Doing science: Beyond dinosaurs

New science standards set expectations for what should be taught in each grade and stress experimentation,  reports John Tulenko on PBS NewsHour.

Next Generation Science Standards are being adopted without the controversy of Common Core standards. The controversy may come.

NGSS call for teachers to teach physics, biology, chemistry and other subjects “in a multi-disciplinary fashion to show their interconnectedness” rather than as individual courses, reports Pat Maio for EdSource.

“Instead of memorizing vocabulary on how waves move, students might use a fish tank to observe the size of waves as an external force moves the water,” Maio writes. “Students would be asked to relate the concept to other areas of science, like radio or air waves, or how light moves through the universe.”

Is this really new?

Here’s more on preparing teachers to teach the new science standards.

Arguing like a scientist

Learning to “argue, question and communicate more like real scientists” may help students understand scientific concepts more deeply, researchers believe.

Both the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards have increased the focus within their disciplines on skills such as constructing and evaluating arguments, complex communications, disciplinary discourse, and critical thinking, said James W. Pellegrino, a co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“Although some think of these as general cognitive competencies, it turns out that reasoning and argumentation have to be disciplinary-based,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “Reason and argumentation in literature is not the same as it is in history, is not the same as it is in science.”

Florida State University’s laboratory school and local Gainesville-area secondary schools are testing a new method to teach reason and argumentation, reports Education Week. In “argument-driven inquiry,” small groups of 8th graders choose how to investigate a problem, run experiments, analyze data and “develop arguments to present to the rest of the class.”

Based on those discussions, the students may collect more data, reflect on their findings, and write up an “investigation report” that has to go through a double-blind peer review process, modeled on the peer review boards that professional journals use to screen scientific papers submitted for publication. Each student then revises his or her work and submits a final report.

In a pilot comparison study of 265 8th grade students in 16 classes at both the laboratory school and regular district-run schools, researchers at the university’s Center for Educational Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science found students using the traditional lab model engaged in more structured lab tasks than those in the argument-driven labs, but the latter labs went deeper during each task.

. . . After a year, the students in both lab models significantly improved their knowledge of scientific concepts, but only the students in the argument-driven inquiry labs had improved in science writing and in their understanding of the nature and development of science knowledge. Moreover, the students who were taught in the pilot labs showed nearly twice as much improvement in their ability to use and generate scientific explanations and arguments as the students in the traditional labs.

Another study looked at traditional science labs. Researchers found that “middle and early high school students often avoid setting a hypothesis that could be rejected, try to design and conduct experiments that would confirm biases they already hold, and reject evidence from an experiment that contradicts what they thought going into it.” Even when 8th graders entered a “scientifically accurate” interpretation of  data, many “privately—and incorrectly—interpreted the results to confirm their initial hypotheses.”

How would you improve science ed?

If you could make one change to improve science education, what would it be? Science Times asked 19 scientists, educators and students.

Quite a few called for science teachers who know science, math teachers who know math and lessons that ask students to solve real-world problems.

Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and president of Harvey Mudd College wants teachers to “help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability.”

Focus STEM courses on “creativity and invention,” says Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy.  The “traditional skills . . .  are tools to empower creativity.”

States aren’t rushing to adopt Next Generation Science Standards, which was developed by a consortium of 26 states, notes the Hechinger Report. California adopted the standards last week, joining Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island, Kansas and Kentucky.

Paul Bruno, a middle school science teacher from California – a state which got an ‘A’ in the Fordham ratings – has gotten attention for his critique of the NGSS. He said that basic content knowledge was needed before students could understand scientific and engineering practices, or how scientists ‘do science.’

Bruno worries the standards will confuse and overwhelm students by asking them to do too much at once.

California hasn’t decided when to implement NGSS, reports EdSource  Today.

Like the Common Core standards, their counterparts in English language arts and math, the new science standards stress problem solving, critical thinking and finding common principles or “cross-cutting concepts” that engineering and various fields of science share. They emphasize scientific thinking and big ideas over memorization in the hope that more students will become intrigued by science.

Implementing Common core standards in language arts and math is sucking up schools’ time, money and “mindshare.”

Fordham; New science standards earn a C

Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and South Carolina earn A- grades in Fordham’s rating of science standards. The Next Generation Science Standards get a so-so C.

The NGSS fall short of excellence in several ways, including: overemphasis on practices over essential content; omission of much essential content; failure to integrate mathematics content that is essential to science learning; and use of “assessment boundaries” that put arbitrary ceilings on the content that will be assessed (and therefore taught) at each grade.

Most states are struggling to implement the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and math, Fordham observes. Adopting new science standards — even good ones — could be more than states can handle.

We caution against adopting any new standards until and unless the education system can be serious about putting them into operation across a vast enterprise that stretches from curriculum and textbooks to assessment and accountability regimes, from teacher preparation to graduation expectations, and much more. Absent thorough and effective implementation, even the finest of standards are but a hollow promise.

In Kentucky, NextGen Science Standards are controversial, reports Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.  Kentucky is among the 26 “lead state partners” that helped develop the standards, but issues such as evolution and climate change have “sparked some pushback.”

Fordham gives Kentucky’s current science standards a D, saying they’re “vague” and short on content.

Fordham: New science standards get a C

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) deserve a C grade, concludes a Fordham evaluation. The new standards are “clearly superior” science standards in 16 states and the PISA framework, but “clearly inferior” to standards in 12 states, the District of Columbia and the NAEP and TIMSS frameworks.

Fordham gives an A to California and D.C. and an A- grade to Massachusetts, Indiana, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as NAEP and TIMSS. Wisconsin, North Dakota and Montana have the worst science standards, according to Fordham’s analysis.

The states with subpar science standards would be “far better off if they Xeroxed (and faithfully implemented) South Carolina’s excellent science standards or if they constructed new ones around the commendable assessment frameworks of TIMSS and NAEP,” Education Gadfly suggests.

Next Gen Science Standards unveiled

Next Generation Science Standards, which aim to teach scientific thinking as well as knowledge, were announced Tuesday, reports, the New York Times. Science teachers, scientists and federal science developed the guidelines, collaborating with 26 states that have pledged to consider adopting them.

The focus . . . (is) on learning how science is done: how ideas are developed and tested, what counts as strong or weak evidence and how insights from many scientific disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.


. . . educators foresee more use of real-world examples, like taking students to a farm or fish hatchery to help them learn principles of biology, chemistry and physics.

They want students to learn to construct at least basic versions of scientific models — the simplified representations of reality that undergird tasks as diverse as building a skyscraper that will not collapse, designing a drug to treat illness and accurately predicting the effects of global warming.

In addition to the 26 states involved with the standards-writing process, several others are expected to consider adoption. However, the standards’ call for teaching evolution and man-made climate change may be an issue in some states.

“The standards identify climate change as a core concept for science classes with a focus on the relationship between that change and human activity,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Middle school students, for instance, will be taught that human activities, including the use of fossil fuels and the subsequent release of greenhouse gases, are “major factors” in global warming. A proposed high school standard requires students to explain, based on evidence, how climate change has affected human activities through such phenomena as altered sea levels, patterns of temperature and precipitation and the impact on crops and livestock.

. . . Other topics set for more thorough study include genetic engineering and its real-world impact on food and medicine.

Conservatives haven’t attacked the Next Gen Science Standards — so far.

James Taylor of the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank, told Ed Week the standards are an improvement. “They are more balanced and fair than most educational guides I have seen put out by advocacy groups or self-professed science groups,” Taylor said.

Everyone agrees that teachers will need training to teach the new science standards.

Fordham: New science standards need work

Next Generation Science Standards are coming fast. Public comment on draft 2.0 just ended. The final version is due out in March. Then states will be urged to adopt NGSS, as most did Common Core State Standards in English and math. It’s too soon, advises Fordham, which has been reviewing state science standards for years. “This important, ambitious, but still seriously troubled document” needs more work, write Checker Finn and Kathleen Porter-Magee.

In an effort to draft “fewer and clearer” standards to guide curriculum and instruction, NGSS 2.0 (like NGSS 1.0) omits quite a lot of essential content. Among the most egregious omissions are most of chemistry; thermodynamics; electrical circuits; physiology; minerals and rocks; the layered Earth; the essentials of biological chemistry and biochemical genetics; and at least the descriptive elements of developmental biology.

. . . Real science invariably blends content knowledge with core ideas, “crosscutting” concepts, and various practices, activities, or applications. . . . (But) authors have forced practices on every expectation, even when they confuse more than clarify. For example, high school students are asked to “critically read scientific literature and produce scientific writing and/or oral presentations that communicate how DNA sequences determine the structure and function of proteins, which carry out most of the work of the cell.” Here as elsewhere, the understanding of critical content—which should be the ultimate goal of science education—becomes secondary to arbitrary and peripheral activities such as “critical reading” and “oral presentation.”

Appendices explain “what is and isn’t present and why,” but the structure is “complex and unwieldy,” Finn and Porter-Magee write. “Will a fifth-grade teacher actually make her way to Appendix K to obtain additional (and valuable) information about science-math alignment and some pedagogically useful examples?”

Science students won’t have to learn much math, leading to “dumbing down,” especially in physics, they fear. And the “assessment boundaries” will ensure that students aren’t challenged.

The new standards don’t require chemistry labs, complains Harry Keller, a chemist. The word “chemistry” is never used, though “chemical reactions” can be found under physical sciences. Without labs.

Physicists also are dissatisfied, reports Ed Week.

Next gen science standards

Next Generation Science Standards, now under development, promise to prepare U.S. students for the global economy. But the standards need work, Fordham reviewers argue.

In trying to create fewer, deeper standards, the drafters haven’t developed some prerequisite skills and content and focus too much on conceptual understanding and process rather than scientific knowledge, according to a review team led by biologist Paul Gross.

They went overboard on “scientific practices,” seemingly determined to include some version of such practices or processes in every standard, whether sensible (and actionable, teachable, assessable) or not. This led to distorted or unclear expectations for teachers and students and, often, to neglect of crucial scientific content. For instance, students are frequently asked to “construct explanations” or “construct models.” In addition to being unclear (how does one “construct explanations”?), such directives imply that how students learn the content articulated in the standards is as important as whether they learn it. In reality, content standards should focus on delineating the essential content, and should leave it to curriculum developers and teachers to parse how best to scaffold learning, devise pedagogy, and plan classes.

In addition, the draft science standards aren’t well aligned with Common Core math standards, the reviewers write.

However, it’s only a draft. There’s plenty of time to improve the standards.


Science expectations are ‘All Over the Map’

States have radically different targets for eighth-grade science proficiency, concludes All Over the Map, a study by the pro-STEM business group, Change the Equation.

Expectations in 37 states were compared to the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade science test.

New Hampshire has the fewest students meeting state benchmarks — and the highest benchmarks. At every level — basic, proficient and advanced — New Hampshire equals or exceeds NAEP expectations. As a result, only 0.4 percent of New Hampshire eighth graders rank as “advanced” in science. Nearby Connecticut calls  62 percent of its eighth graders “advanced,” but the expectations are “basic” by NAEP standards.

At the “proficient” level, only four states — New Hampshire, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island — are at or above NAEP’s standard. Fifteen states label students “proficient” who’d score below “basic” on NAEP.

Virginia has the lowest definition of “proficient,” followed by Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina, Iowa, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Oregon, South Carolina, California and Arizona.

ACT estimates 13 percent of eighth-graders nationally are on track to succeed in college science classes.

“Raising the bar on measuring student achievement will take fortitude as some states see the percentage of proficient students plummet,” said CTEq Board of Directors Chair Craig R. Barrett, Ph.D., and retired CEO and Chairman of the Board of Intel.  “Though it may be painful and initially unpopular, we are doing students a disservice if we set the bar low and give them a false sense of achievement that will hinder their learning and growth in school and beyond.”

States are collaborating on Next Generation Science Standards, the report notes. However, setting high content standards won’t help if states set low passing scores on tests.