Some state standards are better than the NGSS

Education is primarily a responsibility of states and localities. Each state is free to establish its own education standards, and they differ from one state to another. Below we compare science education standards in two states, Washington and Massachusetts.

Washington State is one of 20 states that have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. A search on the internet leads to a web page titled, Washington State Science and Learning Standards. There one reads,

The Washington State Science and Learning Standards (WSSLS), previously known as the Next Generation Science Standards-NGSS, are a new set of standards that provide consistent science education through all grades, with an emphasis on engineering and technology.

In other words, in Washington State the NGSS is called WSSLS, but the two documents are otherwise identical. That means the WSSLS has the same strengths as the NGSS, such as establishing the goal that students learn about climate change, but also the same weaknesses. For example, WSSLS does not emphasize teaching science in the context of societal and personal interests. There is no suggestion that students learn about the impact of science on public policy, such as policies to reduce carbon emissions, or how to find accurate information about an unfamiliar science topic, such as vaping.

Although Position Statements from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) focus on the importance of taking a broader view of science education than the NGSS, Washington State’s Science and Learning standards make no reference to NSTA’s recommendations. It is presumably a source of frustration for the NSTA to realize that their Position Statements are not incorporated into the WSSLS or into many other states’ science education standards.

On the other hand, Massachusetts is an example of a state that has taken a different approach. In the state’s Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) Learning Standards, one reads that,

While the Massachusetts STE standards have much in common with NGSS, public input from across the Commonwealth during the development of the standards identified several needed adaptations for Massachusetts:

  • Include technology/engineering as a discipline equivalent to traditional sciences.
  • Include only two dimensions (disciplinary core ideas and science and engineering practices) in the standards, while encouraging the inclusion of crosscutting concepts and the nature of science in the curriculum.
  • Balance broad concepts with specificity to inform consistent interpretation …

The idea that every science lesson must include the three dimensions identified in the NGSS was rejected by Massachusetts. A result of that modification is to provide teachers with greater flexibility, such as making it easier to plan lessons.

There are other important differences between the NGSS and the Massachusetts STE learning standards. One difference is to more clearly emphasize the importance of reasoning with evidence, including reasoning about claims found in media of any kind. (The word “media” appears dozens of times in the STE standards.) Specifically, in Massachusetts students should learn to:

“Respectfully provide and/or receive critiques on scientific arguments by probing reasoning and evidence and challenging ideas and conclusions, and determining what additional information is required to solve contradictions, and

Evaluate the validity and reliability of and/or synthesize multiple claims, methods, and/or designs that appear in scientific and technical texts or media, verifying the data when possible.” (pp. 66-67)

Another difference is that Massachusetts adopts as a guiding principle the idea that:

“An effective science and technology/engineering program addresses students’ prior knowledge and preconceptions.” (p. 9)

The NGSS, on the other hand, makes no mention of students’ prior knowledge and preconceptions.

Yet another important difference is that preparing students to apply STE knowledge “to real-world applications needed for civic participation” is an explicit goal of the standards (p. 5). This is similar to NSTA Position Statements. However, in the NGSS there is no mention of civic participation.

For a variety of reasons, Massachusetts students perform unusually well on national and international tests, compared to students in other states. There is simply no evidence that adopting science education standards different than—better than—the NGSS harms the state’s students in any way. To the contrary: we believe that establishing better goals for science education helps students.

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