Enough is Enough: Abating the Pursuit of Test Score Growth

Why are we so hung up on making sure students’ test scores rise, year after year? Is this a sustainable and humanistic approach to educating children and youth? Is using the metric of competency-based test scores a valid measure of student learning and a convincing appraisal of teaching?

This week Illinois raised the “cut score” on its high stakes standardized tests in math, English language arts, and science making it more difficult for students to “meet competency.”

Ever since the U.S. government enacted the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, schools have been bound to a standards-based education reform model in which each outcome on every student is measured using standardized tests, such as performance-based tests, or end-or-the-year tests. As of now, each state sets its own achievement levels. However with most states adopting the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts, and the Next Generation Science Standards, we will soon see “national achievement standards.” By next year, schools will use technology-based common assessments in mathematics and English language arts to test American students. Imagine the data that will be produced by this massive digital invasion of U.S. classrooms. We are managing our schools as if they were corporations in the business of training students to take tests. Test scores equal sales, profits, and losses.

Growing Student Test Scores

In education today, the major goal of instruction is to increase student test scores from one year to the next, much like it is the goal of Wall Street to see growth in the markets, or for a business to show increased sales from one year to next. Student growth is a metric determined by counting the number of questions answered correctly on multiple-choice standardized tests. In Georgia, for example, we use the CRCT, or  Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and End of Course Tests (EOCT) to get a score. Students in Georgia can go online to practice taking the tests at the department’s website to use an online bank of test items. Georgia requires all students to take these high-stakes tests. Because Georgia is a Race to the Top winner ($500 million), its expected that academic test scores grow each year.  Like Illinois, the cut scores on the Georgia CRCT will rise each year.  The Department of Education expects students to score higher each year to meet competency.

And one more thing.  Student Growth and Academic Achievement is part of Georgia’s new Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES).  TKES is the system that Georgia uses to evaluate and most probably will use to pay teachers.  Unfortunately, Georgia bureaucrats have designed a system that is based on the flawed assumption that teacher effectiveness can easily measured by using student test scores.

Here is how it works.  If you are a teacher of a tested subject (math, reading/LA, science, social studies) the state will use student growth percentile and value-added measure, and achievement gap reduction.  If you are teachers of a non-tested subject it’s even worse, but your effectiveness will be judged based on some district wide average.  This has not been accomplished.  Georgia will use student achievement test scores (high-stakes, end-of-the-year) to show a percentile/value-added measure (VAM).  On the state website, it says: “The model will be developed soon.”  The problem is the state will never find or develop a model that will produce stable ratings of teachers.  In studies where VAMs have been used, the results were unreliable in establishing how much a teacher contributed to student learning.

But more than that, the entire system is tired and old, and pushes us further backward instead of embracing an entirely different generation of students whose world outside of school is native to them.  When they come to school, they are more like immigrants entering a world foreign to them.

AAA & Star Ratings for Schools

And if growing student test scores isn’t enough, the Georgia Senate approved Senate Bill 420 which is an amendment to part of the Official Code Georgia. The bill relates to the accountability assessment for K-12 education. The passage of the bill further degrades education and Georgia, and applies punitive measures to further humiliate and disregard educators in the state. The 5-Star evaluation of each school and district, and a numerical score for each school’s student performance indicators is simple for such a complex system as K-12 education.

The Georgia senate claims that it has established an evaluation report card that will use a 5-Star system. The 5-Star system is vague, and of course, it will worked out later. But the idea is to somehow link together a system that will test how schools use their finances, rate the school climate, and use a simple numerical scale to grade schools in their efforts to improve academic achievement, achievement gap closure, and student progress. Keep in mind academic performance, gap closure and progress will be based on the CRCT achievement tests administered once a year.

This probably makes sense if the bottom line is how much profit a company made during the past quarter or year. But we are not talking about a company that is based on market-indices such as profit margins. Instead we are talking about schools, with real students and teachers working together in a learning environment. Yes, schools should be diligent in terms of how they use funds from Federal and state sources, but the notion that the senators want to get blood from a stone is a bit outrageous.

In addition to the “star” rating system, the Georgia Department of Education will annually calculate a score on a scale of 0 – 100 based on quality indicators of learning including student achievement, achievement gap closure, and student progress. Each schools’ and districts’ report cards will be available to parents, educators, and the press.

The report card shall include performance data on quality of learning, financial efficiency, and school climate as “calculated”  and based on the most current data available disaggregated by student groups. Here is the deal:

Beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, the office shall assign a letter grade of A, B, C, D, or F, including plus or minus delineations, for each school and school system. Such letter grade shall be derived from the numerical rating score calculated with a majority of the grade based upon student achievement.

Isn’t enough enough?

What do you think using the lens of test scores as the principle marker of success in academic learning?  Do you think enough is enough?

Clueless in Atlanta; Not So in Seattle

Maureen Downey is the education blogger at Get Schooled on the Atlanta Journal-Journal (AJC) website, and writes occasional education editorials for the newspaper. In her post today, she wonders why the teachers in Seattle are protesting by refusing to administer a test they are required to give three times per year to all students in their classes. She puts it this way:

What’s odd to me is the test Seattle teachers are choosing to protest, which is the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). The high performing City of Decatur Schools uses MAP testing as well, giving it three times a year to see where students begin, where they are mid-year and where they are at the end of the year.

My kids attend Decatur schools and are not intimidated by MAP testing as it has been part of their education for a long time. Nor are they overly concerned with the scores, which they get instantly as the test is taken on a computer. I would be interested in what other Decatur parents out there think about MAP.

Downey clearly doesn’t understand the reasons for teachers boycotting the exam.  The MAP, purports to measure student’s academic performance in reading, math, language and science.  It is a product of the Northwest Evaluation Association, a testing company in Portland, Oregon.  MAP is computer generated test that adapts to student responses.  Downey claims that her children have no problem with the test as it is used at Decatur High School, a school located next to Atlanta.  That may be so, but her reasoning is flawed about why the teachers in Seattle refuse to give the test.

Here’s the deal.  Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle announced their refusal to administer the standardized test, MAP.  The teachers believe it wastes time, money and resources.  According to one report, the test is useless for Algebra I students since the test is about probability and statistics and geometry, which are not in the curriculum.  Because students are told that the results on the test will not affect their grade or graduation, many do not take the test seriously.

But the real reason is that the teachers know that the test results do not offer formative assessment information that benefits them or their students.   In fact, some of the teachers want to replace the MAP standardized test with portfolios and tests that are related to their curriculum.

Seattle Public Schools paid $4 million to the company that its superintendent served as a member of the board of directors.  If the district spends this much on a test that doesn’t impact students, imagine what they pay for the other required standardized high-stakes tests.

What Downey misses here is that teachers in Seattle are not clueless about evaluation.  They know that assessment should be for learning.  The use of a test such as MAP DOES NOT promote student learning.  It has little meaning to specific students needs, and teachers’ expectations.

Downey needs to understand that assessment for learning is formative assessment. Formative assessments are everyday methods that teachers use to help students improve their learning and understanding , and to inform and improve their teaching. Formative assessment methods have been studied by many researchers, and one study, funded by the National Science Foundation found that teachers who use formative methods take the steps to find the gap between a student’s current work and the desired aim, and then together figure out how the gap can be bridged.

Formative assessment is multidimensional, and unlike high-stakes testing, is integrated into the curriculum. The assessments are authentic–that is to say, teachers use a variety of real activities to assess student progress–laboratory activities, writing essays, participating in a debate, classroom questions, and indeed simply observing and interacting with students.

Although banning high-stakes testing needs to done, assessment for learning is not a simple idea, but one that requires a multidimensional approach to assessment in the service of student learning.

The fact that teachers are willing to take the risk and act on their professional knowledge that these tests are not pedagogically valid.  Like their colleagues in Chicago, the Seattle teachers are willing to say no.

What do you think about this issue?  Are the teachers in Seattle acting in the interest of their students?

Whose Next Generation of Science Standards?

The Next Generation Science Standards are on the web for all of us to view and critique until January 29th.  According to Achieve, the developers of the standards, they will use the feedback to revise last version of the science standards, to be published in March, 2013.

The new science standards are the scientific and science education community’s latest document spelling out the performances that students must show in the science curriculum.

Science education has a long history of being valued and important in the school curriculum.  Since the beginning of the Cold War, the teaching of science (and mathematics and technology) in America’s schools has been considered crucial to America’s economic, scientific and technological competitiveness.

In a paper published this week in the journal Science EducationStephanie Claussen and Jonathan Osborne use Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital to critique the science curriculum.  To Bourdieu, cultural capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge (of science) that confers power and status on those that have it.  Claussen and Osborne critique the science curriculum by suggesting that the science education community has missed the boat in areas emphasized in Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital.  For example, Claussen and Osborne show that science education does not help students understand the “embodied” value of science.

Standards in science or math are typically written and promoted by élite groups or committees of professionals, e.g. mathematic professors, linguists, or scientists.  For Bourdieu, the value of science (its cultural capital) results from its long history, and the implications it has for society.  As he suggests, it becomes entrenched , and those who possess the capital go all out to defend it.  It’s not surprising that it was an élite group of scientists who wrote the science framework upon which the Next Generation Science Standards are based.  But, this is not a new idea.

We’ll look at the standards movement, and raise questions about the Next Generation Science Standards.

Historical Science Standards, 1893 – 1996

Committee of Ten Report: This book outlines the standards for the school curriculum in American schools in 1892.
Committee of Ten Report: This book outlines the standards for the school curriculum in American schools in 1892, including detailed science standards.

The American curriculum was first standardized 1893 by the Committee of Ten, a group composed of 5 university presidents, one professor, two school principals, and a commissioner of education.  All were men, and none were teachers.  This élite group organized nine content conferences (Latin, Greek, English, Physics-Astronomy-Chemistry, Natural history, history-civil government-political economy).  Meeting in different parts of the country, the conferences attendees hammered out the content and wrote summaries published in 1893 as a report of the Committee on Secondary School Studies.

The science standards in the Committee of Ten report includes topics on physics, chemistry, and astronomy, experiments, natural history, nature study for elementary grades, botany for common schools, zoology for high school, and physiology, and geography.  You can read the original report that was published in 1893 here.  I think you will be surprised to read how the science standards written more than 100 years ago are not so different from the ones written in 2013.

Between 1893 and 1960, there were at least many reports outlining new science standards for school science.  Some of these included A Program for Science Teaching (1932), Science in General EducationProgressive Education (1938), Science Education in American Schools (1947), and Rethinking Science Education (1960).  These documents included goals, big ideas or concepts in science teaching, and approaches to improving science teaching.

From 1955 – 1975, the National Science Foundation funded more than 50 elementary and secondary science projects that in sum represented the science standards of the era.  These projects, starting with physics (PSSC Physics), affected the science curriculum in American schools for the next 20 years.  Many of the programs, often in the form of textbooks and laboratory manuals are still published today.  These NSF projects became the default science standards for American science education, and had a powerful effect on the National Science Education Standards published in 1996.  It was known as the Golden Age of Science Education.  The Golden Age came to a screeching halt in the mid-1970s when some members of Congress objected to some of the NSF pr0jects (Man: A Course of Study), throwing a wedge into the curriculum development era.

In the 1980s, the U.S. was at risk educationally, according to the report, Nation at Risk, and as a result a back-to-basics mantra took over, and science education went into a “courses and competency” era.  During this era, basic education was re-established in the sense of making high school graduation requirements across the states more standardized (4 years of English, 3 years of math, 3 years of science, 3 years of social studies, and one-half year of computer science.

In spite of “back to basics” movement of the 1980 – 1990s, a new genre of science curriculum projects emerged from the confluence of Internet and telecommunications technologies, and the desire of some science educators to engage students in environmental and inquiry-based research projects.  Much of this work was done by researchers at TERC and the Concord Consortium in the Boston area, Georgia State University, and the University of Colorado.

In 1989, the AAAS initiated a long-term project to advance literacy in science, math and technology.  It was called Project 2061. Project 2061 provided the foundation for future changes in science education, including the National Science Education Standards, 1995 and the Next Generation Science Standards, 2013.

The National Science Education Standards was the result of work by the AAAS’s Project 2061, and the National Science Teachers Association.  The NSES influenced the development of state science standards.

For the most part, the historical science standards were developed by professional groups such as the National Association for Education, the National Society for the Study of Education, the Progressive Education Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Teachers Association.

Contemporary Standards: CCSS and NGSS

The Next Generation Science Standards, 2013.  View them until January 29
The Next Generation Science Standards, 2013. View them until January 29

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) combined with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics and English language Arts are efforts to nationalize standards.  This triumvirate of standards has changed the face of American education by providing three content or discipline oriented standards that will take center stage in the school curriculum.  Although the developers of the standards claim that they are voluntary, states who do not adopt them will run into difficulty in securing federal money.  At the center of these standards is Achieve, a not-for-profit Washington-based organization that partnered with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to first develop the Common Core State Standards.

The movement to impose a common set of standards on U.S. schools began in 2009 at a Chicago meeting held by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and people from the states, and Achieve, Inc. This group charged Achieve to develop and write common standards in mathematics and English/language arts. According to research report on the common standards by researchers at the University of Colorado, the development of the common core took a path that undermined one of the tenets of research, and that is openness and transparency. The writing was done in private, and there was only one K-12 educator involved in the process.

A lot of money has been spent on these two projects, and it will take billions of dollars to carry out the three sets of standards into American schools.  But there is more to it.  The standards in these three areas will lead to a range of teaching materials, including texts, online e-books, software, DVDs.  But more significantly is that there are separate projects that have been funded by the U.S. Department of Education to design technology-based assessments correlated to the three sets of standards.  Under the current rules of the American school game, students will be relentlessly tested throughout their careers, benefits a small group of test companies.  And one more thing here.  There is an enormous stream of private and corporate financial support that flowed into not only Achieve, but many organizations, such as Teach for America, that are convincing the American public that to teach the new standards, it only takes five – six weeks of boot camp style training to do this.

The contemporary standards are based on the premise that American education needs to be reformed to make sure that future workers are skilled to compete in a global competitive environment.  The standards documents make it very clear that moving the U.S. into the number one place in economic competitiveness can only be done by more rigorous and unified standards in math, English language arts, and science.  Even though the evidence does not support this assumption, the standards movement, combined with the testing industry have now taken over education in the United States.

Standards as Capital

Standards represent the intellectual capital that society places on various domains of knowledge, including mathematics, literature and science.  We are not arguing against this fundamental concept.  We will argue that the way this capital is translated into the school curriculum has serious problems, and that as a result, we have put the emphasis in science education, for example, in the wrong place.  In Western nations, students simply do not like school science.  In fact, the longer students are in school, the more they dislike science.  But if students are asked if science is important in society, students typically say yes. However, they are not interested in persuing careers in science.  But if students in less developed nations are asked how they feel about science as a career, they are eager to say they would like to pursue careers in science and technology.  This research has been uncovered by  researchers at the University of Oslo, in The Relevance of Science Education (ROSE Project).

Claussen and Osborne ask us to reflect on science in the school curriculum as cultural capital that people can meet.  However, they point out, that many students come to school with sufficient cultural capital (because of their family) making it easier for them to gain more of this cultural capital.  Students who come to school who have very little of this cultural capital will be at a disadvantage.

In this view, the NGSS is the cultural capital of science in very precise terms and at each grade level.  The NGSS is a product of the values and decisions of an elite group of scientists and university professors.  Claussen and Osborne very convincingly argue that the science curriculum is “the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power.” By involving elite groups in the decisions about what knowledge is worth knowing, it enables the “reproduction” of existing structures of power. Or put another way, it enables the elite group to put their values and politics on the school culture in order to preserve their domain of knowledge.  In a way these are abritary decisions.   They write:

In the case of science, the cultural arbitrary is exerted in two ways. First, the dominant scientific élite has ensured that the form of science taught in most schools in most countries is one which is best suited to educating the future scientist (a small minority) and not the needs of the future citizen (the overwhelming majority). This is achieved by the choices that are made about what science has to offer: academic science versus science for citizenship (S. A. Brown, 1977; Young, 1971), the exclusion of any history of science (Haywood, 1927; Matthews, 1994), the underemphasis on applications and implications of science (Solomon & Aikenhead, 1994; Zeidler, Sadler, Simmons, & Howes, 2005), and the omission of any treatment about how science works (Millar & Osborne, 1998)—all choices which do not harm the education of the future scientist. The cumulative effect is to deny the validity of any other cultural perspective on science—in particular one which might have more relevance to women and students from other cultures. Granted such forms of science also alienate those within the dominant élite who have little interest in becoming scientists, but such students have a body of cultural capital that ensures access to alternative forms of institutionalized capital.

The dominant élite for the NGSS was selected by the National Research Council, which received funds from the Carnegie Institute. A committee of 18 professional scientists and educators (16 of whom were college professor of science) was assembled to create a “Foundation” to write new science standards. The committee spent more than a year working with other professionals, two-thirds of whom are not involved in K-12 teaching. A Foundation for K-12 Science Education was published in the summer of 2011 outlining the essentials for a framework gor new science standards.

The framework for the new science standards is built around three dimensions: practices (such as asking questions) , cross-cutting ideas (cause & effect, scale, etc.) & disciplinary core ideas (in earth, life & physical science).

The cultural capital implicit in the NGSS can be viewed from one page on the NGSS’s site. You’ll have to dig, but the capital is all there. You can link to all aspects of the new science standards, including the structure of the standards (a video will show how they are arranged), how to give feedback, a glossary of terms (a new set of acronyms to learn), 11 appendices (articles detailing various components of the standards–look at Figure 1 for the topics), two search tools (one by disciplinary core idea, and other by topics of teaching), and links to download these as PDFs.

In the Next Generation Science Standards website, the authors of the new standards claim that science education is taught as a set of disjointed and isolated facts. This can be debated. Most science teaching is organized around major topics, concepts or ideas. They are typically not taught in a disjointed fashion as the authors of the new standards claim. Look at any science textbook, and you will find that chapters are organized as unified units of content.

Of course it is in the interest of the new reformers to claim that science is taught as isolated facts.

Here is what we need to say. Science is tested as a set of disjointed and isolated facts. Even with the claim that there are fewer ideas in the new standards, they will be used to design tests that in the end will be nothing but question after question of isolated facts.

Claussen and Osbourne explain that Bourdieu conceives of “habitus” as a set of social and cultural practices, values, and dispositions that are characterized by the ways social groups interact with their members; whereas “cultural capital” is the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are transmitted to an individual within their sociocultural context through pedagogic action1 (Bourdieu, 1986), in particular by the family.

Claussen and Osbourne suggest that formal education is important because it can be viewed as an academic market for the distribution of cultural capital. they write:

Those who enter the classroom with sufficient cultural capital of the appropriate, dominant type—capital that fits well with the discourse and values of schools—are well positioned to increase their cultural capital further. In addition, research shows that the habitus of such students enables them to acquire substantial additional capital in informal contexts (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007; Tavernise, 2012). In contrast, students who possess cultural capital of a form that is incongruent with the culture of the school, or who lack it altogether, are at a distinct disadvantage. One of the challenges of education in general, and science education in particular, is how to increase a student’s stock of the dominant cultural capital, regardless of the nature of any prior capital they may, or may not, already have acquired.

The authors, using the concept of cultural capital, argue how school science could better contribute to the remediation of social inequalities.

We’ll explore how the institutionalized form of science, which in its current form will be determined by common assessments built upon common standards.

In what ways do you critique the Next Generation Science Standards?

The Next Generation Science Standards: In the Service of the STEM Imperative or Students?

The second draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) was released this week, and you can check it out and give feedback here.

Millions of dollars are being spent to write the new science standards. And it will cost even more to carry out them in the Nation’s schools. Why new standards at this time?  According to Achieve, the developers of the NGSS there is a problem with science and mathematics education.  They write:

the U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing far below par and, if left unattended, will leave millions of young Americans unprepared to succeed in a global economy.

Achieve goes on to suggest that because of such a sub par science education, America’s economic competitive edge will be  jeopardized, students won’t be ready as workers in the 21st Century, and the country will simply not have a scientifically literate society.

Stories are told that American businesses are not able to find qualified workers with STEM backgrounds and work experience, and that colleges and universities do not graduate enough STEM graduates to meet the demand for STEM workers. These two metrics are used to explain why American businesses are moving some of their operations and search for engineers  overseas.

Maureen Downey asks on her Get Schooled blog Does a STEM degree guarantee a job?

In a recent study (Where the Engineers Are) carried out at Duke University, light is shed on this issue, and the study contradict claims by Achieve and other groups America suffers from a deficiency in the quantity and quality of STEM workers for America’s businesses.  In their study they report:

Our research shows that companies are not moving abroad because of a deficiency in U.S. education or the quality of U.S. workers. Rather, they are doing what gives them economic and competitive advantage. It is cheaper for them to move certain engineering jobs overseas and to locate their R&D operations closer to growth markets. There are serious deficiencies in engineering graduates from Indian and Chinese schools. Yet the trend is building momentum despite these weaknesses…The calls to graduate more engineers do not focus on any field of engineering or identify any specific need. Graduating more engineers just because India and China graduate more than the United States does is likely to create unemployment and erode engineering salaries.

In order to justify reforms in education, its necessary for the reformers to present an argument that the American public buys into.  Claiming that American science education is inferior to other nations’ science and mathematics education is the present argument of choice.

Historical Reform Arguments

This argument–that U.S. K-12 science education is sub par, inferior, and out-dated–has been used for many decades to rally support for reform of science and mathematics education.  It is important to ask: In whose interest will the reform serve?  Is the reform in the interests of all students?  Or are there others in society that will benefit even more than students and teachers from reform efforts?

Committee of Ten. For example, one of the first major education reform efforts in the U.S. was the 1893 National Education Association’s Committee of Ten which made recommendations and detailed curriculum guidelines for K-12 schooling in America.  Comprised of ten men, who were either college presidents, professors or school principals, the committee organized nine content-oriented curriculum conferences  (Latin, Greek, English, Mathematics, etc.).  To the Committee of Ten, as well as the nearly 90 members of the conferences, all of whom were men, and most college professors, the purpose of schooling should be preparation for college.   Were these recommendations for U.S. students, or more beneficial for America’s colleges and universities?  What do you think? Here is what one of America’s leading educational researchers thinks about this.

In her study entitled An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Levy Institute Research Professor, Bard College sheds light on this question.  Instead of colleges and universities supporting and sponsoring education, Lagemann writes:

it makes more sense to read it as evidence of university aspirations to conquer new markets and, even more, to assume a regulatory role that would make sure university leadership of the full panoply of educational institutions within a particular city, state, or region – or even nationwide

Sputnik. There are other examples.  When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, it shook up the U.S. perception of itself as a leader in science and technology.  Although science curriculum reform was already underway at MIT’s project entitled PSSC Physics, the National Science Foundation expanded the idea of assembling science experts to design, write, and carry out science curriculum for America’s schools.  Physics was first, then chemistry, followed by multiple versions of biology, and a new program for earth science.  New curricula were developed for middle/junior high schools, and finally elementary school science.  The Golden Age of Science Education was born: more than $117 million was spent on over fifty separate course improvement projects during the years 1954-1975.

Nation at Risk. In 1983, a report was issued by the National Commission on Excellence entitled A Nation at Risk. The report’s famous beginning stated that it was as if an  “unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on the U.S. the mediocre educational performance” (according to the authors of the report) that existed in 1983.  The authors viewed it as an act of war.  Continuing with another war metaphor, the authors suggested that the U.S. was “committing an unthinking, unilateral education disarmament.”

A Perfect Storm. Then, in 2001, the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) set in motion the latest reform, which has spurned what my colleague Steven Sellers Lapham calls A Perfect Storm. As Lapham says so rightly states, public schools in America are under attack from many directions, and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) seems bent on delivering a lethal one-two-three punch: punish the poor (Race to the Top), death by paperwork (NCLB), and absurd metrics (using student test scores to evaluate teachers & schools). Writing standards and imposing high-stakes tests on American students until the cows come in. With the financial infusion by corporate billionaires, & conservative policy groups, such as ALEC and the Thomas Fordham Institute, Lapham’s storm prediction metaphor has morphed into superstorms with devastating consequences.

In the Service of the STEM Imperative

The STEM Initiative
The STEM Initiative

Science education has history of reform that suggests the phrase, “the sky is falling.”  If the science (or mathematics) curriculum is not improved, then America’s economic competitiveness, worker’s ability to compete for jobs, and students qualifications for college are at risk.  These are the underlying rationales used to promote the reform we see in science education specifically, and schooling in general. In a way, this has been an assault on the teaching profession. The hierarchical and authoritarian structure of reform in 2013 has ignored the wisdom of experienced teachers and administrators, and is relying on temporary and substitute the teachers who are only willing to give two years to work in schools where they are least qualified. When we through in charter schools, vouchers, and the wholesale closing of “failing” schools, we’ve created an unstable system of schooling especially for families of less means. What are we thinking?

For a little more than a decade, science, math, engineering and technology have been lumped together using the acronym “STEM,”which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics. It was coined by Judith Ramaley, in 2001 when she was director of the National Science Foundation’s education and human resources division. The term caught on quickly. Most government documents, reports, and RFP’s use the term instead of referring to science or math or engineering.  STEM has taken on a life of its own so that now instead of talking about science or mathematics education, which have their own traditions, we have lost our way in the world of acronyms.  But, the STEM initiative is a powerful one.  Government is willing to invest billions, states think that the STEM curriculum is more important than art or music, and indeed cuts are made to educational programs that are not embraced by STEM, reading, or language arts.  The STEM initiative has become the STEM IMPERATIVE.

The STEM Imperative is so powerful that authoritarian means have been used to make the improvement of science and mathematics education the most pressing, urgent, and vital aspect of schooling, especially if America is to keep its commanding position among other nations.

The STEM initiative has provided the perfect backdrop for the Next Generation of Science Standards.  Science education today, as it is perceived and practiced around the world, is based on goals for science teaching that were established more than a century ago. The NGSS project has not invented new goals, or ideas, but has reinvented the same wheel of science education that has been around for more than a century.

It’s important to note that the standards that are now published in draft form are based on a Framework for K-12 Science Education that was essentially devised by a group of experts, most of them professors of science, not science educators or teachers.  We’ve done this time after time in the history of reform.  Experts, largely from the college ranks, are the ones making decisions about K-12 education, not professional educators who are the practitioners, that understand the nitty-gritty of school teaching.  Science teachers, science supervisors and curriculum directors not only have strong background in the content of science, but more importantly they have a special kind of knowledge that we call pedagogical content knowledge.  They understand students, and how they learn.  They have experiential knowledge of teaching and learning, and I would suggest that college professors of science do not necessarily have this kind of knowledge.

Here is what I mean. The committee that developed the framework for the standards was comprised of 16 university professors, one state department official, and one education collaborative official.  No teachers.  No Principals.  No science, technology or engineering curriculum experts.  It makes no sense to continue to turn over the major policy decisions to university professors, especially if they have little or no experience with educational research or K-12 curriculum development.  Committees of experts tend to be self-serving.  If you bring a group of biologists together to write biology standards, to what extent will they write interdisciplinary standards, or standards that are more application oriented.

Whose interest is served by forming committees with this power? Why do we set up committees that truly lack credible knowledge about education theory and practice. If we want experts doing this in the name of school reform, we need spokespeople from the profession. A professor of atmospheric science who thinks the earth science curriculum of school is nothing more than physical geography lacks fundamental knowledge about the science curriculum (see this Scientific American blog article for more) and lacks the perspective to take part in meaningful reform.

The science curriculum that was designed for aspiring scientists and engineers, with its heavy emphasis on the scientific process and content may have to give way to new forms of science curriculum that advocate ways to engage adolescents in science education. Unfortunately, the Next Generation Science Standards, painted a canvas of predictable shades and hues, but failed to use more inventive strokes that might have given a new landscape.

The STEM imperative is not in the interest of students.

What do you think?  Surely we need to improve teaching and learning in science and math? But are we using reasons to do this that do not serve the interests of students, but serve other groups?

Dream Document: The Next Generation Science Standards

Achieve, Inc., a corporate sponsored non-profit company, uploaded the 2nd draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) on its website for review until January 29, 2013.  A final version will be uploaded in March, 2013.

For many educators, the NGSS are just what the doctor ordered to improve science teaching in the U.S.  In fact, some say that it will revolutionize STEM education in the nation.  According to the developers and financial backers of NGSS, the nation’s science education is in shambles, and needs to be fixed.  The economic prosperity of the nation is at stake, and future workers, today’s students, will simply not be able to compete in the global market place.

I suggest that the NGSS and the Common Core State Standards were not developed with the interests of students in mind.  The development of standards and assessments are integral to the “educational reformers” script to turn education into a product or commodity.  As Bill Ayers said in a letter to President Obama,

Education is a commodity like any other—a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screwdriver—that is bought and sold in the marketplace. Within this controlling metaphor the schoolhouse is assumed to be a business run by a CEO, with teachers as workers and students as the raw material bumping along the assembly line while information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads.

In order to track the effectiveness of schools, students, and teachers, metrics are needed to decide if expectations (outcomes) were met and to what degree.  In this scheme, those that are not performing will risk going out of business.  Just today, NYC announced it was closing 26 “underperforming schools.”

In this context, the NGSS is a dream document.

Dream Documents

Standards and technology-based assessments are policy makers’ and education reformers’ dream documents.

Standards are documents that are the first step in a two step process of making it possible to measure the effectiveness of teachers and schools against a rationale and set of goals that they had little to no part in developing.  The standards were not written by a representative group of K-12 professional educators, yet all K-12 educators will be responsible for implementing the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and English/Language Arts (CCSS), and now, the Next Generation Science Standards. Step one, then, has put into place single sets of content standards in math, reading/language arts, and science for every school in the nation.

The Common Core and the new science standards were developed by Achieve, by the way.  Achieve will claim that the process to develop the science standards was a partnership amongst itself, NSTA, AAAS, and the National Research Council.  However, we need to point out that the science standards were based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas which was developed by a 16 member committee  of scientists, and educators, but there were no classroom science teachers on this committee.

The framework was not developed by K-12 teachers, or science educators, who possessed not only the content knowledge to develop a framework, but would bring to the table the professional experience of working with K-12 students, the real nature of classroom life, and anecdotal evidence & research so important to an understanding of 21st Century school.  I am not suggesting that professional scientists should not be involved in the development of the framework. I am suggesting that teachers and science educators need to be at the core or center of this development, not on the outside looking in.

We have argued on this blog that the science standards are authoritarian.  The Next Generation Science Standards are authoritarian performance expectations.  The authority for what happens in schools rests in the hands of bureaucrats who have little knowledge or experience with specific schools.  Teachers are given very little leeway to change performance expectations to meet the needs and nature of their students.

In the NGSS, performance expectations were written for K-High School in physical science, life science, and earth science, and engineering, technology and applications for middle school and high school.

"System architecture" of the Next Generation Science Standards
Figure 1. “System architecture” of the Next Generation Science Standards

Figure 1 shows an example of one of the science standards from the NGSS “dream document.”  Standards are organized as a table.  Section “1” is a list of performance expectations (which is the assessment part), section “2” includes three foundation boxes, and section “3” is the connection box.  More details about how to “read” the standards can be found here. These new science standards, as robust as they look in your browser, are written for all students no matter where they live.  The NGSS states on its website that the U.S. population is increasingly more diverse, yet they have proposed a single set of standards in life, earth and physical science.  These standards should be taught to every student, regardless of student or teacher interests, or where students live.

Teaching will be organized based on the standards.  But unfortunately, the reformers have convinced all Americans that high stakes assessments must be used to measure the productivity of each school, and if necessary use the results to reward or sanction schools.  To make it easier for reformers to get the metrics they need to keep open or close schools, assessments starting next year will be technology-based.

Technology-based assessments are the second step to set up a competitive, corporate style of education for U.S. students.  The U.S. Department of Education, through the Race to the Top assessment competition awarded two grants totaling about $330 million, to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) in the amounts of about $170 and $160 million.

If you refer to Figure 2, note that the standards (performance expectations) in the box shown are actually the statements that will be used to design assessments to measure student achievement.  Indeed “assessment boundaries” are identified for the performance expectation.

NGSS Performance expectations for grade 5 on the earth's place in space.
Figure 2. NGSS Performance expectations for grade 5 on the earth’s place in space.

The assessments that will be developed will be technology-based.  There will also be more assessments.  In the PARCC system, a series of assessments given over the course of a year will replace the end of the year high-stakes test.

But there is more to it than you think.  The PARCC and SMARTER systems will be huge enterprises that not only include assessments, but they will have a banks of technology-based assessment resources.  Here is some of what you will find on Achieve’s PARCC website:

On their own, the new science standards are an other resource for science educators, and to writers of textbooks. But, they will be more than that.  The NGSS will decide the curriculum of school science for years   If you would like to know what the NGSS is all about, here is a link to the NGSS page from which you can search and study the standards, and even give feedback on the science standards.

One More Thing

The NGSS combined with forth coming national science assessments support the aim of the current crop of educational reformers to make schooling a business, and learning a commodity.  National standards and assessments will make it relatively easy to create data, which bureaucrats will use to rank, compare, rate, sort, check, grade, judge, reward, and sanction schools, teacher and students.

What do you think about this issue?  Will the science standards improve science teaching in U.S. schools, or will it continue the teach to the test pattern that is strangling innovation and inquiry?


For further research: