Next steps for implementing (and mitigating) California's new science standards

Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno

I have been highly critical of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for their vagueness and lack of rigorous scientific content. Now that those standards have been adopted by the State of California, what can be done to mitigate those weaknesses during implementation at the national, state and local levels?

Nationwide: Clarify the standards by pushing for assessments that require specific scientific knowledge

Compared to California’s previous standards, the new science standards were designed to place relatively more emphasis on “scientific practices” – like asking questions and defining problems – and relatively less emphasis on factual scientific knowledge. Consequently, much important scientific content is omitted from the standards and much of what is present is stated only vaguely.

As a result of these design choices, there will be pressure on assessment consortia to create assessment items that do not require much actual scientific knowledge because it would be unfair to assume that students have learned content that is not included in the new standards. It may be possible to design relatively content-free test items that engage scientific or engineering problem-solving abilities, but such items are likely to be only minimally rigorous.

For example, the new standards state that by the end of middle school students should be able to “develop and use a model to describe why [genetic mutations]…may result in harmful, beneficial, or neutral effects,” but the standards do not specify which – if any – genes, proteins or traits students should know about. A test that requires students to “model” the effects of mutations without knowing about any particular mutations is difficult to imagine at best and if the assessments require no specific knowledge, that knowledge is less likely to be taught.

Instead, assessment designers should begin by defining the knowledge that will be required to perform successfully on NGSS assessments. For the aforementioned genetics standard, this might mean clarifying that assessments will require students to have some basic knowledge of, for instance, the genetic bases of sickle-cell disease or cancer.

It will no doubt be a challenge to convince all participating member states to adopt common interpretations of often vague or ambiguous standards. The alternative, however, is assessments that include content unpredictably if at all.

Statewide: Use the science framework revision to clarify the standards

The Science Framework for California Public Schools is a document intended to help educators and policymakers interpret and implement the state’s science content standards. The framework’s importance is easy to underestimate because California’s previous science standards were sufficiently clear that teachers rarely felt the need to reference it.

That is likely to change under the new standards, which frequently fail to specify the knowledge students will need to possess to succeed on assessments or in subsequent science courses. While it would be ideal if the standards document itself possessed this clarity, the framework has the potential to substantially improve the standards by articulating the facts and concepts students should master at each grade level or within each scientific discipline.

While the State Board of Education is currently in the early stages of revising the Science Framework, it is not obvious that stakeholders will adequately prioritize clarifying the standards during the revision process. Unfortunately, one of the motivating design principles of the new science standards – and one of the arguments most frequently offered in their defense – is that specific knowledge was overemphasized in the previous science standards and is not as important as mastery of “scientific thinking skills” that can be applied across contexts.

That is an all-too-common misconception about how students learn and how experts think. It also has the potential to lead the framework revision process astray by causing the framework’s authors to become unjustifiably sanguine about vagueness or ambiguity in the new science standards.

It is therefore essential that the framework revision process maintain as a central focus the description of the body of knowledge students will need to acquire in school to meet the demands of the new science standards. Educators are likely to need substantial guidance in their efforts to interpret the new standards, and the Science Framework can be a reference for teachers when the standards are insufficiently clear.

Locally: Educators should clearly articulate required scientific knowledge for their own schools and classrooms

If nothing else, it will be the responsibility of individual educators to make sure that their districts, classrooms and schools adopt rigorous implementation plans for the new science standards. District benchmark exams, school site professional development and curricular materials should all incorporate an understanding that students will be expected to master a great deal of particular scientific content during their time in the classroom.

This will likely be an uphill battle for many teachers. Colleagues may very passionately believe that students can and should be taught less knowledge and more to “think like scientists.” Administrators may worry that they and their schools will somehow be accountable less for what science students know than for students’ ability to engage in knowledge-independent “scientific practices.” And the Next Generation Science Standards themselves promote that sort of well-intentioned – but ultimately misguided – thinking.

Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon science teachers to do what they can to help students become scientifically literate. And scientific literacy requires nothing so much as a great deal of scientific knowledge.


Paul Bruno is a middle school science teacher who worked in Oakland before relocating to Southern California. He also blogs at This Week in Education.

Filed under: Commentary, STEM, Testing and Accountability


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6 Responses to “Next steps for implementing (and mitigating) California's new science standards”

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  1. Lex on Dec 23, 2013 at 1:32 pm12/23/2013 1:32 pm

    • 000

    As a 7th grade teacher who has taught for 10 years, I have built up many labs and activities that I feel makes my class fun and relevant for my students. The new integrated standards throws most of my activities out the window and replaces them with (my opinion) boring less relevant and engaging standards. I was happy when I found that the state board left the domain specific option available but in recently talking with our districts curriculum specialist, they are leaning towards integration model. I am in a 7-12 district which has 4 feeder elementary districts. Who knows which model the 4 elementrys are going to do. This is another problem with the ngss. Most 6th grade elementary teachers I know are not excited about being forced to teach life when they have no microscopes and only PD over the last decade in earth Sci.

  2. Adam Percival (@ampercival) on Nov 24, 2013 at 10:07 am11/24/2013 10:07 am

    • 000

    Hi Paul,

    I think it’s a serious mis-representation to say that the NGSS do not include scientific content or factual knowledge.

    For example, these the are scientific facts required by the NGSS for the particular performance expectation you used as an example:

    -Genes are located in the chromosomes of cells, with each
    chromosome pair containing two variants of each of many
    distinct genes.
    -Each distinct gene chiefly controls the production
    of specific proteins, which in turn affects the traits of the
    -Changes (mutations) to genes can result in changes
    to proteins, which can affect the structures and functions of the
    organism and thereby change traits.
    -In addition to variations that arise from sexual reproduction,
    genetic information can be altered because of mutations.
    -Though rare, mutations may result in changes to the structure
    and function of proteins. Some changes are beneficial, others
    harmful, and some neutral to the organism.

    I would argue that cherry-picking particular examples is counter-productive. Presumably you have an understanding of the underlying concepts spelled out in the NGSS, so that when a new example of a trait caused by a mutation comes along, you are able to apply these facts to understand what is going on. Our goal should be to get students to a similar place, and we should do that by giving them lots of practice with lots of examples. At that point, given some basic information about a new situation they can apply these underlying concepts to understanding what’s going on in the new context.

    Your claim that the argument for the NGSS is “specific knowledge was overemphasized in the previous science standards and is not as important as mastery of ‘scientific thinking skills’ that can be applied across contexts” is a similar misrepresentation. If you read the Willingham article you link to, he discusses the very principle that the NGSS is built around: that scientific practices and science content are each impoverished without the other. No one is suggesting teaching isolated thinking skills; the idea is to enable students to generalize concepts to examples they have not yet seen, and apply scientific practices in the context of core ideas.


    • Paul Bruno (@MrPABruno) on Nov 24, 2013 at 10:56 am11/24/2013 10:56 am

      • 000

      I did not claim “that the NGSS do not include scientific content or factual knowledge”. What I said is that “much important scientific content is omitted from the standards and much of what is present is stated only vaguely”. “Some content” is not the same as “enough content”.

      To support that claim I didn’t “cherry-pick” my example, I chose an illustrative example. People who want further examples of the recurring vagueness problem can read my previous writings or check out the much more extensive documentation in the Fordham report. My purpose here was not to rehash those big picture arguments but to point out that the assessment design process will and should have implications for how the standards are interpreted.

      (I was if anything too easy on this performance expectation which, like many of the other performance expectations, requires students to use a “model” without every clarifying what that extremely vague term means.)

      It’s certainly not the case that “no one is suggesting teaching isolated thinking skills”; the education world is full of people who think precisely that, or at least talk as if they do.

      But in any case I didn’t say the NGSS do that. What I said is as you quoted – the NGSS relatively de-emphasize knowledge in favor of a greater emphasis on skills. And, again, de-emphasizing knowledge isn’t the same as eliminating it altogether.

      The bottom line is that the NGSS are too far toward skills on the skills/knowledge spectrum, and that is not inconsistent with the observation that the NGSS do include some factual scientific content.

      • Adam Percival (@ampercival) on Nov 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm11/24/2013 12:00 pm

        • 000

        OK, apologies for misrepresenting your position regarding the amount of content. I do nonetheless think you are creating a false impression of the amount of content in the standards.

        Overall I think we disagree on a few points:

        -“much important content is omitted”; in the example you gave, as in other areas of the NGSS, I would argue that the important content is included. The K-12 Framework for Science Education is the most up to date, authoritative view on this, and that content is all included in the NGSS.

        -“much of what is present is stated vaguely”- I honestly find the core idea statements for this standard, included in my comment above, pretty clear. The PE is also pretty clear. I’m not sure why you and the Fordham folks are so down on modeling. If you understand the underlying concepts, you should be able to represent (model) them in a variety of ways- for example, in a simulation, drawing, analogy, etc.

        -“the NGSS are too far toward skills on the skills/knowledge spectrum”: I think viewing the scientific practices as “skills” is a misunderstanding of the practices. The practices are not really generalize-able skills, nor are they intended to be. However, they are critical for students to engage in within the context of scientific content, in order to fully understand the process of doing science, how scientific arguments are made, etc.

        It may be the case that in the broader education world people are suggesting teaching isolated thinking skills, but that is certainly not the intent of the NGSS. Look at the materials from Achieve, NSTA, etc.- the fundamental theme is exactly the opposite, that the core ideas, practices, and cross-cutting concepts are inextricably linked.

        Regarding the “cherry-picking” comment, I didn’t intend to imply that you cherry-picked your example from the NGSS, but rather that cherry-picking particular examples of the link between mutations and traits for students to memorize would not be adding useful content into the NGSS. As I said above, we need to get students to the point where they can generalize beyond particular examples.

  3. Paul Bruno (@MrPABruno) on Nov 21, 2013 at 5:38 am11/21/2013 5:38 am

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    There is certainly some content in the NGSS, just not nearly as much as there should be. Most of the performance expectations exist on a spectrum from “moderately clear” to “not at all clear” in terms of the content knowledge they require.

    Certainly, the vagueness of the standards provides some room for flexibility. That’s part of the reason I see opportunity to clarify them. But having teachers pick their own content means 1) that kids are getting content inconsistently, which is probably bad for them and will make assessments that much more difficult and 2) that many teachers who don’t appreciate the importance of content will omit too much.

    To be clear, I don’t think process and content are mutually exclusive. My point is that “process” doesn’t amount to much once you’ve stripped away the content (as the new standards frequently do). This means there’s not much to assess, and that we shouldn’t worry quite so much about “process-deprived” students, because they’re probably not nearly as common as “content-deprived” students.

  4. navigio on Nov 20, 2013 at 10:42 am11/20/2013 10:42 am

    • 000

    If I’m not mistaken, the new standards are not completely devoid of facts and thus it should still be possible to structure learning and design tests in such a way as to measure those facts as well as the intended increase in scientific process. Do you think there is not enough core factual content to achieve that?

    In addition, it seems that the increase in focus on process would give you the freedom to choose factual content as you see fit. If the testing companies are able to design tests that actually measure process accurately and independent of content then it should not matter which facts you choose.

    Of course, if they are not able to do that, they will have failed, not you. While this may not be such a desirable situation, it probably won’t be any worse than what we’ve had up to now. Especially if that has failed to capture any process knowledge whatsoever. IMHO.

    I tend to hope that content and process are not as mutually exclusive is it sounds. Perhaps the trick is to focus on process from the get-go rather than ignoring process and in later grades having to fall back on providing facts because it’s the only thing our process-deprived students can grasp..?

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