Science standards

Nearly two years ago, Achieve and the National Research Council (NRC), together with two dozen states, a handful of heavy-hitter foundations, and several other organizations, teamed up to develop a set of K–12, “next generation” science standards for states to consider for adoption. Their hope was to strengthen science education by setting clearer and more rigorous expectations than those that guide instruction in this crucial subject in most states today.

We urge states considering NGSS to exercise caution and patience
At the present time, we urge states considering NGSS to exercise caution and patience.
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The NRC initiated the process by developing a “framework” (National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Education) setting forth the “key ideas and practices in the natural sciences and engineering that all students should be familiar with by the time they graduate from high school.” The Achieve team then embarked on a long process of building K–12 standards based on and faithful to that framework. They released two public drafts, received comments, made revisions, and then, the week before last, unveiled the final version of these “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS).

States are being encouraged to embrace and adopt these standards—and it’s no secret that most would benefit from far stronger standards for science than those they’ve been using. (When Fordham reviewed state science standards last year, only six earned an A or A-minus. The average grade across all states was a low-C, and twenty-six states earned a D or worse.).

At the present time, however, we urge states considering NGSS to exercise caution and patience, for three reasons.

First, although the standards themselves are said to be final, Achieve has not yet completed or released some important ancillary documents. These are promised over the next month or so and will address both the alignment of NGSS with the “Common Core” ELA and math standards and a discussion of high school “course sequences” in science that could be crucial in determining the extent to which NGSS itself will sufficiently impart “college and career readiness.” While these documents are not expected to add any science content to the recently released standards, they will provide context for states about the overlap between the Common Core and the science expectations, and they will help articulate content and course expectations and requirements for high school students, including advanced STEM students. This is manifestly important for the entire country, and we hope the promised document does the job.

Second, regardless of the quality of the NGSS, a majority of states are already consumed by the challenges of Common Core implementation and will want to weigh how many big changes they can realistically undertake in their K–12 systems at the same time. States are still aligning curriculum to the ELA and math standards, assessments are in the early pilot phase, and much remains to be done by way of preparing both educators and the general public for the major changes that lie ahead. In short: States still have a long road to go to ensure full, smart implementation of their English language arts and math standards. And as yet, there is no clarity as to how or when curriculum or assessments may be developed to accompany the NGSS.

Finally, even at this early stage of Fordham’s review—now underway—of NGSS, it appears that the final version suffers from some of the same challenges that were evident in the first and second public drafts. Five concerns are paramount:

  • Is crucial science content missing, especially at the high school level? “Crucial” for what, you may wonder—which is one reason to await Achieve’s document on course alignment, as there’s a big difference between asserting that NGSS is sufficient for a broadly educated high school graduate and stating that it does the job of preparing one for rigorous, college-level work in STEM subjects. It appears that NGSS doesn’t do the latter. We’re digging deeper.
  • Are the expectations detailed enough to inform curriculum and assessment development? Or are there gaps that leave implicit critical science knowledge and content that should be explicitly enumerated in a set of rigorous K–12 science standards? And will the assessment limits, which are meant only to inform test development, actually serve to place a ceiling on curriculum and instruction?
  • How well is NGSS aligned with the Common Core math and English language arts standards that most states have already embraced? At present, it’s simply impossible to say, though we hope that forthcoming documents answer that question.
  • Does the systematic integration of science “practices” throughout NGSS have the (unintended, we presume) effect of constraining and distorting pedagogy by mandating classroom activities, rather than articulating student outcomes?
  • Are controversial subjects dealt with in a fair and even-handed manner? (Early signs indicate that, while evolution is well covered, the NGSS treatment of “climate change” slips from content into policy advocacy.)

First impressions aren’t everything. We intend to provide a full review and appraisal of NGSS, as we did of the Common Core. That summary evaluation will be available about two weeks, after our reviewers can access the final NGSS appendices discussed above. (Those documents are reportedly slated for release in mid-May, which would mean our final evaluation would be ready by early June.) Finally, in order to help states weigh the pros and cons of NGSS adoption, we plan to provide some state-specific comparisons.

At the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, we strongly favor rigorous, accurate, content-rich, and user-friendly standards in every part of the core K–12 curriculum, most definitely including science, and we favor their thorough implementation. We’re also mindful that several states have done quite a good job of this on their own and that NGSS is therefore not the only possible alternative available to states seeking to replace weak standards with better ones. Hence, nobody need rush to judgment regarding NGSS (which, after all, took three years to create) and nobody should be talked (or pressured) into hasty decisions that they might later regret regarding so critical an element of American education.

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