Thomas R. O'Donnell

Make your voice heard (again) on the Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on February 9, 2015 at 7:52 am

After dropping off the screen for more than a year, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are back in the spotlight.

A team of educators is reviewing Iowa’s science standards – what concepts they should know or what skills they should demonstrate. After considering several different criteria, ones either proposed or used elsewhere, it settled on the NGSS as the foundation for what kids will learn in science classes across Iowa.

Maybe more importantly, the NGSS outlines how students will learn, hoping to set them up to learn and work with facts and technology we can’t forecast.

Now the team is gathering feedback on the standards from educators, parents and students, through an on-line survey and four forums – the first of which is this Wednesday afternoon.

Like the last time a state panel considered the NGSS, the survey and the forums could be an opportunity for conservative opponents to come out and torpedo the effort.

The review team gives me major déjà vu. I wrote many times before, dating back to 2013, about the NGSS and a previous task force that considered whether Iowa should adopt them. At the time I feared the panel was a way for Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration to tank the standards. Many conservatives oppose the NGSS, saying they infringe on schools’ local control prerogative. The standards also teach concepts some conservatives believe to be false, such as evolution and human-caused climate change.

I also wrote about what the standards actually say and an on-line survey the task force set up. Despite the sometimes-wacky comments some people made on the survey, the task force ultimately recommended the state adopt the standards.

And there it sat. Last April I checked on the task force’s recommendations. The department was reviewing them, but also looking ahead to evaluating the current Iowa Core learning standards under Branstad’s Executive Order 83.

The Iowa Department of Education is reviewing all of the state’s standards, department spokeswoman (and my former Des Moines Register colleague) Staci Hupp Ballard told me last week. Science is the first subject the state took on.

The department is somewhat behind the eight ball on this: The Iowa Legislature has mandated that the Iowa Core standards adopted in 2008 new standards be in place by the end of this school year, Ballard said.

The previous NGSS task force “was a good process,” she said, but it was narrow, focusing just on the NGSS. The current review team examined a range of standards used elsewhere, including Ohio and Massachusetts. “Blending” the standards in some fashion also is on the table, Ballard said.

The new panel seems more educator-focused, although there also are industry representatives and “informal” science educators, like a staffer from the Science Center of Iowa. The previous task force had at least a couple of legislators and members of the general public.

In its first meeting (PDF) in November, the review team unanimously rejected recommending the state keep the Iowa Core Essential Concepts/Skills for Science as they stand now. After breaking into groups to review other standards, the team gave the highest ratings to the NGSS. It liked their content, process and performance evaluation, but disliked their format.

The team settled on the NGSS and the Ohio state standards as the most desirable on which to base Iowa’s new standards. When it met (PDF) in December, the team delved into each more deeply.

In a vote, almost all team members endorsed using the NGSS without changes.

Now the team is seeking feedback. Over the rest of the month, it will hold four forums around the state, with the first one on Wednesday in Waukee, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Waukee schools office boardroom, 560 S.E. University Ave.

Here are the other forums, all scheduled for 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.:

  • Ottumwa: Tuesday, Feb. 24, Great Prairie Area Education Agency auditorium, 2814 N. Court Ave.
  • Dubuque: Wednesday, Feb. 25, Keystone Area Education Agency, Room 1, 2310 Chaney Road.
  • Sioux City: Thursday, Feb. 26, Northwest Area Education Agency administrative office auditorium, 1520 Morningside Ave.

And then there’s the survey, which closes February 27. As with the last poll, it recommends you familiarize yourself with the NGSS before answering the questions. This is a must, both for those who take the survey and for those who attend the forums.

It can be daunting. The standards are detailed and cover physical sciences, life sciences, Earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and applications of science for every grade from kindergarten through high school. One could easily spend an entire day reading them.

For a quicker, but reasonable overview, I recommend going to the Disciplinary Core Idea (DCI) arrangement of standards page and clicking on the “storylines” for each grade level and subject area. These links give you PDF narratives, no more than two pages each, describing the standards.

You’ll find a particular phrase popping up: “Students can analyze and interpret data, develop models and construct arguments and develop a deeper understanding” of concepts. This reflects the NGSS goal of creating citizens who grasp the process of science and can apply it themselves.

Some of the things students will learn and discuss go beyond what I learned in high school 40 years ago, such as the idea of energy moving through ecosystems.

The previous unscientific survey, as I noted in this post, found strong support for the NGSS, but also a vein of opposition, some of it thoughtful, some of it bizarre.

There’s no doubt that right-wing groups oppose the NGSS and the Common Core State Standards. The latter, especially, have become anathema in the conservative, Tea Party community. They were a punching bag at a “summit” of potential Republican presidential nominees in Des Moines last month.

Some governors, after supporting the standards, changed their minds after conservatives objected. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for example, supported the standards, but reversed course in light of the opposition – and his presidential aspirations – and is trying to stop their implementation in his state.

I’ve long worried whether Branstad, a Republican, would buckle under criticism from his party’s base and trash the NGSS. I feared the first task force was a vehicle to do just that. After it endorsed them, I worried that the Branstad administration was seeking the answer it wanted with this second review.

Not so, Ballard said. “We’re aware of some pushback on the Next Generation Science Standards” from some constituents. “But we also really want to improve our state standards and make sure they’re right” for Iowa.

After the second panel landed in the same place as the first, it’ll be harder for opponents to say the NGSS don’t meet that need.

But they still need your support. In the comments, let me know you took the survey and whether you plan to attend a forum.

CORRECTION: After checking with Staci Hupp Ballard, I corrected this to show the standards that must be implemented this year are the Iowa Core standards, not new standards.



  1. […] background on the standards and the science standards review team, read this post. For more on a previous NGSS task force and its conclusions, see this, this, and […]

  2. […] (NGSS) as a basis for Iowa’s revised guidelines. The panel had one open forum on February 11. The last two are this week: tonight in Dubuque and Thursday in Sioux […]

  3. […] all the state’s standards, now called the Iowa Core. Over the last month the review team has gathered comments from parents, teachers, administrators, and others via a survey and the […]

  4. […] the team focused on the NGSS as a baseline for new Iowa requirements. You can read more about the deliberations and associated surveys, forums and issues in my previous […]

  5. […] written previously about the deliberations and associated surveys, forums and […]

  6. […] may recall that a task force of educators began considering the standards in October as part of a regular review of Iowa […]

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