California Should Not Adopt the Next Generation Science Standards

This piece initially appeared in a slightly different form on EdSource.org.

With the release of the final draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, states must begin in earnest to consider replacing their own existing standards. California should be especially cautious in this deliberation because, by some measures, the Golden State already has some of the strongest science standards in the country. In fact, while the NGSS may have much to recommend them to other states it is unlikely that they represent an improvement over the status quo for California.

The most immediately striking weakness of the NGSS is that they are difficult to read. Indeed, the standards are so difficult to decipher that at various times the drafters have released a two-and-a-half minute instructional video and a five-page set of written directions to aid in interpreting them.

This may seem like a superficial objection and it may be that teachers will eventually become accustomed to the new standards document. Nevertheless, novice teachers are increasingly common and difficult-to-read content standards will only add to the frustrations and challenges of the first years in the classroom. Moreover, California’s existing standards demonstrate that rigorous and comprehensive content guidelines need not be hard to read.

Why are the standards so confusing? The drafters make much of the fact that the standards are designed to align with the National Research Council’s “Framework for K-12 Science Education”, which distinguishes “science practices”, “disciplinary core ideas”, and “crosscutting concepts” as three related-but-distinct aspects of scientific literacy. In other words the NGSS – like the NRC Framework – distinguish between the scientific practices in which students should be able to engage (e.g., “analyze and interpret data”), what students need to know (e.g., “characteristics of organisms are inherited from their parents”), and big ideas students need to understand as applying across domains (e.g., “similarities and differences in patterns can be used to classify natural phenomena”).

That may be an accurate characterization of scientific know-how, but by imposing that framework literally and directly on to the format of the standards the drafters have created a document that is often a jumble of abbreviations, bullets, and boxes. And since the distinction, for example, between a “performance standard” and a “disciplinary core idea” is often a fuzzy one, on any given page it is often mysterious where exactly one should look to find what students are expected to know about a subject.

More seriously, by adopting the NRC Framework so literally the drafters have, intentionally or not, endorsed a dubious view of the relationship between knowledge and skills. By distinguishing so explicitly between skills and knowledge, the NGSS imply that skills can be taught in such a way that they can be applied easily across contexts.

In reality a student’s ability to engage successfully in a “science practice” is likely to depend first and foremost on his related scientific knowledge. So while the NGSS suggest that a third grader should be able to “use evidence to support an explanation”, his skill with that “scientific practice” will depend mostly on his knowledge of the phenomenon he is trying to explain. A family background in gardening may allow him to proficiently marshal evidence to support an explanation about plant growth, but he may nevertheless be unable to generate well-supported explanations about electronic circuits.

The more science a person knows, the easier it is to develop the (mistaken) idea that “science” is a single thing (or a few isolated things) you can be “good at” rather than a set of skills that can only be applied successfully in areas about which you are knowledgeable. So it’s tempting for those in the field (including science teachers) to believe, as the new science standards imply, that “science and engineering practices” are largely distinct from “disciplinary core ideas.” However, since the NRC itself failed to find significant evidence to support that view in a 2012 review of the research, the new science standards should not risk promoting it among our nation’s educators.

Increasing the relative emphasis of skills over knowledge results in an additional problem for the NGSS: they are often frustratingly vague, especially in the lower grades. The proposed third grade standards, for instance, state that students will be assessed on their ability to “use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment.” To prepare students for such an assessment teachers will need clear information about what sorts of traits and environmental factors a test question on this subject might include. The NGSS provide little such information.

An associated “clarification statement” gives two examples of traits that “could” be addressed in an assessment – stunted plant growth or a pet’s weight gain – but it is unclear what other types of traits students may need to be familiar with on a test. The section on related “disciplinary core ideas” is no more helpful; it states only that interactions with the environment “can range from diet to learning”.

The proposed standards in the upper grades are somewhat less vague, but clarity remains a problem.   Middle school students, for example, are expected to be able to “ask questions about data to determine the factors that affect the strength of electric and magnetic forces”, but the specific data and factors students may need to be familiar with to perform such investigations are not explicitly laid out.  Again, the standards provide only “examples of data” that “could” be provided on an assessment.

Insufficient specificity is a recurring problem in the NGSS, which means that the document as a whole fails to provide adequate guidance for science teachers and will make the meaningful interpretation of yet-to-be designed common tests difficult.

Supporters of the NGSS would be right to argue that common standards offer the promise of increasingly meaningful comparisons of student performance between states. It remains to be seen, however, how widely these new standards will be adopted; only about half of the states are currently even officially considering using them. Moreover, the inclusion of robust evolution and climate change standards – unquestionably a mark in their favor – may make adoption politically more challenging in many of those states.

I have taught only in California and therefore cannot say with confidence that the Next Generation Science Standards would not represent an improvement for other states. Nor can I deny the appeal of developing our ability to make more meaningful comparisons of educational performance between states. Nevertheless, the final draft of the NGSS is confusingly structured and over-emphasizes skills at the expense of factual knowledge. As a result, I’d prefer to continue teaching under California’s existing standards.

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