"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Friday, February 2, 2018

NGSS: Standards for Grades 5, 9-12. My Letter to the State Board

Dear State Board Members:

I am concerned with the standards-adoption process I've observed since 2010.  Due to a lack of opportunity for the public to be involved during the Common Core adoption process in June and August of 2010, state law changed to require parent advisory committees for standards.  However, I have not found those "safe-guards" of advisory panels to address the fundamental questions required for standards adoption.

Just like with the math standards, average parents who have concerns with the current standards or with proposed new standards, do not have the time, energy or money to be able to effectively combat them with organizations that have full-time staff and who receive more time to discuss, debate, and propose than the 2 minute comment period allowed or by sending everything in an email. To that end, I hope you will forgive the length of my email, as I am unable to attend the committee meeting, and I want to include as much information as possible.  

I would like to address my main concerns with further adoption of the NGSS for science, and then address the questions I hope you will answer before voting on them.


1. ACT scores do not support switching to NGSS. In 2015, when I first wrote about my concerns in adopting NGSS, Utah scored higher in science on the ACT than the national average.  Utah tests ALL of its juniors on the ACT, which would naturally lower the ACT average when compared with states who allow for self-selection.  Utah's science ACT scores were higher than all those states who test 100% of their juniors as well (as per the 2014 stats, which were the latest ones available at that time:  you can see them here: https://web.archive.org/web/20150915050646/https://www.act.org/newsroom/data/2014/pdf/CCCR14-StatebyStateScoreSummary.pdf.)  

Since then, ACT has redesigned their test, and Utah has adopted NGSS (pretty much) for grades 6-8.  As of 2017 (https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/cccr2017/CCCR_National_2017.pdf, see pg. 14), Utah is one of 17 states, testing all its juniors.  Our science percentages (on benchmark) are exceeded only by 3 states (CO, MN, WI), none of which have adopted NGSS: http://ngss.nsta.org/About.aspx) In a quick search, I have been unable to find "raw scores" like I did for the 2014 ACT.  

Either way, if you think ACT is a good measurement of science mastery, then I'm unsure why we would jettison something that is working for something that hasn't shown itself to work for those states who have adopted these standards.

2. Fordham Foundation rates UTAH "clearly superior to NGSS.  NGSS is rated a C.  Fordham rated Utah's science standards (pre-NGSS for grades 6-8) a B, 7/10.  Please read their critique.  (http://edex.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/publication/pdfs/20130612-NGSS-Final-Review_7.pdf)  

A few quotes:

"In reality, there is virtually no mathematics, even at the high school level, where it is essential to the learning of physics and chemistry. Rather, the standards seem to assiduously dodge the mathematical demands inherent in the subjects covered."

"NGSS physical science coverage is mediocre throughout grades K–5. Sadly, its quality declines rapidly and steadily in middle school, and still further at the high school level, where little positive can be said. Indeed, the physical science standards fail to lay the foundation for advanced study in high school and beyond, and there is so little advanced content that it would be impossible to derive a high school physics or chemistry course from the content included in the NGSS."

"In reality, we found virtually no mathematics in the physical science standards, even at the high school level, where it is essential to the learning of physics and chemistry. Rather, the standards seem to avoid the mathematical demands inherent in the subjects covered." 

"A second troubling problem is that some topics are poorly covered—or omitted entirely—throughout the grades. Energy, and heat energy in particular, is a prime example of an important topic that is poorly addressed."

"Third, the NGSS also seem to shun precise scientific vocabulary, often resulting in muddled meaning."

"High school physical science content is virtually nonexistent. Entire areas that are fundamental to the understanding of physics and chemistry—and essential prerequisites for advanced study—are omitted. Among these are chemical formulas, chemical equations, the mole concept and its applications, kinematics, thermodynamics, and pretty much all of modern physics, including all of the advances of physics since about 1950, as well as their transformative engineering applications." 

"Nor is energy ever covered with adequate depth and rigor (as explained further below). The idea of building on earlier non-rigorous ideas of energy and making them rigorous at the high school level is glaringly absent. " 

"High school chemistry is largely absent from the NGSS. What little content is included is too often found in vaguely worded performance expectations that assume mastery of knowledge not previously introduced. The standards are further weakened by limitations found in the clarification statements and assessment boundaries, which place arbitrary caps on the knowledge and skills that will be assessed each year, as well as the near-total absence of mathematical relationships and problem solving, and the avoidance of appropriate scientific vocabulary."

"Nothing in NGSS might form a basis for the standard high school physics course, much less preparation for an “advanced” course in physics." 

"We cannot discourse on the strengths of material that is absent."

3. Science appreciation, not science: One reviewer, Ze'ev Wurman testified before the Ohio House (http://educationnext.org/wurman-testimony-math-science-standards-ohio/)  that the NGSS will create students who have an appreciation for science but who can't do science.  His conclusion states:
"The proposed New Generation Science Standards are flawed and aimed at preparing science and technology consumers rather than technology creators. They offer a false promise of enhancing STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] preparedness..."

4. Before-the-fact Training: All public school districts and charter schools were invited to send staff to a training at Weber State in the Fall of 2014, (6 months PRIOR to the grade 6-8 standards being presented to the State Board for public comment) to receive training in these new science standards.  Why train teachers/curriculum directors on something that might not happen?  Why are these standards so incredible that it requires a full-day seminar, before the fact, to properly train everyone?  

5. The adoption of the MOU for science test questions (just today) gives rise to similar concerns as the training.  Most of those states involved (I assume, since I was unable to find the MOU previous to today, and haven't had a chance to read it), will have similar standards, and it is my assumption these standards are NGSS.  As such, NGSS standards being used to write test questions leads to de facto standards adoption, whether Utah adopts NGSS or not.  What is tested is what will be taught.  We could keep our current science standards, but once we put NGSS test questions on our end-of-year tests, that is what will need to be taught to "prove" to the state our kids are learning.  

I don't mean to be rude or controversial, but from the time it was raised by Board Member Burningham in 2010 that adoption of one set of national standards (Common Core for English and Math) would lead to adoption of national standards in all the other areas, we have seen this occur.  There is no evidence that national standards yield better results than those that do not.  (It's about 50:50.)  What other standards did the science review committee look at?  And if no others, why not?  

Surely, there are many states that have science standards with a proven track record that are rated higher than Fordham's review of NGSS.  In 2013, there were 20 states with higher standards than NGSS, as well as the NAEP, TIMSS and ACT Frameworks.  Massachussetts' A-minus standards have, I believe, at least a 13-year track record and their tests are in the public domain.  (I know this is true for English and Math, but will be looking to find out for science.)  Are we interested in the BEST standards for our students, or do we want to have the SAME standards with most states?  For me, the answer is clear: I would like the best!  I have yet to find evidence (other than opinion) that NGSS will provide the best science education for our students.  


Here are the questions I would like to see asked by this Board for every set of standards, both existing and proposed.  I, personally, would appreciate receiving an answer to these questions, but understand if that isn't possible.  

The Burden of Proof to adopt new standards needs to be on you, as our elected State Board members.  Just because standards are "new" or the current standards are "old" isn't sufficient reason to assume that new is better.  Often, tried and true, is the best scenario.  

Additionally, since changing the math and English standards was voted down due to the hefty cost, why would we want to change other standards unnecessarily?  Or will these standards not incur any additional cost?  And if not, why not?  (Incidentally, as you go knocking on doors for campaigns, you don't hear "We need new science standards!"  You WILL hear tons of complaints about the math standards.  If there isn't a desire in the board to address the math standards that a large group of parents think is broken beyond comprehension, I think we should be very wary about changing something that the people don't think is broken, like science.  

1.) What is lacking in our current set of standards?  Please be specific; don't just say 'they need to be updated'.  With all due respect, if our previous standards were based on truth and objective fact, then, unless there have been changes, and science would be one of those areas where I would agree there are probably 'holes', there is no need to throw out the objective truth that we are already teaching.  Can we simply 'tweak' what we have now?

2.) What is the evidence that the proposed set of standards will be able to fill those gaps in our current standards?

3.) Have the proposed standards been either pilot-tested (for how long, what were the demographics, what were the metrics used to show improvement) or, as a baseline, benchmarked against other states or countries that we feel confident have been successful with this particular discipline?  (And what are those metrics?)

4.) Taken as a whole, over the course of 13 years, is there a prevailing worldview that emerges, and if so, is that worldview consistent with the diversity and the values of the citizens of this state? Do we seek to provide a broad, general knowledge, without influencing the attitudes, values, and beliefs of our students?  

5.) What are the pieces that are missing from the proposed standards?  For example, the NGSS do not address Life Systems, specifically body systems, or energy, or physics.  Climate change is heavily emphasized, but electric circuits are briefly mentioned.  While I appreciate both climate change and electric circuits being taught, it appears, at least to me, that there is an over-emphasis of one at the expense of others.  It is usually easier to find problems in things that exist.  It is much more difficult to take the time to determine what isn't even there.  

6.) Do the standards seek to obtain compliance of thought, instead of an understanding of the rationale and disagreements involved in controversial or politically charged issues?  This is especially important in science.  If we create a generation of students who believe that all science is not to be questioned, we have failed in our task.  Science is always to be questioned, and refined.  We should be constantly looking for ways to support or to disprove the current knowledge of the day.  

7.) Have you looked at some of the available curricular materials, as well as other states' implementations, to make sure that implementation of these standards, while supposedly wonderful in theory, won't fall flat in the application?  My past experience with the adoption of new standards and 'programs' (over the last decade) has been a trail of grand promises and disappointing results that are always blamed on local districts and teachers.  There has never been, or that anyone will admit, a set of bad standards.  It's always blamed on poor implementation.  With all due respect, if a set of standards can't be implemented successfully in at least 51% of the schools, then they should not be adopted, no matter what the claims and promises.  (Please see item #3.)

8.) Is there enough emphasis on fact and foundational knowledge?  There is a trend to focus on 'critical thinking' and to not get bogged down into rote memorization.  While I can appreciate and respect that position, it is impossible to have critical thinking about any issue without the foundational, factual knowledge of the subject.  Especially for children in the early grades who have limited abstraction and limited reasoning skills, are we allowing and encouraging those fact-based pieces of information that will form the foundation for greater understanding later on? 

9.)  Will these standards strengthen the parent-child relationship or hinder it?  For example, implementing standards that parents don't understand or that place them in a negative light vis-a-vis their child, no matter how great they are supposed to be, creates a rift between parent and child.  This is an unacceptable consequence for an education system that is supposed to be secondary and supportive to the primary role of the parent in educating his or her children.  The more involved parents are, the better the academic success of the child.  That is the number one factor in student success... the parent, not the standards.  We need to keep that in mind.  

Thank you for your time and effort, and my very great thanks if you made it all the way through this email.


Wendy Hart
Alpine District Board Member (NOT speaking on behalf of my board) for ASD2
Business Owner
Highland, UT