and how they should be taught those things.”

The NSTA also finds a lack of clarity and coherence in the standards’ performance expectations. The organization suggests that the front section of the standards should feature an overarching essay that explains the architecture of the standards, including the relationship between individual performance expectations in a set and how each performance expectation relates to the practices, core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts laid out in supporting foundation boxes alongside the performance expectations.

Other NSTA recommendations include:

• Every core idea should have at least two performance expectations that probe it, with explicit connections between the expectations and core ideas.

• The appropriate grade level for students to learn a particular science concept in the standards should not differ from recommendations in the National Science Education Standards and Benchmarks for Science Literacy unless there is published research that provides evidence in favor of the move.

• Any assumptions about the resources, time, and teacher expertise needed for students to achieve particular standards should be made explicit.

• The survey mechanism used for the next public draft should be more user-friendly, and the timing of release should be sensitive to the schedules of all educators.

Stepping back, the NSTA makes clear in its introduction that it remains committed to this process, and to the value of the common science standards.

“NSTA fully supports the development of Next Generation Science Standards,” the group writes. “These new standards have the ability to help science educators better connect the science that children will be learning across the K-12 grade spans and give all students the opportunity to learn and understand core ideas in science and engineering and key science practices.”

But the NSTA signals a growing concern that some of its issues may not be addressed.

“As we inch closer to a final draft of the standards, the NSTA leadership is concerned that some of the issues we have raised have yet to be addressed and strongly recommends that these issues be addressed now so that they are reflected in the next draft.”

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