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In Science Standards Draft, Big Problems 'Abound,' Think Tank Says

A Washington think tank is offering a strongly-worded critique of the second and final public draft of the common science standards, arguing that without major changes the document would not represent a step forward for many states.

"If draft 2.0 were to become the final version of [the Next Generation Science Standards], only states with exceptionally weak science standards of their own would likely benefit from replacing them with these ... standards," write Checker Finn and Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a foreword to the organization's comments. "We sincerely hope that this situation can be significantly altered and improved by the NGSS team between now and the issuance of their final version a few months hence."

They add, "The present draft is problematic in more ways than it is strong."

The standards are being developed through a partnership that includes 26 "lead state partners," all of which have pledged to seriously consider adopting the standards once they're completed. A final version is expected out in March.

To review the standards, Fordham assembled a team of experts in science, engineering, and mathematics, 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. (Fordham also commented on the first public draft of the standards, but added several reviewers this time, including an engineering expert and two who are well-known in math circles: William Schmidt, a professor of education and statistics at Michigan State University, and W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor at Johns Hopkins University.)

At 70 pages in length, the Fordham review document is not exactly a quick read. Fordham is generally seen as being in the "critical friend" camp when it comes to the science standards, as the organization has signaled its support for the notion of common science standards. And indeed, the think tank has been an ally and vocal backer of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics. It also does praise some things about the new draft. But first, the criticism.

Here are some highlights from the document as identified in the foreword by Porter-Magee and Finn, a former education official in the Reagan administration, who conclude that "large problems still abound in NGSS 2.0."

• The drafters "continue to omit quite a lot of essential content. ... Among the most egregious omissions are most of chemistry; thermodynamics,; electrical circuits; physiology, minerals and rocks; the layered Earth, the essentials of biochemistry and biochemical genetics; and at least the descriptive elements of developmental biology.

• The NGSS has "imposed so rigid a format on its new standards that the recommended 'practices' dominate them, and basic science knowledge—which should be the ultimate goal of science education—becomes secondary.

• The drafters "made a commendable effort to integrate 'engineering practices' into the science rather than treating engineering as a separate discipline. Still—once again—their insistence on finding such practices in connection with so many standards sometimes leads to inappropriate or banal exersises—and blurs the real meaning of 'engineering.' "

• "The effort to insist on 'assessment boundaries' in connection with every standard often leads to a 'dumbing down' of what might actually be learned about a topic, seemingly in the interest of 'one-size-fits-all' science that won't be too challenging for students. ... These boundaries are often used to strip science of critical mathematics content.' "

• Although the alignment with the common-core math standards is "improved," the Fordham reviewers describe what "seems to be a conscious effort by NGSS drafters not to expect much science to be taught or learned of the sort that depends on math to be done properly. This weakens the science and leads, once again, to a worrisome dumbing down, particularly in high school physics—which, as the reviewers note, 'is inherently mathematical.' "

Minnesota Official Responds

I spoke this morning with John Olson, a science specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, who has seen the Fordham comments and wanted to respond. Minnesota is one of the 26 lead state partners in developing the standards, and Olson is leading the Minnesota review team.

For what it's worth, Minnesota's science standards recently earned a grade of C from Fordham in its periodic rating. At the same time, Minnesota is seen as a high-performing state in science, with recent data showing it well above the U.S average in science. Also, recent global data show that for 8th grade science, Minnesota was outperformed only by Singapore and Taiwan.

Here are a few key points Olson made. First, on content:

"Different experts will disagree on what is the important content," he said. Olson noted that the content expectations in the standards are on par with what Minnesota asks, and in some cases it goes beyond that, such as with earth science and some aspects of physical science. Olson said the standards, however, are especially strong in promoting the progression of learning from one grade to the next.

Also, an appendix to the standards responds to some of the concerns previously raised about content in the standards. In fact, some of the very topics left out that are cited by Fordham were mentioned in that appendix, including thermodynamics and rocks and minerals.

"One of the important components to the vision of the [National Research Council] Framework [for the standards] and the NGSS is the focus on a smaller set of core ideas that build over time," the appendix says. It notes that much of the feedback requesting the addition of topics was on material traditionally covered in upper-level high school science courses. "[T]he NGSS specifies content and skills required of all students, and are not intended to cover the depth and breadth of content in upper-level science courses."

Olson also tackled the complaint about science practices dominating the standards and taking time away from learning basic science content.

He called this notion "misguided, because it's through the practices, especially as implemented as an instructional strategy, that students get a deeper understanding of the content. They've experienced [the content], thought about it, argued about it. I think that's very powerful. ... By doing the practices, the content gets learned more deeply."

As for the concern that the "assessment boundaries" will constrain and limit instruction, Olson disputes this as well. "In states like ours, we have a separate document called the assessment specifications, and those are very similar to what we're seeing with the assessment boundaries," he said. "I don't think most teachers that understand this are going to say, 'I'm going to limit my instruction to the assessment boundary.' ... Textbooks and other resources will go beyond just the assessment boundary."

'Scientifically Sound' on Evolution

To be clear, Fordham did not simply criticize the latest public draft. It offered some praise, too.

For instance, it said that links between the common-core math standards and the science standards were strengthened in the latest draft (even as it still has qualms). The think tank also praised the standards-writers' effort to integrate engineering practices and content across the standards, and for "their honest, scientifically sound handling of evolution. While we offer some suggestions for further strengthening these standards, their inclusion is crucial."

The other day I blogged about some pushback from the engineering community to the new standards. And I'm also planning another post with some reaction from several content-specific groups, including the American Physical Society and American Chemical Society.

One question is how much change the states and standards-writers are going to want to make in this final round. We shall see. But I'm told there are no plans to push back the March deadline for wrapping up this project.

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