Next steps for the Next Generation (Science Standards)

When Fordham’s expert review team issued its mostly-critical review of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in June, we made these commitments:

We will undertake in the near future to provide individual states with some additional information regarding the strengths and weaknesses of their current science standards in relation to those of NGSS. (We will also review the recently released Appendix L of NGSS, which maps the alignment between these standards and Common Core math.)

Today we kept both promises by issuing a pair of additional analyses related to NGSS.

Today we kept both promises by issuing a pair of additional analyses related to NGSS.

The first report consists of short-form, side-by-side, comparisons 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 to 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.

Our advice is straightforward: U.S. science education needs an overhaul, no question about it, and that needs to include much stronger K–12 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.)

But 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.

Our second new report, authored by Johns Hopkins math professor Steve Wilson, reviews Appendix L, an earnest if somewhat belated effort by the authors of NGSS to address the math-alignment issue, which is obviously important for educators in states that have already embraced Common Core math. Science and math are—or should be—so tightly joined in schools that it would be extremely problematic for teachers, textbook authors, test developers, and others if the math needed for science class in, say, sixth or eleventh grade doesn’t match what kids are learning (or should already have learned) in math class at that point in their education.

When reviewing NGSS itself—the main document—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.”

Appendix L undertook to supply some of the “missing math,” at least to show places where Common Core math could strengthen the teaching and learning of science in ways that the core NGSS document neglected. But its authors faced an age-old challenge for which there are many age-old metaphors: making silk purses from sows’ ears, cooking stone soup, etc.

Professor Wilson’s review of Appendix L lauds its valiant effort while finding three significant shortcomings:

  1. 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;
  2. Appendix L misses several opportunities to build important links between grade-appropriate math and required science content; and
  3. 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 CCSS while also considering adopting the NGSS.

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 would 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 sincerely hope that 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.” We have not reviewed it, but we’ve eyeballed it. You will find there 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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