Some Problems with the Next Generation Science Standards: One Reviewer's Notes

As you know the first public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are online and you have until June 1, 2012 to read and provide comments on the NGSS.

I’ve decided to participate in the survey, and use this post to share with you some aspects of the survey, especially the surveys on individual elementary, middle and high school standards.  There is a lot of stuff to look at and read on the NGSS website, but you can pick and choose which standards to provide feedback.

I decided to examine the Earth Space Sciences performance expectations, which you view from this link.  According to the NGSS website we should think of each standard statements as a “performance expectation.”  From the onset, we might also think of each of the standard statements as behavioral objectives.  The standards are written in such a way that it will be very easy to construct assessment items for testing purposes.  They are dream statements if you earn a living writing test items.

In the NGSS Public Survey, there are five sections each containing multiple choice questions, and space for written comments.  The first two sections include an introduction to the standards, and a general survey on all the standards.  I completed these about 4 days ago, and today I have returned to continue with the Public Survey.  Its the last three sections of the Public Survey that I will refer to in this post, and they are listed here:

3.0 Survey on Individual Elementary School Standards

4.0  Survey on Individual Middle School Standards

5.0  Survey on Individual High School Standards

There are at least 400 standards divided into Earth Space Sciences, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering-Technology-Applications of Science.

In this blog post the focus will be on the Earth and Space Sciences  (ESS) Standards for K-12.

Earth and Space Sciences Standards

According to the Framework of K-12 Science Education, three core ideas were identified for the Earth and Space Sciences.  They are:

  • Core Idea ESS1: Earth’s Place in the Universe
  • Core Idea ESS2: Earth’s Systems
  • Core Idea ESS3: Earth and Human Activity

To see all 108 Earth and Space Sciences performance expectations, follow this link. It’s a long detailed listing of the objectives, but it will enable you to scan all of the Earth science standards at once.  Table 1 lists the  standards by grade level and topic for Earth and Space Sciences.





K.OTE Organisms and Their Environments

K.WEA Weather

1.PC Patterns and Cycles

2.ECS Earth’s Changing Surface

2.IOS Interdependence of Organisms and Their Surroundings

3.WCI Weather, Climate, and Impacts

4.PSE Processes that Shape the Earth

4. E Energy

5.ESI Earth Systems and Their Interactions

5.SSS Stars and the Solar System

MS.ESS-SS Space SystemsMS.ESS-HE The History of EarthMS.ESS-EIP Earth’s Interior ProcessesMS.ESS.ESP Earth’s Surface ProcessesMS.ESS.WC Weather and ClimateMS.ESS-HI Human Impacts

HS.ESS-SS Space Systems

HS.ESS-HE History of Earth

HS.ESS-ES Earth’s Systems

HS.ESS-CC Climate Change

HS.ESS-HS Human Sustainability

Table 1.  Earth and Space Sciences Performance Expectations by Grade Level and Topic Area

The earth and space sciences have been a part of the K-12 science curriculum for more than a century.  During that time, earth and space science were taught as units of study in elementary science classrooms, K-5 or K-6.  The units were organized around units on rocks and minerals, fossils and paleontology, weather and climate, the moon, stars, and the planets.  Elementary text books nearly always included one or more of these units at each grade level.

For a very long time, earth science was one of the courses offered in junior highs or middle schools, typically in the ninth grade.  Over time, the teaching of earth science has changed among the middle school grades, but in nearly every school district in the country, earth science is taught as a full year course of study.

Earth science teaching has evolved from its origins from a text-based program to the inquiry-oriented approach that was developed in the Earth Science Curriculum Project, the major earth science curriculum effort supported by the National Science Foundation.  The earth and spaces sciences was also enhanced by ISCS, a middle schoofounded ny NSF.  Work by the American Geological Institute contributed to more earth science curriculum development.

In the Framework for K-12 Science Education, the earth and space sciences are considered one of four disciplinary core ideas. The Framework includes the traditional content of earth and space sciences and organizes the content into three core ideas and a several components in the following ways:

Core Idea 1.  Earth’s Place in the Universe: the universe and its stars, earth and the solar system, and the history of planet earth

Core Idea 2. Earth’s Systems: earth materials and systems, plate tectonics, the roles of water, weather and climate, and biogeology)

Core Idea 3. Earth and Human Activity: natural resources, natural hazards, human impacts, global climate change

According to the Framework, earth is made of several systems—atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere—and they are interconnected.  Of all the core areas of science, earth and space sciences provide an entree into interdisciplinary science.  Many critics of standards suggest that the content standards are too discipline oriented and do not give students an opportunity to see how knowledge is interrelated.  The standards present a linear conception of earth science rather than presenting it as an interdisciplinary and interconnected model.

Grade Band Endpoints for interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

In a sense, earth science show us how all things are connected, and provide a vehicle to help students connect to their environment in real and meaningful ways.  But, do the standards do that?

The Next Generation Science Standards have established grade band endpoints at the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12.  Essentially, the standards’ framers identified what content performance expectations should be reached at the end of these respective grades.  Grade band endpoints were established for each component of all the core ideas in earth and space sciences (note: this was also done for the other disciplinary core areas, physical science, etc.).

For example in Core idea 2, component “plate tectonics and large-scale interactions, grade band endpoints for grades 5, 8 and 12 are as follows:

Grade 5. The locations of mountain ranges, deep ocean trenches, ocean floor structures, earthquakes, and volcanoes occur in patterns. Most earthquakes and volcanoes occur in bands that are often along the boundaries between continents and oceans.

Grade 8. Plate tectonics is the unifying theory that explains the past and current movements of the rocks at Earth’s surface and provides a framework  for understanding its geological history. Plate movements are responsible for most continental and ocean floor features and for the distribution of most rocks and  minerals within Earth’s crust.

Grade 12. The radioactive decay of unstable isotopes continually generates new energy within Earth’s crust and mantle providing the primary source of the heat that drives mantle convection. Plate tectonics can be viewed as the surface expression of mantle convection.

From Interactions to Simple Lists

Plate tectonics is the unifying theory of the geosciences, and it is fundamental in teaching and learning in the earth sciences. But why would we break the theory up in the way that the standards writers have done?  Why introduce a part of the theory at one grade level and leave the students wondering about the rest of the theory?  It doesn’t make any sense.

When we check the grade 5 earth science standards we find an unconnected list of standards that makes you wonderweren’t the writers thinking.  For example ONE standard in the 5th grade is as follows:

5. ESIc. Construct models to describe systems interactions for the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere and identify the limitations of the models.

This is more of the kind of question one might ask a Ph.D. candidate in the earth sciences, rather than a single standard for grade 5.  One could organze a full course around this standard.  How in the world (no pun intended) would a teacher help all of her students demonstrate understanding on this standard?  And would the test writers for the national science assessment “measure” this standard with one multiple choice question?  You becha!

Standards as Lists to Be Taught and Learned

If you participate in the NGSS Survey, you will have a chance to provide feedback on every standard—all 400 of them.  I choose to examine the Earth and Space Sciences standards, and that was more than you might to evaluate.  Never-the-less, I found it tedius to review every standard, when in fact I wanted to look at clusters of standards, or how the standards in Earth and Space Sciences were organized.  Why did they select this list of standards over another list.

Grade Level Appropriate. In Figure 1, which is a screen shot of one page from the NGSS Survey that I was completing, asks us to evaluate the grade level appropriateness for 2nd graders.  In this case there were four standards on the earth’s changing surface such as “obtain and communicate information that water exists in different forms within natural landscapes and determines the variety of life forms that can live there.”  How would you evaluate the grade level appropriatenss of this standard?  We really don’t have good answers to this question.  And we don’t have good answers for the other the other standards

Figure 1. NGSS Grade Appropriate question asked for each standard

The Middle School List.  The standards are organized into one list after another.  At the middle school level, the topics that are identified are the ones you would find in any middle school earth science text.  Below is a list of the middle school topics.  You can click on any of the links and you will be taken to a page in the NGSS for a list of the standards written for that topic.

Earth and Space Sciences

For example here is the list of standards for the Earth Interior Processes.  In this case there are six standards for this topic, with assessment notes (you’ll find these little notes throughout the standards).  Kind of communication with the assessment writers of tomorrow.

Are these the standards that students should come to understand at the middle school for this topic?  Will it make a difference if the standards were different on this topic from the ones that are included in the NGSS?  Again, no one knows, but if the teacher does not teach these standards, and her students don’t do well on the high stakes examination, the teacher and the student is held accountable, but  NOT the ones who wrote these objectives.

NGSS standards for earth's interior processes

High School Objectives. The earth and space sciences objectives involve space systems, history of earth, earth’s systems, climate change, and human sustainability. Why were these placed at the high school level? Most schools don’t teach a high school course in earth and space science, although some schools do offer a high school course in geology, oceanography, or astronomy. But by and large, most earth science content is finished up in the 8th grade.

Earth and Space Sciences

The Next Generation Science Standards are here, and there is no doubt they will be published in final form by the end of this year or next year. Already 26 states have accepted these as the future science standards, and no doubt the pressure will be on for other states to get on the band wagon.

We don’t think this is a good idea. The standards in the context of high-stakes testing will impede science teaching and learning.

What is your opinion of the Next Generation Science Standards?

About Jack Hassard

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