Next Generation Science Standards: What’s Really Been Achieved?

Note:  This is the second in a series of posts on the Next Generation Science Standards.  You can read the first one here.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are the latest iteration of writing science objectives for the eventual purpose of testing students’ knowledge of science.  The objectives are developed by teams of experts, and rely on either their own domain analysis chart of science, or in this case the Framework for K-12 Science Education developed by another prestigious group of educators and scientists.

The NGSS, although they are presented in an overwhelming and distinctly powerful way on Achieve’s website, when you drill down to the actual standards, you find content statements that are not very different than standards that we’ve seen in the past.

This is what I mean.

A Bit of History

Roots of the Next Generation Science Standards

Note: A good part of this discussion is based on The Art of Teaching Science, Chapter 4. com

Astrolabe, invented by the Greek astron0mer Hipparchus, later improved by Christian and then Muslim scientists.

The roots of science education as it has developed in the United States, and many countries throughout the world, has its origins in the science of the Greeks.  The works of Archimedes, Eratosthenes, and Pythagoras have been carried forward and are a part of what we call modern Western science.  The roots of what we might call modern science education can be traced to the 19th Century in Europe and especially Britain.  At that time, what we know as science was natural philosophy, which emerged from the Greek term philosophy, the love of wisdom. Glen Aikenhead writes

This Greek philosophy radically advanced in Western Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries (after the Renaissance period) with the establishment of natural philosophy, a new knowledge system based on the authority of empirical evidence and imbued with the value of gaining power and dominion over nature. This historical advance is known as the Scientific Revolution

This is where modern science began, and where we find the roots of science education as well.

Committee of Ten. For science education, however, the standards that we use today were initially created to make sure that students would be ready for college (sound familiar).  But the standards I am speaking about were written by The Committee of Ten in 1895!  Of the nine committees that were formed, three dealt with the science curriculum:  (1) physics, astronomy, and chemistry; (2) natural history; and (3) geography. Each committee formulated goals for elementary and secondary science, and described what students should know and learn, and suggested methods of teaching.  Here is what the natural history committee had to say about elementary science:

In the elementary grades, the Natural History Committee recommended and worked out the details for nature study not less than two periods per week for all grades up to high school. The first purpose of nature study is not knowledge of plants and animals, but to interest children in nature. The second purpose was to develop students’ ability to observe, compare, and express ideas (in contemporary terms, the processes of science); to cause children to form habits (habits of mind in today’s language) of careful investigation and of making clear statements of their observations. Acquisition of knowledge was the third purpose. So interest, science process and content acquisition formed the goals of nature study.  Interestingly, the committee recommended that no book be used in nature study.  Students should be observing and discussing plants and animals in the classroom or out in nature.

In the early part of the 20th Century, the nature study movement, an interdisciplinary approach to elementary science teaching, the progressive education movement, and important NSSE Yearbooks published in 1932 and 1946, and 1959, identified goals of science teaching that ought to guide the teaching of K – 12 science during those periods in science education history.

In 1957, the launch of Sputnik accelerated a movement to “modernize” science teaching.  The Golden Age of Science Education emerged with the development of NSF funded alphabet science curriculum projects, including PSSC Physcis, Chem Study, BSCS Biology, Earth Science Curriculum Project, AAAS Elementary Science, and Elementary Science Study.  These projects greatly influenced science education in the U.S., especially traditional textbook publishers by upgrading their texts and resources based on the NSF projects developed during this period.

The Florida Project

In 1972 I was invited to Florida State University to be a writer for the NSF project, the Intermediate Science Curriculum Project (ISCP), and to work on the Florida Assessment Project, a research and development project.

The task of the Florida Assessment was to write standards and assessment items for middle and high school science for Florida’s initial attempt to develop state-wide standards in science.  When I returned to Georgia State University, a team of colleagues and I submitted a proposal to the Florida Department of Education to write the K-6 Elementary Science standards (we called them objectives way back then), and test items.

We used Robert Gagne’s cognitive theory of learning which modeled a 7 stage hierarchy of learning.  We used it to categorize the standards into the 7 levels of learning. Working with high school and middle school science teachers, and doctoral students in science education, our team created a domain chart of the disciplines of science: Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, and Life Science.  The domain chart and the Gagne categories guided our work.  For each standard or objective we wrote two assessment items.

Individualized Science Instructional System

From 1974 – 1978, I was a writer, and field test coordinator of the NSF project entitled the Individualized Science Instructional System (ISIS), which was a high school science program designed to develop nearly 60 modules of science teaching for grades 9 – 12.  In this project, objectives for the entire project were written and field tested (parents, school administrators and teachers were involved).  Objectives were grouped by content, and were assigned to an author (high school teachers and university professors) to write one ISIS Module, or a mini-course.

The Global Thinking Project

In the 1990s I worked with science teachers in the U.S. and Russia, and together we wrote and field-tested the Global Thinking Project, which was an environmental science curriculum designed for middle and high school students.  We created a telecommunications network by bringing Macintosh computers, printers and models to Russia and set them up in schools around the country.  The curriculum included objectives or standards, and each of the “projects” was designed for students to investigate an important local environmental problem, use scientific tools to collect data, as needed, and the GTP network to upload data and collaborate with peers in other countries (Spain, Australia, Japan, Czech Republic, Scotland, Brazil joined the project soon after it was up and running.

NSES and State-Wide Science Standards

In 1996, the National Science Education Standards were published ushering in a new era in standards-based education and then a few years later, high-stakes testing.  The NSES were developed in the same manner as the NGSS, and countless state-wide standards and assessments around the country.

The NSES project was primarily based on Science for All Americans as part of Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  Soon after, AAAS released its Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, and then the two-volume work entitled The Atlas of Science Literacy.

The Next Generation Science Standards comes after a long line of projects, all of which wrote curriculum, standards and objectives, and assessment materials.

Achieving the Next Generation Science Standards

Why New Standards?

In a e-Book published on this blog on the science standards movement, we argued that much of the movement to produce new standards is driven by the perception that American students don’t perform well on international tests, and on the NAEP science achievement tests.

But one can also make the argument that American students actually perform consistently and very well on these tests and have actually improved over the years.  In fact the results from the 2011 NAEP Science Assessment show that:

The average eighth-grade science score increased from 150 in 2009 to 152 in 2011. The percentages of students performing at or above the Basic and Proficient levels were higher in 2011 than in 2009. There was no significant change from 2009 to 2011 in the percentage of students at the Advanced level.

Achieve, Inc., the organization that will stand to benefit financially from the standards movement, makes it very clear that we need new standards to help improve America’s competitive edge, to boost the lagging achievement of U.S. students, to make sure students have the essential education for all careers in the modern workforce, to improve the literacy of Americans.  They fail to cite data that shows that a nation’s competitive edge is too complicated to even claim that student test scores have anything to do with; that NAEP data shows that American students have improved in science for a long time.

In whose interests is it to develop these new standards?  Try: Achieve, publishers, especially of online courses and texts, testing companies.

Who Wrote the NGSS?

According to Achieve, Inc., the writing team consisted of 41 members from 26 states.  To make sure that there is a connection between NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science Education and the NGSS, chairs of the NRC’s design teams were selected as chairs of the NGSS writing team committees.  Here is the breakdown of the writing team by field of expertise.  There are 14 teachers on the writing team, representing one-third of the writing team.  There are 12 curriculum & instruction specialists (29%), and 15 Non-K-12 educators (35%).  The panel is a distinguished group with links to their bios. But I found that one of the member identified as a high school teacher, is not teaching.  There certainly were many teachers in U.S. who would have been qualified to replace this team member.  I also note that the science education professors on the writing team do not represent a new cadre of science education professors that might bring fresh and novel ideas to the panel. Is having these individuals as chairs of the writing committees a good idea? I don’t really know. Just thinking.

I would like to know more about the process of actually writing the standards that appear online.  How were the teachers involved?  Did they participate directly in writing drafts, or did they review drafts written by others?  How did Achieve, Inc., interface with the writing team?  Did Achieve provide it own human resources to to the effort, and in what ways?

Writing Team Fields of Expertise Number of Members Percentage

Non-K-12 Educators

University Professors 10 24%
Science Education Consultants 2 4%
CEO/Private Corporations 3 7%
Non-K-12 Educators 15 35%

Curriculum Specialists

Curriculum Directors – Instructional Specialists 12 29%

K – 12 Teachers

Elementary Teachers 4 9%
Middle School Teachers 5 12%
High School Teachers 5 12%
Total Teachers 14 33%

Table 1. NGSS Writing Team Members by Expertise Area

The Nature of the Standards

The NGSS are organized like standards from the past, into content domains including: (if you click on any of these links it will bring to the NGSS for that content area.)

As you can see the standards are organized into four distinct disciplines or core areas.  If you click on any of the categories within the main content areas, you will then be at the level where you can read the standards, and also the information from the Framework for K-12 Science Education that was used to write the performance expectations.  Three columns of information are arranged to highlight these ideas:  science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts.

Middle School Earth Space Science Performance Expectations

I’ve chosen the Middle School Earth Space Science (ESS) performance objectives as representative of the NGSS to evaluate.  There are Earth Space Science performance expectations at each grade level (K-HS).  Here is the complete list of Earth Space Sciences major categories extracted from the NGSS website here:

Table 2.  NGSS Earth Space Science Performance Expectation Categories for the Earth Space Sciences Domain.  Note: The links are live.
All of the topics that included in this list have been included in the previous standards iterations, including the NSES, our work on the Florida Assessment Project, the NAEP Science.  What strikes me is the linearity of the structure of the NGSS.  We have a list of topics, but there is attempt to show the content schematically perhaps using a tool such as Mindmeister where webs can be created to show how ideas interconnect and relate to one another.
Writing a set of texts for Earth and Space Science would be quite straight forward.  Give each writer a subset of the performance expectations, and assign them the task of writing a unit or mini-book of activities, projects, content, interactions that are true to the four or five standards for the topic.  When authors for the NSF curriculum project ISIS were assigned to write a content module, they were given a set of performance expectations, and told, turn these into interacting activities and content.
But in my own view, one of the major uses of the NGSS will be to create assessments that will be used to continue the madness of high-stages testing. By writing the standards as behavioral statements, it will be very easy for test construction engineers to push out lots of pineapple type questions.

Each standard is written in the form of a behavioral objective.  A good behavioral objective ought to be a statement of what students are expected to do, learn or know.  The NGSS uses the term performance expectation to define its standards, and it seems to me that this is the definition of a behavioral objective, an ideas that was at its height in the 1970s.

Inside a NGSS Standard

I’ll give you two examples from the NGSS from the Earth and Space Sciences.  This is a performance expectation from the history of the earth (MS.ESS-HE or Middle School.Earth Space Science-History of Earth):

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

  • Construct explanations for patterns in geologic evidence to determine the relative ages of a sequence of events that have occurred in Earth’s past
  • Use models of the geologic time scale in order to organize major events in Earth’s history.

Each standard included the three dimensions that NRC and Achieve describe as a vision of what it means to be proficient in science.  The blue part of the standard are meant to be the science and engineering practices—-what scientists and engineers do—construct explanations, use models, use empirical evidence, etc.  This is the “action” part of the standard, and it is designed to make assessment of the standard straight forward.  The orange part of the standard is the disciplinary core idea (the content), and the underlined part of the standard is the crosscutting concept, ideas that have application across content area such as patterns, similarity, and diversity, cause and effect, scale, and so forth.

So the Earth Space Science domain of the NGSS has 17 categories or topics as shown in Table 2.  Generally speaking there are four objectives per topic, so in all the NGSS has about 103 Earth Space Sciences standards.  We might estimate that there are slightly more than 400 science standards in the NGSS.

One can be fooled by the way content is presented on the Web.  The organizers of the NGSS did a very good job of creating a Website that can be navigated fairly easily, and also provide supporting materials.

But, in my own analysis of the standard statements, the scope and sequence of the Earth Space Science section is not new, nor does it appear to based on any structural components that would lead us to think that this concept should be introduced at the elementary level, and this concept at the middle level.

I am also concerned that there are no graphics showing how ideas relate to each other.  Science educators, of all people, should have included graphic organizers and used them to get out of their linear mode of thinking.  There are certainly many examples, and conceptual approaches to do this.  The AAAS Atlas of Literacy would be good bet.

What Can We Expect?

There is no doubt that Achieve, Inc., and its long list of partners and financial supports will charge ahead and ready the draft documents for final presentation and publication next year (at least that’s their plan).  Their long term goal is to have all of the states adopt the NGSS.  There are 26 states that are ‘lead’ partners in this effort, and although they did not have to commit to the standards, there will be great pressure for these states to do.

However there is a serious push-back occurring in the States right now over the Common Core Standards.  School districts across the country are signing petitions refusing to participate in high-stakes tests, which of course are part of standards-based reform effort.

In previous blog posts I have argued using research in the field of science education that science standards present barriers to learning.  According to research published by  Dr. Carolyn S. Wallace,  a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science. In her research, Wallace uncovers evidence that the use of standards by practicing science teachers pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning.  She cites two aspects of authoritarian standards that cause this barrier:

1. The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fits the needs of their students.

2. The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.  Dr. Wallace’s suggestions are significant with the release of the public draft of the NGSS, and the fact that most likely the 26 states that working as partners with Achieve will adopt the NGSS as their state standards.  If most of the states did this, as was done with the Common Core State Standards in math and English/language arts, we move the country closer to a national curriculum.  But what is worse yet, there are national assessments coming in math and English/language arts, and science.  These will be used to hold all teachers hostage to a set of standards developed by very few practicing teachers.

I agree with Chemtchr’s guest post over at Anthony Cody’s blog, Living in Dialog.  Chemtchr, a high school science teacher and she explains that the NGSS is using reverse engineering to produce a product that will be used for assessment purposes, with very little teacher education.

Then she says this, and we need to take heed to her insights:

I’m not willing to pretend this is a genteel dispute among contrary theorists of education progress. The “partners” in the Common Core development include many of our largest and most powerful corporations, several with long histories of fierce monopolistic battles. Pearson Education is one partner, and the Gates Foundation is functioning as a tax-exempt advocacy arm for Microsoft itself.

Through ignorance, arrogance, or the narrowness of their self-interest, politically connected corporatists are about to perpetrate a massive for-profit take-over of science education that will do long-term damage to the very foundation of our scientific and technical infrastructure, while they devour our local and state education tax money.

If you advocate or support the development of a vibrant information technology industry, and a scientifically capable people who can actually contribute to the health and welfare of society as a whole, join us educators in our struggle to stop this huge, backwards-engineered insider deal.

What is your take on the Next Generation Science Standards?  Are they going to impact science teaching so that we’ll be more competitive, and students achievement scores will soar?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.