Next Generation Science Standards Revisited

Back in June, we at Fordham released a critical review of the final Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). As we explained at the time,

…using substantially the same criteria as we previously applied to state science standards—criteria that focus primarily on the content, rigor, and clarity of K–12 expectations for this key subject—our considered judgment is that NGSS deserves a C.

Our review team felt that these new standards fell short in a number of critical areas. Far too much essential science content was either missing entirely or merely implied. Science practices, while essential to K-12 science learning, were given undue prominence. And the inclusion of “assessment boundaries” meant to limit test development would like place an unintended but undesirable ceiling on the curriculum that students would learn at each grade level.

Besides all of that, our expert team was disappointed by what they found, and didn’t find, by way of math, especially in relation to physics and chemistry. “In reality,” they said,

there is virtually no mathematics, even at the high school level, where it is essential to the learning of physics and chemistry. Rather, the standards seem to assiduously dodge the mathematical demands inherent in the subjects covered. There is math available in the Common Core that could be used to enhance the science of the NGSS. No advantage is taken of this.

Since then, the NGSS authors have released an appendix—Appendix L—that is meant to show “Connections to the Common Core State Mathematics Standards [CCSSM].” This document undertook to supply some of the math that was missing from the NGSS proper, and to show places where Common Core math could strengthen the teaching and learning of science in ways that the core NGSS document neglected. In short, Appendix L intended to do what the NGSS should have: link grade-appropriate science and math content.

Well worth doing. But how well did they do it? We asked Johns Hopkins math professor and veteran Fordham math reviewer Steve Wilson to answer that question as part of a thorough analysis of the alignment between NGSS and the Common Core math standards. For that review, Professor Wilson examined both the NGSS themselves and the new Appendix L. He determined that, while the new appendix is a valiant attempt to overcome serious flaws in NGSS proper, the alignment between the science standards and CCSSM still falls short in three significant ways:

First, in several cases where NGSS expectations require math in order to fully understand the science content, that math goes well beyond what students would have learned in classrooms aligned to the Common Core. In other words, the math in the NGSS and the math in the CCSSM are not fully aligned;

Second, Appendix L, while indisputably a welcome instructional and curricular tool, misses several opportunities to build important links between grade-appropriate math and required science content; and

Finally, Appendix L too often makes “superficial connections,” in which grade-appropriate math is presented in ways that do little to enhance science learning.

Given the critical overlap between science and math, as well as the NGSS authors’ intention to align their science expectations with the Common Core math standards, these shortcomings signal a need for caution on the part of states that are serious about implementing the CCSSM while also considering adopting the NGSS.

But those making such adoption decisions have plenty more to consider. While our science reviewers found that NGSS merited a C, a year earlier the same reviewers assigned D and F grades to 26 existing state science standards. There’s ample evidence that U.S. science education needs an overhaul, and any such overhaul must include stronger academic standards for this key subject than most states have been using. (Of course, it needs effective implementation of standards even more than it needs standards; as with the Common Core for English and math, it’s folly to declare that you’re changing your standards if you’re not serious about the heavy lifting that follows.)

Let us remind state leaders, however, that the NGSS aren’t the only alternative and, in the judgment of our reviewers, they aren’t nearly as strong as the best that some states developed on their own. A state with shoddy science standards should also consider replacing them with those of another state that’s done this well.

In order to help states whose standards were equal or inferior to the NGSS weigh the pros and cons of these options, we also released this week a short-form, side-by-side, comparison of NGSS and the current science standards of 38 states—those that our reviewers deemed "clearly inferior" or "too close to call" vis-à-vis NGSS. We also compare them with the standards of three jurisdictions—D.C., Massachusetts, and South Carolina—whose science standards earned exceptionally high marks from our reviewers.

These concise comparisons may prove useful to educators and policymakers in states pondering whether to replace their current science standards with NGSS. Several have already done so. Others are deciding.

Is there another option (besides Xeroxing the South Carolina or Massachusetts or D.C. science standards)? There could be. Call it “NGSS-plus.” Treating Appendix L as an essential supplement to NGSS will help. Then develop more “supplements,” akin to “patches” for flawed computer operating systems and software programs. These could resolve the NGSS-CCSSM differences, add math in crucial places to the NGSS, and turn the opportunities missed by Appendix L into opportunities seized. Such supplements could also supply important additional science content that was omitted from the NGSS—our reviewers’ most important criticism.

We hope someone will consider such supplementation. We also hope that states embarking on the NGSS will do so with their eyes wide open to the challenges and glitches that inevitably will follow.

NB: NGSS aficionados and doubters alike should also be aware of the recently-issued Appendix C (available on the NGSS website), titled “College and Career Readiness.” They will find thirteen wordy pages that read as if they might be intended to refute our review of NGSS. Mostly, they argue against overburdening science education with too much content! In this way, they underscore the importance of our principal criticism.

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