Middle School Science Materials Come Up Short in First Review

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 05, 2019 5 min read
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Just one of six new middle school science series is a good match to a set of national science standards, according to a review conducted by the nonprofit EdReports, which uses teams of teachers to vet learning materials.

Amplify’s Amplify Science was the sole curriculum to get top marks from the group. Reviewers also judged Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Science Dimensions to be partially aligned. But four other sets of learning materials did not meet expectations—and the publishers of those series are already claiming a faulty review process.

In all, the review indicates that agreement over what materials truly embody the Next Generation Science Standards continues to be contested nearly six years after the expectations were unveiled—and as teachers face growing pressure to alter their teaching and prepare students for the testing required under federal education law.

“The good news is the publishing community is really working hard to provide materials teachers can use,” said David Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, a membership organization for science educators. “The more challenging part for the community is that it’s really hard to do.”

Complex Standards

The NGSS were rolled out in 2013 and have since been adopted in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Even proponents acknowledge that the standards are complicated: Students must master science and engineering practices, such as analyzing and interpreting data. They’re expected to recognize themes that cut across biology, earth science, and physics, such as how energy and matter flow into and out of systems. And all of that is layered on top of science content, including weather patterns, natural selection, and ecosystems.

Publishers have struggled to figure out how to embody all those demands in their materials.

EdReports, which is funded by several major philanthropies, has become an influential quality-control watchdog. As it has in the past, the group relied on a team of teachers to judge each series for alignment to standards using an in-house tool. Four series failed to make it beyond the first set of criteria, on overall design, generally because of problems in three major areas.

One common issue was that the curricula didn’t consistently embody all three “dimensions” of the standards: the practices, the crosscutting themes, and the disciplinary content.

Another issue concerned how they presented phenomena. The standards indicate that scientific phenomena should undergird units, with each lesson helping students learn about the phenomena via the scientific practices and connecting knowledge using the crosscutting themes. (A phenomenon could be something like why, in dry weather, you get a shock when you shuffle rubber-soled shoes on a woolly carpet and touch a metal doorknob.) But some of the series used phenomena as illustrations within units, rather than as keystones.

Finally, the materials had problems with assessment: Their tests didn’t give teachers enough information to change their teaching, didn’t measure all three dimensions, or didn’t match lesson objectives.

In an interview, Carolina Biological Supply Co. officials agreed that their series’ presentation of the crosscutting themes wasn’t as explicit as it could be, and promised they’d change that in future versions.

Publisher Responses

David Heller, Carolina’s director of curriculum and product development, also felt that the findings reflect how interpretations of the standards have evolved in the K-12 science field. In the early days of NGSS, curriculum writers knew that phenomena were supposed to target students’ questioning and thinking, but “being so explicit about how [lessons] relate back wasn’t as much an understood point,” he said.

Discovery Education officials claim the review process suffered from serious flaws. Their main dispute concerns how EdReports gauged a section of the Techbook’s curriculum that gives teachers several choices of how to proceed. EdReports, they say, interpreted the whole section as optional, even though Discovery says it isn’t.

Overall, said Marty Creel, the publisher’s chief academic officer, the review doesn’t reflect the current version of the Techbook.

“The reality in classrooms today is that teachers are pulling from materials all over the place, so to take a snapshot that’s 10 months old we think is fundamentally unfair,” he said. “We’ve been making a lot of improvements since, and the version they are now reporting on is not one we have actively going into classrooms. So we’re kind of scratching our heads about why you’d put out a review on a version that basically no longer exists.”

EdReports officials said that they selected these series only after publishers assured them they wouldn’t change radically and that they did keep up to date with additions.

“It’s kind of a merry-go-round with some curricula that are digital and it’s hard to know when to jump on and off,” said Eric Hirsch, the group’s executive director. “But we would have called off a review if we noticed the merry-go-round was starting to go around too fast. We also know that these materials will change, and that’s why we stand ready to rereview.”

In separate statements, Teachers’ Curriculum Institute and HMH criticized the review as misguided and incomplete; HMH stated that the results reflected a “philosophical difference” with reviewers over how they interpreted the standards.

Findings in Context

The lackluster results could make marketing the products more difficult, challenging, and also potentially confusing for consumers, several publishers added. In the past, though, many publishers that have grumbled about EdReports’ reviews have altered them and resubmitted their products—sometimes earning better scores.

Educators have struggled to find resources to put the standards into action. Some districts, like Oakland, Calif., have written their own curriculum from scratch, but that’s an investment of time and personnel that many smaller districts can’t make. State reviews of learning materials offer insights, too, but typically cut few from their adoption lists: California approved all but five of the 34 science series it reviewed last fall.

The NSTA’s Evans views EdReports’ overall findings as part of a necessary, if uncomfortable transition. Publishers are no longer slapping stickers on old series and pretending they’re NGSS-aligned: all the companies’ new offerings made a good-faith effort to address the standards. But there are clearly more challenges on the horizon, he surmised.

“We should have curriculum materials in both elementary and high school that could meet the same kind of review standards. And that’s tough,” he said. “Elementary because we don’t spend a lot of time teaching science in elementary schools these days. And the challenge of developing ‘three-dimensional’ kinds of instruction in high school is really quite significant, because we separate out disciplines, and NGSS is by its nature integrated.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Middle School Science Series Fall Short in Review

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