States Soon to Weigh Science-Standards Adoption

January 29, 2013 9 min read
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With common standards in science set to be finalized in March, states will soon face the dilemma of embracing them as their own or going their own way, raising the question of how common the Next Generation Science Standards will ultimately prove to be.

The 26 “lead state partners” helping to develop the K-12 standards have agreed to “give serious consideration” to adopting them. Recent interviews with officials in a number of those states, such as California, Delaware, Kansas, and Maryland, reveal a generally positive reaction to the second and final public draft, issued this month for comment.

Meanwhile, some other states that are not lead partners are closely tracking the process and even have assembled broad-based teams to provide feedback along the way. Officials in both Florida and Louisiana, for instance, say their states will seriously consider adoption.

In the end, the science document may not reach the level of buy-in of the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts and mathematics, which have been adopted by all but a handful of states. But some observers predict the number of states on board for common science standards could reach the mid-30s or higher.

Adoption could be complicated in certain places, however, because of how the standards address evolution and climate change, issues that are political flashpoints.

California may well be an early adopter of the standards, which promote depth over breadth in science instruction and call on students to apply their learning through scientific inquiry and the engineering-design process to deepen understanding.

“Both the [state] department and board so far have been enthusiastic about the concepts and the general direction of the drafts that we have seen,” said Michael W. Kirst, the president of the California board of education. “It’s on our list of activities for 2013 to consider adoption of them as soon as possible, probably this fall.”

He added: “This is not going to go through without some controversy and opposing points of view. But all signs are that they will be adopted.”

Florida has been keeping close tabs on the process, too, and providing feedback to the writers, even though it’s not a lead state.

“Absolutely, we are paying attention,” said Mary Jane Tappen, a deputy chancellor for the Florida education department. “Our state board members have asked me at every board meeting, ‘How are we doing? How do the standards look?' "

In Whole or Part?

The timeline for adoption in some cases will likely be slower than for the common core. One reason is that states that moved fast enough in backing the common core in 2010 stood a better chance of winning a federal Race to the Top grant. No such incentive exists for science.

“There is no carrot of Race to the Top,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, a vice president of the nonprofit group Achieve who is overseeing the standards-development process. “I think what you’re going to see is a slower adoption because states are going to adopt using their normal protocols.”

Coast to Coast

The 26 “lead state partners” in developing the Next Generation Science Standards have agreed to consider adopting them.


SOURCE: Achieve

Minnesota, for example, a lead state, cannot update its science standards again until the 2017-18 school year, under state law.

One unknown is whether states will adopt the standards wholesale, or whether some may amend them first. The website for the standards indicates that lead states have agreed to seriously consider adopting them “as presented.”

With the common core, to be considered as having adopted the standards, a state was expected to approve them in their entirety, though it could add up to 15 percent more content.

Ms. Tappen said she can’t say for sure what Florida’s board will decide, but her hope is that if it backs them, the board does so without change, as the state did with the common core.

“What I hope we don’t do, and others states don’t do, is start wordsmithing them, because then we no longer have common standards from state to state,” she said.

Organizers emphasize that the latest version of the standards reflects substantial change from the first public draft issued last May, incorporating feedback gathered from more than 10,000 individuals and organizations. Nearly all the performance expectations, for instance, have changed, and some have been eliminated.

The science-standards initiative brings together states with many experts in science and education. Beyond the 26 states, partners include the congressionally chartered National Research Council, which produced 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, is managing the development process.

Major funding for the enterprise comes from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Other funders include the Noyce Foundation. (Both organizations support Education Week‘s news coverage.)

The standards target four disciplines: the physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and the applications of science. Top priorities include: promoting depth over breadth, ensuring greater coherence in learning across grade levels, and helping students understand the cross-cutting nature of crucial concepts that span scientific disciplines.

State Teams

Officials in a number of states say they have been pleased with the standards-development process and see much evidence in the latest draft that their comments matter.

“A lot of the changes … align with the feedback that the Kansas feedback group submitted,” said Matt D. Krehbiel, a science education consultant for that state’s education agency. “We have 60 people on our team,” he added, including K-12 educators, university professors in science and science education, business and industry representatives, and even the chairman of the state board of education (who retired from the board effective this month).

“We’ve tried to cast a pretty broad net,” Mr. Krehbiel said.

Other lead states also have assembled similarly diverse teams to provide feedback and build a broad base of support when it comes time to consider adoption.

Mr. Krehbiel said he regularly updates the state board and predicts a vote on the standards this year. “I’ve been on the agenda every month for the past 18 months, since we became a lead state, to keep them informed,” he said.

“They’re listening to what we have to say,” said Tonyea T. Mead, a science education associate for Delaware’s education department.

“These standards are truly state led,” said Mary M. Thurlow, the science coordinator for the Maryland education department. “The lead states had a tremendous amount of input into the feedback and how it should be incorporated into this [latest] draft. And it’s there.”

One example several officials cited was a switch to incorporate engineering practices into the standards across all science disciplines, rather than simply including those in a separate section on engineering and technology.

Some states not among the 26 lead ones have been paying close attention and sharing feedback.

“We definitely feel involved and invested,” said Sarah R. Young, a science education specialist at the Utah state office of education.

But because of the burdens of the common core, she said, the state has no plans to take up science standards for a couple years. And she’s not sure where the state will land.

“This is going to be a national resource no matter what position Utah takes,” she said.

Wisconsin schools Superintendent Tony Evers appointed a “science leadership team” last year to review drafts of the standards, and the state hosted 22 “listening and preview sessions” across the state, said spokesman Patrick Gasper.

“Louisiana is very much involved in the process and interested in possible adoption,” said Barry Landry, a spokesman for that state’s education agency. “Initial review of the framework for the [standards] has already revealed they represent needed improvements and updates over current Louisiana science grade-level expectations.”

Colorado, which updated its science standards in 2009, is taking a “wait and see” approach, said Melissa L. Colsman, the executive director of teaching and learning at the Colorado education department. The state is not slated to revise them again until 2018. It plans to closely examine the common standards and monitor implementation for lessons, she said.

Evolution, Climate Change

At least a few states are decidedly unenthusiastic about common science standards.

Texas, which did not adopt the common core, has no plans to do so with the science standards, said a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman. South Carolina lawmakers last year passed a budget measure that prohibits the use of state funds to “participate in, implement, adopt, or promote” the science standards.

Oklahoma is pursuing its own course in science, but will keep the common standards in mind.

“We are currently beginning the development of our own Oklahoma science standards,” said Tricia Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the state agency. “We will be looking at the Next Generation Science Standards as one of our resources. … We want to make sure Oklahoma issues and concerns are addressed.”

Officials reached in a few states planning to consider adoption said they expect some pushback on evolution and climate change. The standards make clear that evolution is fundamental to understanding the life sciences. They also call for teaching about climate change and describe human activities as “major factors.”

“It would not surprise me if some folks were opposed to the adoption [because of those two issues],” said Ms. Tappen from the state agency in Florida. “But right now, the state board is looking at [the standards] very favorably.”

The language on climate change is troublesome to Joy Pullman, an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank in Chicago that has been critical of claims about the human role in rising global temperatures.

“There’s a huge emphasis on the negative impacts of humans on the environment [in the standards], and then incorporating alarmist global warming [ideas] into the science curriculum,” she said.

“With evolution and climate change, these are issues that tea party opponents of the common core are going to say, ‘We knew it. Those standards were the leading edge of an ideological push,’ ” predicted Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “We’ll see how that plays out.”

In Kansas, David T. Dennis, a Republican who stepped down from the state board (and as its chairman) this month, said evolution may spark debate when the standards are brought up for final review and adoption in his state, but he predicts it won’t derail approval.

“I don’t see that it’s going to be the huge public debate that we’ve had in past years,” he said. “I am certain they will get [enough] votes to pass the Next Generation Science Standards.”

Mr. Kirst of the California school board said he expects to hear criticism of the new standards because they reflect a “conceptual and philosophical shift” from the state’s existing ones, last revised in 1998. California’s standards, he said, are “much more content-driven” and lack the strong emphasis on “problem-solving and hands-on science learning” he sees in the Next Generation standards.

Ripple Effects?

Although it’s too early to say how many states will eventually adopt the standards, Mr. Hess suggests they are likely to have ripple effects even if many states opt out.

“If you’ve got 26 states that are using common standards for procurement, pretty much everybody else will get a bastardized version of the textbook, or the virtual equivalent,” he said. “And when it comes to professional development or teacher preparation, that’s going to be the center of gravity in program development.”

Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as States Soon to Weigh Science Standards


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