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New Indiana science standards would stress skills over memorizing facts

Schools in the Tindley network are among the most racially isolated in the city.
Schools in the Tindley network are among the most racially isolated in the city.
Alan Petersime

Starting next year, science teachers in Indiana could be much more focused on how kids learn about biology and engineering — and less focused on what they learn.

The new science standards that the Indiana State Board of Education is set to vote on tomorrow stress the investigative and research skills that kids need to learn at every grade level as they explore physical science, earth and space science, life science and engineering.

“Students learn best when they’re actually engaged in the practices of science,” said David Evans, executive director of the National Association of Science Teachers, a group that helped develop the national science standards that Indiana’s new proposed standards are based on. “This is how scientists do work. They see something in the physical world and they start to look for explanations.”

The idea of setting standards for schools is politically delicate in the wake of the heated controversy over the Common Core State Standards, which many states, including Indiana, adopted for reading and math several years ago.

But Indiana was among states that ultimately dumped the Common Core in favor of Indiana-specific standards after the idea of national standards became unpopular among Republican activists who saw the standards as an overreach by the federal government.

State education officials say the new proposed standards are informed in part by the Next Generation Science standards, which were developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and standards-based reform organization Achieve.

But national experts, wary of a backlash, are stressing that the nationally developed science standards are not Common Core: Part II.

Evans said the National Association of Science Teachers has been careful as it helps states develop their standards to ensure that the effort is carried out differently than the Common Core was.

Some Common Core critics do remain skeptical about the science standards but, so far, the roll-out process has been slow, with just 17 states so far adopting the standards. Plus, there’s no push from the federal government.

“There’s no federal money in devising or writing the NGSS,” Evans said. “And there has never been any federal money set aside for implementation. States were involved in writing the standards, and it really was a conscious position at the outset to follow whatever the processes were that state usually have.”

Jeremy Eltz, a science specialist with the department who is working on Indiana’s standards, said in a memo to the state board of education ahead of tomorrow’s vote that Indiana created multiple committees to make sure experts, teachers and science professors were involved and that the public had a chance to comment as well. It’s been a slower, more deliberate process, which national experts thought was a good move.

“It’s kind of I think purposefully going at a slower pace than the Common Core roll-out did,” said Eric Banilower, a science education researcher from Horizon Research. “Which is probably a good thing.”

If the state board of education adopts the K-8 and high school standards tomorrow, schools will be required to teach research skills to students including how to: ask questions and define problems; create and use models and tools; build and carry out investigations; analyze data; do mathematical computation; create explanations and design solutions; argue based on evidence; and evaluate and communicate information.

The list of skills is longer at each grade level than the state’s last set of science standards, which were adopted in 2010.

“When Indiana adopted new science standards in 2010, we lead [sic] the country with the inclusion of Engineering and Technology Standards,” Eltz wrote in a memo to the state board. “Indiana will continue to lead and prepare students for the 21st century workforce by including Computer Science standards K-8.”

The proposed standards for computer science call for students to show they can use keyboards and understand how pervasive computers are in everyday life in elementary school, then learn how to troubleshoot simple software problems, use programming languages and explore the ethics related to computers, such as copyright, security and privacy.

By middle school, students will have to understand how computer networks work and know how to use videos, podcasts and websites, as well as be versed on explaining how computer intelligence and human intelligence differ.

In high school, the standards are divided up by subject: biology, chemistry, earth and space science, environmental science, and physics.

This shift to emphasizing research skills in science class rather than specific knowledge is common in recent updates to academic standards. Just as with Indiana’s new college- and career-ready standards in math and English, and academic standards across the country, the new science standards are expected to be more rigorous and focus less on memorization.

For example, in physical science, first-graders would be required to know if a material is a solid, liquid or gas. They’d also be expected to be able to observe and write down what makes each different, and then explain those findings to their classmates.

By sixth grade, it’s more conceptual. Middle-schoolers aren’t just talking about what they can see, they are explaining the difference between things like position, distance, speed and velocity. In eighth-grade, atomic theory is introduced, and kids would have to create models to represent atoms and molecules.

Once they move to high school physics, students use math to support many of those earlier ideas. They’ll use mathematical slope to explain the velocity of an object and use graphs to show how velocity changes over time.

The proposed standards include topics Evans said have been controversial but not disputed by mainstream science, such as climate change and evolution.

“These are not issues that are controversial from a science point of view, but socially or politically …what people want to make of that science … there’s obviously a lot of controversy around them,” Evans said.

Based on a review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group, Indiana’s 2010 science standards earned an “A-” grade, while the Next Generation standards earned a “C.” Erin Tuttle, who along with Heather Crossin helped spark the opposition movement to Common Core back in 2013, said the national standards were ranked low in part because they cut out science content to add in more skills and practice.

It would be irresponsible not to consider national standards, Eltz said earlier last year. But it doesn’t mean Indiana has to adopt them verbatim. When updating the state’s standards, Eltz said, the goal is to balance content, practice, national standards and other research — especially since reports have shown time spent on science in elementary school classrooms fell from three hours per week to about two from 1994 to 2012.

The NGSS — and any set of standards developed at the national level, really — are a starting point, Banilower said.

“They’re meant to be sort of a floor, not a ceiling,” Banilower said. “And if states felt the need to add to them in certain areas, they are free to do so, but the idea is that this is, at a minimum, what all students should be able to do as a result of their K-12 education.”

It’s those classroom-level realities that districts and policymakers need to be aware of, Evans said. For states implementing new, more rigorous science standards, teachers need appropriate training and support, he said.

“We’re really asking teachers to teach in a really different way,” Evans said. “The professional development requirements around NGSS are really pretty significant.”

And what NSTA has created to help teachers teach the Next Generation standards hasn’t just seen buy-in from states that have adopted them. At least half of U.S. science teachers using NGSS materials are from states that haven’t formally signed on, Evans said. Teachers have been fairly supportive of the new standards.

“You can’t just roll out this document and say, ‘Here you go now, everybody teach this,’” Banilower said.

In Eltz’s memo to the state board, he said the state education department would help provide training and resource guides for schools that would be ready by mid-May. Training will continue from June through December.

It’s still too early to say how the new science standards could affect student test scores, especially since the state is still working on the 2017 ISTEP test. In 2015, during the first year Indiana implemented its new English and math standards, the percentage of students who passed both English and math fell by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent.

It’s possible that given the changes in how students are asked to think and problem solve, scores on state science tests might dip. Indiana students are tested in science in fourth, sixth and 10th grades.

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