Next Generation Science Standards Fall Flat

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[Note to the reader: I am CEO of an online science lab provider and, while this article does not address online learning, it does have opinions related to the use of science labs. While I have made every effort to avoid bias based on my current position and believe that my opinion would be the same were I, for example, still a university professor, readers should be aware of my personal connection in this regard. -HK]

The long-awaited Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) second draft has been published for public review*. This is the final public review version. After diving into them, I found them lacking in some important respects.

I’ve taken the time to look at both versions (DCI­ and Topic arrangements). They’re both the same material arranged differently. I haven’t bothered with elementary school standards because I’m happy with doing any science at all in grades K-5.

I spent some time in the middle school area and was disappointed with the lack of academic rigor, the insufficient range of topics for three years of learning, and the paucity of quantitative investigations indicated. So, I went on to the high school topics hoping for something better.

As a chemist, the first thing I looked for was chemistry. There’s so no such topic. The NGSS document is arranged under three heading: PS, LS, and ESS. These stand for physical science, life science, and earth and space science. Earth and space science is certainly physical in nature but has its own separate section, while chemistry must lie hidden in physical science somewhere. The word chemistry does not appear.

Instead, most of what I’d term chemistry appears under two headings: Structure and Properties of Matter and Chemical Reactions. All right, a derivative word for chemistry does appear there but only in the topic-oriented version.

In order to see what’s afoot here, it’s necessary to list the topics under these headings. The good news and the bad news is that there are only ten topics (eleven if you count the bonus topic). It’s good because the list is short and easy to write here. The bad news is that this is all that there is for an entire year of high school chemistry. To give the NGSS their due, the introductory material does indicate that these are “core” ideas and that teachers are free to add on more material. You have to wonder how many teachers will bother to expand on the requirements that they’re given.  

Here’s the list of the HS-PS1 standards plus one added from HS-PS3.

a. Evaluate the merits of different atomic and molecular representations based on their ability to explain a given property of matter or phenomenon.
b. Use the periodic table as a model to predict the relative properties of elements based on the patterns of electrons in the outer energy level of atoms.
c. Analyze and interpret provided data about bulk properties of various substances to support claims about the relative strength of the interactions among particles in the substance.
d. Develop a representation to show that energy is required to separate the atoms in a molecule and that energy is released when atoms at a distance come together to form molecules that are more stable.
e. Construct an explanation about the effects of changing the temperature or concentration of the reacting particles on the rate at which a reaction occurs.
f. Use models to support that the release or absorption of energy from a chemical system depends upon the changes in total bond energy.
g. Refine the design of a chemical system to specify changes in conditions that would produce increased amounts of products at equilibrium.
h. Use mathematical expressions to support the explanation that atoms, and therefore mass, are conserved during a chemical reaction.
i. Construct an explanation to support predications about the outcome of simple chemical reactions, using the structure of atoms, trends in the periodic table, and knowledge of the patterns of chemical properties.
j. Develop representations of the changes in the composition of the nucleus of the atom and the energy released during the processes of fission, fusion, and
3-g. Evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear processes compared to other types of energy production.

You really don’t have to read past the first few words to notice something truly unusual. Students are not required to obtain any data first-hand. No labs are required. [Update 1.23.13: See author’s comment.]

Chemistry, famously or infamously, is known for requiring lots of lab work. As the National Research Council (NRC) indicated in its book, America’s Lab Report (ALR; free online), a science lab should be a place where students conduct science investigations. Preferably, these will be quantitative in nature. F. W. Westaway, a well-known expert on science education from the late 19th and early 20th century remarked that science has the characteristic that you could learn things first-hand.

Science has one enormous advantage over all other subjects. All facts can be obtained at first hand and without resort to authority. The learner is thus put in the position of being able to reason with an entirely unprejudiced mind. It is this possibility of self-elimination in forming a judgment that must be regarded as the greatest possible specific result of science teaching (Westaway, F. W., Scientific Method Its Philosophy and Practice, Blackie & Son, London, p. 49; free online).

The following quotes by James B. Conant appear in appendix H of the NGSS (p. 3):

…the remedy does not lie in a greater dissemination of scientific information among nonscientists. Being well informed about science is not the same thing as understanding science, though the two propositions are not antithetical. What are needed are methods for importing some knowledge of the tactics and strategy of science to those who are not scientists.

The appendix goes on to explain that tactics are analogous to science “practices” and strategy to “the nature of science explanations.” What are these science practices? According to appendix H, only four are fundamental to understanding the nature of science:

  • Developing and using models
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Constructing explanations, and
  • Engaging in argument from evidence.

These certainly are important but miss one very crucial issue. Can we really expect our students to learn about science if simply handed a table of data to analyze? Should science learning in school be entirely left to analysis of second-hand data? The NRC has strongly suggested not in ALR.

We find ALR and NGSS to be in conflict here. I am inclined to take the part of ALR because there’s nothing that can match first-hand data taking for engagement and for truly comprehending the nature of science, which includes being faced with empirical data that are complex and often ambiguous.

I look at the NGSS and, remembering “Where’s the beef?” from a famous commercial some years ago, ask, “Where’s the lab?”

Has the NGSS left us without labs in high school chemistry? For years, the effort has been all in the other direction, even pushing labs down to kindergarten in some instances. I’m not sure at all about the value of going that far, but the idea of learning science with entirely second-hand data leaves me aghast.

The NGSS authors may well come back by saying that they have plenty of “lab” work. If you look carefully, you’ll see several instances of something like “Design, evaluate, and refine a device that ….” But that’s an engineering lab and is very different from a science lab. Engineering is about building things. Science is about exploring the great unknowns of the universe.

They also do occasionally have a “Design and conduct an investigation ….” But read further in the “Clarification Statement” and you see that it says, “Qualitative observations only.” Lord Kelvin, who accurately measured absolute zero, said, “To measure is to know,” and more fully, “I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.”

What’s going on here? Do the NGSS abandon all that scientists hold dear? It feels that way to me.

If you read the fascinating book, Scientists in the Classroom, written by John L. Rudolph and published in 2002, you’ll find a sort of déjà vu. Rudolph explains how science was being taught from a “life-adjustment curricular ideology” that dominated the curricular planning in the post-war period of the 1940s and early 1950s. Rudolph explains, on page 5, that this life-adjustment approach has its roots in a progressive education movement of the time and that “academic subject matter was marginalized in favor of courses designed to meet the immediate social, personal, and vocational needs of the student.”

I’m sure that the authors of NGSS would protest vigorously if presented with this analogy. However, the injection of lots of engineering projects and the almost total elimination of any quantitative measurements by students and of nearly any sort of first-hand science investigation leads to the conclusion that we have something similar afoot here but with different roots and purposes.

Science is now to be presented as a sort of mental exercise with “provided data.” You don’t get your hands “dirty” unless you’re actually building something, doing engineering. We’re back to what Carl Sagan complained about in his book, The Demon-Haunted World: “But there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody had once believed.”

Where, indeed, is the “soaring sense of wonder”? Where, also, is the sense of history that Sagan alludes to in this quote? Michael R. Matthews has written eloquently in his book, Science Teaching, The Role of History and Philosophy of Science, that we cannot teach science well without these aspects.

What we see is repeated use of “Develop a representation …” or “Construct an explanation …” or “Use models to support …” or “Evaluate the merits ….” These are not bad by themselves but have pushed out the soul of science by completely taking over the new standards, at least in chemistry and, in my reading, all of the other topics as well. Where do students measure? Where do they see with their eyes the nature of the materials that they’re studying?

Putting aside my bias for chemistry, which owns only ten of the nearly 100 topics, I am not happy with abandoning the laboratory and replacing it with engineering projects and “think” science almost entirely. I hope that this situation changes but feel a juggernaut bearing down upon our science courses and suspect that we are helpless to stop or even deflect it.

* Note from the authors of the NGSS report: “The second draft of the Next Generation Science Standards opened for feedback on January 8, 2013 and will remain open for feedback until January 29, 2013. We fully encourage all interested parties to review the draft as individuals or in groups and provide feedback to the Lead States and writers.”

21 Responses

  1. I’ll reiterate that the standards do not preclude labs. States may still require them. Some states insist very strongly on having them. Others say little about them.

    Without a national standard that includes actual measurement of real-world data, science becomes, in my view, a hollow subject for learning for the many who are not in states mandating such an approach. [-HK]

    • What science teacher would teach science WITHOUT having students directly interact with the natural world (ie. labs, observation, measurement, etc.)? Is mandating this necessary?

      • It happens more often then most of us would like. Sometimes, it’s lack of facilities. My son taught physical science and chemistry in a highly rated high school in an English classroom with no hint of lab facilities. To run a lab session, he had to switch rooms with another science teacher. With two subjects to teach, that required some fancy footwork.

  2. […] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education [Note to the reader: I am CEO of an online science lab provider and, while this article does not address online learning, it does have opinions related to …  […]

  3. The writer has a (common) misconception about the role of the Performance Expectations in NGSS. They are guides to assessment developers about what to target once students have completed instruction. The writers of the NGSS have frequently noted that during instruction, students will need to engage in multiple scientific and engineering practices (such as Planning and Carrying Out Investigations) as part of the instruction necessary to learn each disciplinary core idea.

    It is reasonable to be concerned that none of the Performance Expectations target the practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations and to encourage that one of the Performance Expectations be altered to do so, but that doesn’t make the entire approach of the standards a problem.

  4. […] Next Generation Science Standards Fall Flat […]

  5. Some have commented here and elsewhere that the NGSS are performance expectations. In my opinion, you can’t have it both ways. These standards have such detail that they appear, despite protestations to the contrary, to be curricular items.

    Furthermore, many of them ask students to analyze, in some way or other, “provided data.” That’s a loophole large enough to drive a Mac truck through. From where do those “provided data” come?

    It makes a huge difference whether they come from student investigations, from teacher-supplied data sheets, or from some simulation.

    In addition to these issues, which are subject to multiple interpretations, you also have the issue of coverage. Chemistry represents, according to my reading, about 10% of the total. As a chemist, I object.

    As I read over these “performance expectations,” I see much of a topical nature, things that may well change as our understanding evolves. Science is for the ages, and standards should hardly be bent to fit today’s political objectives.

    Indeed, the swing from general to specific standards seems dizzying as you read through them.

    Make no mistake, writing this material is truly a difficult job. It’s very easy to throw bricks at someone else’s work and much harder to provide your own substitutes.

    If these are truly assessment guidelines, when do students do investigations and take measurements in such a situation? These standards do require that. As I wrote at the outset, you can’t have it both ways. I’d much prefer that the standards mention when students achieve the necessary performance through the use of investigations. Simply expecting teachers and other curriculum writers to fill in the blanks may be asking too much while providing too little.

  6. These NGS standards read l;ike they were written by a former HS English teacher who hasnt been out of her cubicle for a while.
    Problem solving, scientific method, engineering, modeling, and arguing from evidence all require a strong foundation of basic scientific facts and scientific priciples. The new NGS standards are missing many of the important foundation pieces needed for higher order activities.
    We better look a little harder before we leap, as a nation, into this morass.

    • Thank you for your comment. The NGSS really look like something done by a committee of educationally (rather than politically) correct individuals. Dare I say that the job is too big for a committee and deserves an individual?

      I think that they also tried too hard to reform science education by curricular reform. Even though NGSS are not curricula, they do tell curriculum writers what to do.

      Sometimes, you have to leap forward. Sometimes, you have to crawl. The NGSS seem to be a leap across and un-leapable chasm.

    • I have to add that reform of science curricula has been tried many times before, often at great expense, without result. Professional development has also been seen as our science education panacea by more than a few and has never delivered in its promise.

      I don’t advocate crawling ahead on fixing science education, but I do say take steps not leaps. You can have a lofty goal far ahead that provides the path. As you progress down that path, you can make adjustments. By leaping ahead, the NGSS assume that they know all of the answers. The debris created by this explosion of standards will take time to clean up, time we don’t have. We’ll end up in a place we shouldn’t be and have to take off again in another direction.

      There’s much good in these standards. As “rab” remarked, some has been obfuscated by language. I just think that a better way forward could have been found.

  7. I’m a bit confused. You say that science is all about getting your hands dirty, yet you are the CEO of an online science lab provider. Doesn’t an online lab necessitate NOT getting your hand dirty?

    • I think that you mistake what I wrote. This is a rather complex issue. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain more fully.

      In the first place, I advocate real experiments that come from the real world. Nearly all online labs are simulations that come from theories and a programmer’s pencil. My online labs do not.

      In the second place, I do not advocate abandoning tactile experiments entirely. I seek balance. Our online hands-on labs have provision for doing wet lab experiments too and combining the two approaches into a complete experience that exceeds what either can provide alone.

      This “hybrid” approach won’t always work. Sometimes, the experiments don’t lend themselves well to the school room. An example is our Daily Tides lab. Another is the Colorimetric Analysis of Copper Alloys. The latter requires concentrated nitric acid. In some instances, the nature of an experiment does not lend itself to my technology, and we provide a purely wet lab solution.

      Education should use all tools that work. What they should not do is to substitute perfectly good labs with simulations. My company does not do simulations for that very reason. We deliver real experiments with software that allows students to collect their own individual data using their own care and judgment — just as in a normal lab.

      My ideas do not conflict. In fact, they work in perfect harmony.

  8. I think the trouble with NGSS is that they are hard to completely comprehend at a quick glance, with 4 different types of standards/objectives/practices, as opposed to one list of topics. The problem is NOT with the lack of expectations in students doing science.

    This difficulty in reading the NGSS leads inaccurate articles like this one here.

    NGSS includes “Science and Engineering Practices”. One is called “Planning and Carrying Out Investigations”, where clearly students are expected to do experiments where they produce the data that they then analyze. So you need not worry about losing wet-labs. In its description, it specifies that investigations must “test conceptual, mathematical, physical, and empirical models”. Since I see the word “mathematical” in there, I would not worry about losing quantitative wet-labs. Read below for the complete description of this Practice:

    “Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

    Planning and carrying out investigations in 9-12 builds on K-8 experiences and progresses to include investigations that provide evidence for and test conceptual, mathematical, physical, and empirical models.

    Plan and conduct an investigation individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, and in the design: decide on types, how much, and accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements and consider limitations on the precision of the data (e.g., number of trials, cost, risk, time), and refine the design accordingly. (HS-PS1-3)”

    • NGSS has problems. The quotes you provide are from one of many lengthy appendices. After plowing through a very long main document, how many will read all of those appendices?

      Your quote comes from the “Grades 9-12” section of “3. Planning and Carrying Out Investigations” in Appendix F. Really?

      People will focus on the standards, which are ambiguous here. These are presented as assessment standards, yet have the following for high school.

      “Plan and conduct an investigation to gather evidence to compare the structure of substances at the bulk scale to infer the strength of electrical forces between particles.”

      “Design, build, and refine a device that works within given constraints to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.”

      The first looks like a lab to me, a standard “Properties of Matter” lab that is even conducted at lower grade levels. The second is a project.

      As you riffle through the standards, most begin with the following phrases and variations on them.

      “Develop models to illustrate…”
      “Communicate scientific and technical information about…”
      “Construct and revise an explanation…”
      “Apply scientific principles and evidence to provide an explanation…”
      “Refine the design of…”
      “Use mathematical representations to…”
      “Analyze data to support…”
      “Create a computational model to…”
      “Evaluate questions about…”

      I just don’t get it. How can you scatter labs and projects among assessment standards in this manner? I saw about five of these “Plan and conduct…” and “Design, build…” activities among scores of standards. Can you really “conduct” and “build” when assessing thousands of students? If these are assessment standards, that’s an anomaly to my way of seeing things. Curricular standards should have many more investigations and projects.

      If people are having negative reactions to NGSS, it’s not surprising — at least in my view.

  9. […] NGSS eliminates high school chemistry, the lab portion of high school physics, and lowers the standards for most math necessary to study […]

  10. My beef with the Chemistry is the lack of actual chemistry content.

    No nomenclature, no acids/bases, no solutions, no stoichiometry, no gas laws, no types of reactions, no thermodynamics, and more.

    I understand the need for students to improve skills. I believe that is huge need as many students do not have these skills. But skills without content will not transition well into college life.

    • I agree. As a chemist, I was struck by how small the chemistry part of the standards are. Chemistry is about the stuff from which everything is made. Further, it’s about how these basic substances change one into another.

      You cannot do biology without an understanding of chemistry. My background in chemistry constantly informs and assists in much of my everyday life.

      Chemistry is not as neatly formed as physics nor as messy as biology. Because of my chemistry background, I am comfortable in biology and physics and have branched out to learn geology and astronomy. I have been able to follow the developments in microbiology and molecular biology, in cosmology and paleontology.

      I am disappointed by how much chemistry has been gutted in the NGSS.

  11. […] also laments much missing high school science material. He summarizes in an article titled, “Next Generation Science Standards Fall Flat” in the online “ETC Journal, A journal for educational technology & […]

  12. […] I think the Next Generation Science Standards have problems beyond its doubling down on evolution (introducing the topic to junior high students) and man-made […]

  13. […] distribute it throughout other subjects. In so doing, the standards drop essential science content, writes former chemistry professor and science editor Harry […]

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