Friday, January 27, 2017

NextGen Standards Review Testimony

Statement in opposition to LD 49, “An Act To Improve Science and EngineeringEducation for Maine Students”  ─  January 25, 2017.

We are Martha and Richard Schwartz, co-authors of the Fordham reports on state science standards in 2005 and 2012 and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Our biographical information from the final report on NGSS is at the end of this testimony.

As standards reviewers, we were required to read, understand, and evaluate academic science standards from all fifty states and the District of Columbia – many thousands of pages. The process involved applying criteria relating to science content strengths and weaknesses in rigor, completeness, accuracy, clarity, coherence, specificity and organization.  We found that standards quality varied greatly from state to state, from unusable to almost excellent. For the standards in place in 2012, the best came from California, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, Indiana, and Virginia.

In the course of reading so many pages, we also acquired an intuitive feeling for which documents were usable, both at the classroom level and for designing and analyzing high-stakes assessments. Here, some of the formal criteria came into play, such as clarity and organization, but also the size of content and skills “bites” required to meet each standard, and a clear sense of what is accomplished when the standard can be said to have been met.

In reading so many standards documents and seeing their wide variability in quality, we obviously saw the potential value of one nationwide (not “national”!) set of high-quality standards and assessments.  Advantages ranging from equity to economy of scale might be realized so we were happy to also review both drafts, and the final publication of the Next Generation Science Standards. They were advertised as high quality, and were shiny and supposedly new and also supposedly able to prepare students for college readiness.   

But it was like a shiny new heavily-advertised model car, and we were the steeped-in-detail mechanics charged to look under the hood. The actual standards disappointed. It was as if under the hood of that shiny car body we found five cylinders missing, a confusing set of assembly directions for all the hoses and wires, spark plugs where the water pump should be, and no bottom to the fuel tank. The car is pretty, but parts are missing or out of order and there is some rust under the paint. It’s hard work to make it run let alone meet expectations. We wound up rating the NGSS, with the same criteria we used for the states, with a score of 5 out of ten (C grade), along with several states we had charitably rated as mediocre.  I urge you to take the time to look under the hood if you decide you want to move ahead with mandating or suggesting NGSS to your schools.

Some things to look for:

Clarity and specificity of requirements
Contrast, for example, an entry from The California Science Standards of the time, which describes some life science expectations for second-grade students with a sample page of NGSS secondary grade earth and life science:

Example from California:

Earth Sciences

3. Earth is composed of land, air, and water. As a basis for understanding this concept:

a. Students know characteristics of mountains, rivers, oceans, valleys, deserts, and local landforms.
b. Students know changes in weather occur from day to day and across seasons, affecting Earth and its inhabitants.
c. Students know how to identify resources from Earth that are used in everyday life and understand that many resources can be conserved.

Investigation and Experimentation

4. Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigations. As a basis for understanding this concept and addressing the content in the other three strands, students should develop their own questions and perform investigations. Students will:

a. Observe common objects by using the five senses.
b. Describe the properties of common objects.
c. Describe the relative position of objects by using one reference (e.g., above or below).
d. Compare and sort common objects by one physical attribute (e.g., color, shape, texture, size, weight).
e. Communicate observations orally and through drawings.

Then an equivalent sample from NGSS:

NGSS is difficult to navigate and understand.

Content completeness

NGSS content is often vague, is omitted, or explicitly excluded (especially egregious for high school chemistry)

Examples from NGSS
“The structure and interactions of matter at the bulk scale are determined by electrical forces within and between atoms (HS-PS1-3), (secondary to HS-PS2-6)”

PS2.B: Types of Interactions
“Attraction and repulsion between electric charges at the atomic scale explain the structure, properties, and transformations of matter, as well as the contact forces between material objects. (secondary to HS-PS1-1), (secondary to HS-PS1-3), (HS-PS2-6)”

These are vague and allow for any treatment of the suggested subject (chemical bonding) from cursory to complete (for the HS level). Contrast this with the explicit and inclusive treatment from 2012 California standards (asterisks indicate content for more advanced students):

Chemical Bonds

2. Biological, chemical, and physical properties of matter result from the ability of
atoms to form bonds from electrostatic forces between electrons and protons and between atoms and molecules. As a basis for understanding this concept:
a.       Students know atoms combine to form molecules by sharing electrons to form covalent or metallic bonds or by exchanging electrons to form ionic bonds.
b.       Students know chemical bonds between atoms in molecules such as H2, CH4, NH3,H CCH2, N2, Cl2, and many large biological molecules are covalent. 2
c.       Students know salt crystals, such as NaCl, are repeating patterns of positive and negative ions held together by electrostatic attraction.
d.       Students know the atoms and molecules in liquids move in a random pattern relative to one another because the intermolecular forces are too weak to hold the atoms or molecules in a solid form.
e.       Students know how to draw Lewis dot structures.
f.        *Students know how to predict the shape of simple molecules and their polarity from Lewis dot structures.
g.       *Students know how electronegativity and ionization energy relate to bond formation.
h.       *Students know how to identify solids and liquids held together by van der Waals forces or hydrogen bonding and relate these forces to volatility and boiling/melting point temperatures.

In addition, we note that NGSS adheres to current fads in science education and education in general. There is little hard evidence that “scientific thinking” is a content-independent skill which can be taught, nor is it clear that “authentic” activities are usually the best way for students to learn (or even deduce, as claimed) scientific content. This is in no way meant to discourage laboratory experiments, demonstrations, and explorations where appropriate, but these are time-consuming, expensive, and need to be carefully designed to be effective. The reasons many activities don’t work as advertised are too extensive for this testimony, but a good overview can be obtained from a single reference:

Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.
Paul A. Kirschner , John Sweller & Richard E. Clark - Pages 75-86 | Published online: 08 Jun 2010

In some places the NGSS presents a strange juxtaposition of high content ambition against a lack of a build-up of the prerequisites ideas needed to understand that high content. A classic example occurs in Earth Science, where students are required to:

HS-ESS3-5.          Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.
[Clarification Statement: Examples of evidence, for both data and climate model outputs, are for climate changes (such as precipitation and temperature) and their associated impacts (such as on sea level, glacial ice volumes, or atmosphere and ocean composition).] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to one example of a climate change and its associated impacts.]

Leaving aside the matter of political controversy, this standard is too much, too sudden, too complicated, and too advanced, given the weak background provided by the standards up to this point. To be able to deal competently with this content at the high-school level, students must already have acquired at least an elementary feel for the chemical composition and physical structure of the atmosphere; its transparency (or not) to electromagnetic radiation at various wavelengths; blackbody radiation (dependence on temperature); mechanism of greenhouse effect in general; heat budgets which include sensible heat as well as heat stored as latent heats (evaporation and freezing); specific heats of various earth materials and their reflectivity; pH - especially of ocean water; the laws of ideal gases; unstable isotopes for dating and stable ones for signals from ice and sediments cores, and many other matters, including an introduction to the methods used in computer models. High school students could certainly deal with all those at an appropriate level and acquire an elementary but realistic sense of “climate science,” but this has to be developed coherently over time. Very little such development is visible in these standards.

Another glaring contradiction in NGSS is its treatment of the mathematics inherent in understanding and doing science. The document talks of math and alignment with math standards glowingly, but we were unable to find even common, simple formulas attached to science concepts.  

NGSS claims to make students college ready. But students who want to (or later decide to) focus on technical (STEM) careers need much more. We did not find sufficient content for strong high school level courses in the physical sciences; chemistry was particularly absent. It might suffice for a student entering a non-selective college in a non-technical major, but this is not sufficient. It fails by criteria for both equity and excellence.

There are two often competing ideas of what standards should be. Minimum requirements, aimed at all students, and Aspirational standards, which are high and may or may not always be reached. We strongly prefer the second, though there is room for the first to exist alongside them. But NGSS, as we can see from the climate change example, provides neither and the emphasis on time-consuming activities lowers the chance for even the minimum being met.

 Martha Schwartz (Earth and Space Science)
Martha Schwartz has taught science and mathematics from seventh grade through early graduate school. She is also experienced in teacher training and professional development. She holds a BS in mathematics from Arizona State University, a teaching credential from UCLA, a master’s degree in geology from California State University, Long Beach, and a PhD in geophysics from the University of Southern California. She is a member of the Assessment Review Panel in science for the state of California and has worked on school improvement, standards, and testing for a variety of organizations.

Richard Schwartz (Chemistry)
Richard Schwartz holds a BS in chemistry from Arizona State University, a teaching credential from UCLA, and a master’s degree in environmental science from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He taught secondary science for thirty-four years, the last thirty-two of which at Torrance High School in Torrance, California. He is a former member of the California Curriculum Commission and a 1995 recipient of the American Chemical Society’s regional award in chemistry teaching. He retired from teaching in 2003 and recently retired from his second career at the University of Southern California, where he helped manage the geochemistry laboratory.
Vote LD 49, ought not to pass.

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