The Thomas Fordham Institute has given the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) a “C” grade. Before we all dump the NGSS and rush to proclaim South Carolina as the shining model of science education, let’s dive a little deeper into what this rating means.
Fordham scores standards on a ten-point scale. Boiling things down, their raters give up to seven points for how much of the content knowledge on a lengthy list of topics appears in the set of standards, with attention to appropriate difficulty and progression across grade levels. Up to three points are given for how clear and well-organized the standards are. All other criteria do not factor in.
The first problem with this approach is that by focusing solely on content knowledge it ignores the last 20 years or so of research compiled by the various committees of the National Research Council, which caution that knowledge alone is insufficient for effective science education. While knowledge of facts and concepts is essential, understanding of how science is done (“science practices”) and being able to apply these practices in the context of the core ideas of science is equally critical. Nowhere is this taken into account in the Fordham criteria, and the Fordham report creates a straw man argument that the NGSS elevate practices over the core ideas of science. The NGSS and Framework for K-12 Science Education on which the standards are based make it abundantly clear that practices and core ideas are both necessary, along with attention to the cross-cutting concepts that span scientific disciplines.
The Fordham writers point to South Carolina’s science standards as a model for integrating science practices which other states should follow. Unfortunately, those standards take the outdated approach of breaking off “inquiry” (practices) into separate sections of standards. The South Carolina standards frequently ask students to merely “summarize” or “explain” content ideas, which require only lower-level understanding. My point is not to knock the South Carolina standards, as many current state standard sets take this form, but rather to illustrate how the need for a modern set of science standards has not been met by existing state standards.
Fordham’s evaluation criteria also reinforces an ubiquitous problem in science education: tremendous breadth of topics, allowing little ability to focus on depth of understanding. To their credit, Fordham even acknowledges that this may be an issue with their evaluation of the NGSS as well as their previous grades for state science standards. Breadth over depth is especially problematic in science education because of the time required to address students’ preconceptions and to integrate science practices. Fordham’s low rating of the NGSS is a direct result of a set of criteria that does not address these fundamental issues, by insisting an extensive list of content be required of all students. While many students can and should exceed the expectations in the NGSS, we need to think carefully about what we require of all students.
The Next Generation Science Standards pare down science concepts to what Nobel-winning scientists, college professors, professional scientific organizations in the physical, life, and earth sciences, committees of science educators from 26 lead states, leading businesses, organizations such as the NSTA, and the NRC scientists and science education experts involved in the K-12 Framework for Science Education and development of the NGSS have determined is most critical for all students in America to know and be able to do. In an informal NSTA survey, over 80% of science teachers agreed that these standards will improve science education in the US. It should give anyone serious pause to claim that they have a superior perspective on basic science education than this group. We will each have to decide whether we trust the consensus of American science education or Fordham’s group of reviewers.