New Science-Standards Draft Includes Many Changes

January 08, 2013 8 min read
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A second and final public draft of common standards aimed at reshaping K-12 science education was released today for comment, following eight months of review and rewriting.

Organizers emphasized that the latest version reflects substantial changes from the draft issued last May, with a clear focus on taking to heart feedback gathered from more than 10,000 individuals and organizations.

“It’s pretty different from the last draft, significantly so,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, a vice president at the Washington nonprofit Achieve who is overseeing the development of the Next Generation Science Standards. “Ninety-five percent of performance expectations have been changed since May in some way. ... That’s the result of tons of really quality feedback.”

Peter McLaren, a member of the writing team and the president of the Council of State Science Supervisors, echoed that point.

“What you’re going to see, first and foremost, this draft really respects the professionalism of the educators and stakeholders who commented, because there are a lot of changes,” he said. “That’s what I’m saying to people in the field: Don’t think for one moment that when you spent time reviewing this, that it was all for naught.”

A three-week public-comment period opens today, with organizers saying a final set of standards will be ready in March. After that, it’s up to states to decide whether to adopt them. Twenty-six states are “lead state partners” in crafting the standards. Although they are not bound to adopt them, all have pledged to give “serious consideration” to doing so. And organizers say other states have also signaled an interest in signing on as well.

An eight-page summary document issued with the standards highlights the main strands of feedback since May and key changes, organizing critiques into 10 themes. They include concern that there was too much material covered, suggestions for inclusion of still more topics, a perceived lack of clarity in the performance expectations, and complaints about a lack of specificity in making connections to standards in other subjects.

On the issue of content coverage, the summary document indicates that this change was helped along by feedback solicited from university and community college faculty, along with “workforce-readiness experts,” to examine the standards in depth to ensure that all content included was both “necessary and sufficient for student success after high school in the 21st century.”

“Their feedback, together with that from the public draft review, led to a deletion of many performance expectations and a reduction of focus in many areas of science,” the document says. In addition, further reviews by cross-disciplinary teams of higher education faculty and from lead states “led to a further reduction in the content designated in the Disciplinary Core Ideas.”

For example, a high school standard for energy saw substantial rewriting of virtually all its performance expectations, and the total number was reduced from eight to seven. A separate high school standard on “nuclear processes” was eliminated, and instead, that topic was merged into a standard on “matter and its interactions.”

At the K-5 level, several performance expectations were shifted from one grade level to another based on feedback.

Engineering Concerns

The science-standards initiative brings together states with a variety of experts in science and education. Beyond the 26 states, other partners include the congressionally chartered National Research Council, which devised a framework to guide the standards, as well as the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Achieve, which also was involved in the common-core project in English/language arts and mathematics, is managing the development process.

“The second public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards released today is a significant step forward in developing exemplary new standards that all states can support,” said Karen L. Ostlund, the president of the NSTA, in a prepared statement. “We applaud the [standards] writing team and the 26 states for their extensive efforts to develop, review, and revise these standards. We are pleased that many changes have been made based on feedback and look forward to working with Achieve and the writers on additional changes to ensure the final standards meet the needs of science educators across the country.”

The standards target four disciplines: the physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and the applications of science. They are organized by grade level for K-5, but as grade-banded expectations for middle and high school.

Top priorities among 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 that span scientific disciplines. Another aim is for students to apply their learning through scientific inquiry and the engineering-design process to deepen their understanding.

Each standard in the draft is organized into a table for the given topic at each grade level or grade range. The table has three main sections, starting with performance expectations at the top. Below that are “foundation” boxes that expand on and explain those performance expectations in relation to three dimensions: science and engineering practices; disciplinary core ideas; and cross-cutting concept statements. And last are “connection” boxes that relate the core idea to other science standards, as well as to the common-core standards in English/language arts and math.

A 4th grade standard on energy features five performance expectations, such as “construct an argument using evidence about the relationship between the change in motion and the change in energy of an object,” and “formulate questions and predict outcomes about the change in energy that can occur between colliding objects and/or magnet interactions.”

A high school standard on Earth’s systems contains 12 performance expectations, including: “Construct an evidence-based argument about how a natural or human-caused change to one part of an Earth system can create feedback that causes changes in that system or systems.” Another calls on students to “apply scientific reasoning to show how empirical evidence from Earth observations and laboratory experiments have been used to develop the current model of Earth’s interior.”

Not surprisingly, given the push in the standards project to focus on fewer subjects in greater depth, the writers have gotten pushback from those concerned about a lack of sufficient attention to certain topics.

“Major themes [in the feedback] included requests for more ocean-science context to be used in examples, for computer-science concepts to be added, and for ‘nature of science’ concepts to be made more explicit,” the summary of feedback document says. In addition, many high school teachers expressed concern that certain content normally taught in courses was excluded, such as thermodynamics, solution chemistry, and nitrogen cycles.

On that point, the document explains that the standards specify “content and skills required of all students, and are not intended to cover the depth and breadth of content of upper-level science courses.” It adds that the standards seek to 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.”

At the same time, the document notes that the standards writers added “more context and examples demonstrating potential connections to ocean sciences and computer science.”

Another area of contention was how the first draft addressed engineering and technology. Most reviewers responded favorably to their inclusion, the summary document says, though some argued for more engineering content. Another concern expressed was that the first draft contained separate performance expectations for engineering. As a result, the new version integrates the engineering design “core ideas” into other disciplines.

“There was a concern from states that engineering would be easily left off because it was separate and devoid of how it actually intersects with science,” Mr. Pruitt said. “So in this draft, we have integrated engineering through all the traditional science disciplines.”

Mr. McLaren said that while he understands that some engineering advocates will want to see more, he believes the standards as drafted would represent an important step forward for the subject.

“We’re not [calling for] engineering courses, although we’re not excluding that,” he said. “But what this does is it provides an opportunity for [engineering] design to be brought into the classroom. You should see every standard has at least one engineering performance expectation associated with it. That’s never happened before.”

‘Huge’ Training Challenge

The new draft includes 11 appendices addressing various issues, though most were not available for review at press time. Topics covered include an examination of college and career readiness in science, a specific look at implementation strategies for student groups that have been “traditionally underserved in science classrooms,” and suggestions for course mapping of science learning at the middle and high school levels.

“Students are going to be required to provide evidence through performance expectations of understanding content. That, in and of itself, is the biggest innovation and shift,” Mr. Pruitt said of the new draft. “And it’s going to take some time. States are going to have to think about how they’re going to provide support to teachers.”

Mr. McLaren agreed, noting the standards will involve a “huge” professional-development challenge, but said the fact that they will be common across states will lessen the burden.

“There is going to be a lot of training involved in this, but the good news is with these standards, ... if you have a good model in one state, it can be applied to another state.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week


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