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.