The NGSS Are Bad For The Most Vulnerable Students

3v3di7I’m obviously no fan of the Next Generation Science Standards. Still, it’s conceivable that they could be good for some students while being bad on the whole. I’m skeptical, but it’s not out of the question.

And if you were to force me to speculate about which group of students the NGSS are most “tailored to”, I’d have to say, “the most academically advanced students”. The top, say, 15% of science students.

I’m by no means sure these students would be better off under the NGSS (the weaknesses of which are quite severe). Still, it’s not impossible to imagine that they might be. The most advanced students may possess enough prior background knowledge to “fill in the gaps” of the standards, for example, and their breadth of knowledge may allow them to apply the more abstract “practices” across a variety of contexts in the way the standards envision.

Advanced students might therefore be the most likely to thrive under the NGSS, even if it’s not totally obvious that they’d accelerate.

So imagine my surprise when Lesli Maxwell reported that the NGSS purport to support “diverse” – i.e., academically vulnerable – students:

Now, three years later, their notion—that every student should get a deep, rigorous science education that would prepare them for demanding coursework, a college degree in the sciences, and a career that could follow—has helped produce a set of standards meant for the most-advanced science students, as well as students who previously may have been steered away from taking a science class, writers of the standards said.

Teachers and advocates for these “diverse” learners said the standards and the supporting documents that accompany them offer an unprecedented opportunity to push a far broader array of students into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career pipeline.

That all sounds good! Unfortunately, the specifics are not encouraging. The examples of inclusive design the NGSS authors provide are unlikely to help the weakest students very much, and they certainly do not adequately compensate for fundamental weaknesses in the design of the standards.

Consider the way the NGSS authors claim to have made the language of the standards inclusive:

The Next Generation Science Standards—through the work of a diversity and equity team composed mostly of classroom teachers—went through extensive bias and sensitivity reviews to make sure the standards didn’t include language with multiple meanings, like “draw on evidence,” that might confuse students still learning English, for example.

“Draw on evidence” is, in fact, a vague and confusing phrase. Sadly, the final standards document is nevertheless riddled with equally confusing phrases. It contains, for instance, 456 uses of the word “model”, which is almost never defined despite being a term with “multiple meanings” (only some of which are even related to science).

Similarly, “use evidence” is a better phrasing than “draw on evidence”, but “use evidence to construct an explanation” incorporates additional ambiguous language that is likely to confuse a great many 4th graders whether or not they’re English learners.

The authors also point to Appendix D as a resource for making the NGSS “accessible to all students”. It is too long of a document to explore in detail at the moment. It will suffice for now to say two things about it.

First, much of what it consists of is teaching tips for vulnerable populations of students that are standards-independent.

Second, it overestimates the extent to which the NGSS incorporate what we know about the learning needs of struggling students. Making “implied background knowledge…explicit” is definitely important for “less privileged students”, for example, but the NGSS do that very poorly. Saying “X is important for vulnerable students” is no substitute for providing those students with X.

I do not doubt that all of these inclusionary efforts were a “major undertaking”. They are nevertheless not up to the task of compensating for the considerable weaknesses of the core standards document.

And that core document is particularly bad for these vulnerable populations. It omits altogether much factual knowledge that the least-privileged students will not otherwise acquire. Much of the content that remains is implicit and will therefore elude students who do not already possess it. As a result, these students will struggle to engage successfully in the scientific practices the standards emphasize. The vague and ambiguous language in the practice standards will confuse students with limited vocabularies. And so on.

The authors are wise to recognize the challenges inherent in “raising standards” while worrying about achievement gaps. The particular weaknesses of the Next Generation Science Standards, however, only exacerbate that tension.

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  1. BD
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:38 PM | Permalink

    Well thought out post. Here are two things to consider.
    1. When I read this, I think you are agreeing that the performance expectations are for all students but disadvantaged students will disproportionally struggle to get there. NGSS lacks clarity in this area. Your comments, “Saying “X is important for vulnerable students” is no substitute for providing those students with X” and, “It (NGSS) omits altogether much factual knowledge that the least-privileged students will not otherwise acquire” clues me into your thinking.
    I think you are expecting a bit much from standards. The line between curriculum and standards is grayer than typically stated (as is curriculum and assessment). “How” you get there, however, is clearly a curriculum question. Foundation knowledge should be in well-aligned adopted curriculum. NGSS is not an instruction manual on how to do it.
    2. Concerning clarity… I think you are correct that NGSS should have clarified many practices and PEs. The vagueness will complicate PD for teachers. You seem to assume, however, that NGSS is a student document. It is not. You state, “The vague and ambiguous language in the practice standards will confuse students with limited vocabularies.” You wouldn’t give the students the NGSS or the framework.
    Besides clarity for the instructor, I do not have a problem with the NGSS. It does not overly simply the complexity of scientific understanding and learning. I have a problem when teachers are simply handed NGSS and expected to implement. This will not work. School districts that expect rigorous science teaching should make sure that rigorous professional development is in place.

    • Posted July 9, 2013 at 12:52 AM | Permalink

      Good points.

      1) Your interpretation of my position is correct. As for what is reasonable to expect of standards, I agree that no standards are ever likely to be completely comprehensive and a certain amount of fuzziness is inevitable. I think it’s pretty clear from looking at other, existing state standards, however, that it’s possible to be considerably clearer and more comprehensive than the NGSS. Teachers can do a certain amount of interpreting and filling in of the blanks, but the NGSS are sufficiently vague that in many cases what, exactly, will ultimately be assessed amounts to little better than guesswork.

      2) I do assume for the purposes of this post that the NGSS are, in part, a student document. I do so, however, only because the NGSS authors themselves apparently think of them that way. I don’t know how else to interpret the passage I quoted about confusing “students still learning English”.

      In my teaching I do not assume that the (California) standards are a student document, and I doubt that providing them to the students would be very fruitful. (What are the odds you could create a good standards document that is truly useful to both teachers and students, especially in the lower grades?) Still, there is a trend – at least in middle schools, where I have the most experience – to provide the students with the standards in one form or another. This is typically required by administrator or district policy. I don’t understand the rationale, although I think it provides supervisors with some (superficial) reassurance that what is happening in class is aligned to the standards. That is something administrators are often not able to judge quickly or easily, particularly for subjects they are less knowledgeable about. So whether you and I approve or not, there is often an assumption among educators that the standards documents are student documents.

  2. BD
    Posted July 9, 2013 at 12:56 PM | Permalink

    I see standards used as student documents as well. I am a science curriculum administrator. I walk into a classroom and think, “what are you doing? Kids don’t understand the huge overarching statement on your board.” I agree that it looks good and building admin look for it.

    I still don’t think NGSS was intended as a student document. I think the problem lies in the lack of clarity for the teacher to interpret into student language. I will check out California standards again.

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful posts. I may disagree but it gets me to think and question.

  3. KJ
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 6:54 PM | Permalink

    I looked at the Fordham Report Card. Thanks for the link. My question is how do you feel the NGSS compare to the National Science Education Standards? Because I was taking the NGSS to basically be the replacement for the NSES and that it was still going to be up to states to flesh out the details like they did when the NSES came out. But of course I’m reading your blog and others to find out more information about how this will all happen practically and not just what the NGSS want to happen.

    • Posted November 17, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Permalink

      It’s been a long time since I looked at the NSES and their adoption was mostly before my time so I won’t try to compare them in any sort of detail. I will say that the NGSS are clearly not intended to be *just* a replacement for the NSES, because the NSES were never adopted by states as a standards document. The NSES may have informed individual state standards, but states nevertheless came up with their own standards.

      Another wrinkle is that while states have flexibility to flesh out the NGSS in theory, the ‘N’ stands for ‘national’ and adopting states start running into logistical problems if they want to be part of, say, a nationwide assessment consortium but have a very different interpretation of the standards than other states do.

      In practice NGSS-adopting states are likely to end up with a “least common denominator” implementation, where the state with the most vague interpretation drives implementation because you can’t insist on implementing content they don’t interpret as part of the standards.

      That being said, I’m holding out hope that California can flesh out the standards considerably as we go through the Science Framework revision process.

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