ICCSD Science Program Proposal, Revisted

At least one ICCSD school board member, Lori Roetlin, is asking to continue the conversation about the District’s plan to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). (See Roetlin’s guest opinions in the Press-Citizen or The Gazette). One of her concerns is the acceleration plan that requires students to double up on science courses in either 8th or 9th grade, and the effect that will have on student opportunity to take other courses.

The administration’s position is that the NGSS Earth and Space Science standards cannot be covered in less than a year-long course. That might be true if we start from the position that all district 7th, 8th, and 9th graders will be required to take the exact same science courses. But what if we start from the position that it we could offer a regular sequence of courses that would cover the 7th and 8th grade standards plus the high school earth and space science standards in three years and offer a separate, accelerated 7th and 8th grade course sequence that would cover all of those standards in two years. Could we do it?

I think the answer is probably yes. The short reason why is that the need for accelerated ( or time compressed) science course pathways was anticipated and model course pathways that show how all the middle school (grades 6-8) standards plus all the high school standards could be covered in four years (grades 6-9) or five years (grades 6-10) have already been created.

We are only talking about accelerating the earth and space science standards, not all the high school science standards, so let’s see what we can do. But first, some background information.

You can find all the NGSS standards and other information here. The Iowa State Board of Education complicated things by adopting the middle school standards as grade specific standards, meaning that we can’t just follow the accelerated model pathways because Iowa requires a different, grade-level specific ordering of the middle school standards. Find those Iowa-specific requirements by performance expectation here or core idea here. Find the NGSS earth and space science standards by disciplinary core idea for middle school here and high school here.

Note that the Iowa State Board of Education adopted the performance expectations as the science standards. The performance expectations combine a disciplinary core idea (content knowledge), a science or engineering practice or practices, and a cross-cutting concept. These performance expectations are found in the large boxes with white background. The language in red in this section outlines important clarifications or limitations. Be sure to read these to clarify for yourself the level of difficulty of the standards.

Somewhat confusingly, in my opinion, these performance expectations represent a way that Iowa schools can combine disciplinary core ideas, practices, and concepts, but not the only way that schools can combine them. For this reason, I think it is helpful to look at the actual content knowledge to be covered, which can be found in the orange boxes labeled Disciplinary Core Ideas.

So here’s one way we could do this (click to make the images bigger or find the pdf version here):


I didn’t suggest any additions to the 6th grade science course because it makes sense not to if we are going to require placement in pre-algebra or algebra in 7th grade for placement in accelerated science coursework.  For 7th and 8th grades, I just added the corresponding high school standards.

These look like a lot of standards, but I think there are three things to consider. First, some of the content–particularly at the middle school level–may not actually be that challenging for accelerated science students. Hey, kids, the sun is actually a star with an approximate lifespan of ten billion years! Here is a model of the solar system and an explanation of why we experience seasons or solar and lunar eclipses. We can use rocks to tell how old the earth is, but don’t worry, we don’t expect you to recall the names of any specific geological time periods or events that happened within them. And so on.

Second, the five-year model course pathway allocates thirty-one standards to the 6th grade course and thirty-seven to the 7th grade course so, maybe, twenty-nine for 7th grade and thirty-eight for 8th grade isn’t too many for advanced students. Also, keep in mind that some of the high school content is an extension of middle school content, for example, understanding planetary orbits without and then with Kepler’s Laws of orbital motion (but limited to two bodies, and no calculus). In which case, we perhaps, aren’t adding as much content as it might appear.

Third, I think instructional choices will play a huge role in how much class time is really required to cover all the earth and space science standards at the minimally required level. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that some methods of covering the material could be more time-efficient (and more effective) than others. Furthermore, accelerated students may not need as much time and practice to learn the material.

Alternately, at least for some students, a ninth grade earth and space science option might be more appealing if the administration could produce an honors syllabus and recommended textbook that demonstrated that students would be appropriately challenged. Without that, it isn’t hard to anticipate some students and parents being just as disappointed with the earth and space science course as some students and parents are with Foundations III. However, I still think the most interested and ambitious science students would prefer getting the high school earth and space science standards out of the way in junior high.

The bottom line for me is that all standards for all students isn’t the same as all standards for all students at the same pace (in your choice of 8th or 9th grade). The district can and should offer more options for accelerated science course work.

Is my proposal too simplistic? Possibly. Are there other options? Absolutely! How about shifting the middle school and high school earth and human activity standards to an 8th grade trimester-length course on climate change to reduce the number of standards covered in the accelerated course? Feel free to share your ideas on those in the comments.


5 thoughts on “ICCSD Science Program Proposal, Revisted

  1. Matt Townsley

    “Somewhat confusingly, in my opinion, these performance expectations represent a way that Iowa schools can combine disciplinary core ideas, practices, and concepts, but not the only way that schools can combine them.”

    I am confused, too! A part of me thinks, “If there’s flexibility in the way schools can combine DCIs, practices and concepts, why did the state adopt the performance expectations?” After all, the DCIs were written as a suggestion, so why did our state decide these suggestions were the “right” ones? As I’ve sought out answers to the question about local flexibility as it relates to NGSS, I have received mixed responses.

    1. Karen W Post author

      Interesting. I’d have to dig out my notes, but I remember it being explained that they were adopted as performance expectations to encourage/emphasize the importance of three-dimensional teaching, but not to limit Iowa schools to just that one particular set of combinations of DCIs, practices, and concepts. Of course, maybe some of the people answering your questions attended different meetings or just heard it differently than I did. 😉

  2. Mary

    Thank you for writing this article Karen. ICCSD should have an accelerated junior high science curriculum where students can achieve the currently planned three courses in two courses over 7th and 8th grade. I suspect even some of ICCSD’s own science teachers would agree that they have students who could handle a faster paced more rigorous course load if they were offered the opportunity to speak anonymously (see slide 63 at https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1lt622ON8fSA1kCvQri5FWSdg1f0SdaO4vmCIj49Jq-0/edit#slide=id.p76). The achievement gap in ICCSD’s junior high is huge (see pp.16 and 17 at s.org/files/_WDIUu_/bc8e69790404b6603745a49013852ec4/Annual_Progress_Report_2015-16.pdf) and differentiation doesn’t seem to work well overall for advanced students (with the possible exception of math) with larger class sizes and little planning time for teachers.

    This “NGSS Executive Summary” is clear that “Curriculum and instruction should be
    focused on “bundles” of performance expectations to provide a contextual learning experience for students.” See page 6 at http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/default/files/Final%20Release%20NGSS%20Front%20Matter%20-%206.17.13%20Update_0.pdf. I would be curious to see how ICCSD plans to vertically and horizontally integrate the NGSS across the upper elementary to high school grades but could not find this information on ICCSD’s website. Perhaps the decision about what textbooks to purchase has already been made?

    On a related topic, Ames High School has an interesting option–see Path 3 starting on page 60 at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4RWFxB0PypfNGlOM0p2eE5mSkRVZlh2U0FhWWo1ekd1MHRJ/view

    If I had known that ICCSD would use the adoption of the NGSS to assert it could not offer an accelerated two year two course science curriculum in its junior highs, I would have commented publicly against this determination when Iowa asked for public comment on the NGSS and asked the state to publicly state that it was not against accelerated science middle school and junior high science curriculums. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    1. Karen W Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Mary. It is interesting to see that Ames HS has decided that the high school earth science standards can be covered in one semester. I’ve uploaded the science course description portion of the Ames High School registration book, and you can go directly to the Path 3 referenced by Mary above and also view the science program flowchart.

      As for new science textbooks, I don’t think we’ve heard anything about those yet. I’d like to see the textbook options myself.

  3. Mary

    Since the University of Iowa seems to get a number of students from the Naperville, Illinois area, which Iowa students end up competing against, I took a quick look at what its district is doing. See grades 6, 7, and 8 at http://www.naperville203.org/Page/3277 and grades 9-12 at http://www.manula.com/manuals/naperville-community-unit/district-203-program-planning-guide/1/en/topic/science. One of the music parents explained to me that getting chemistry, biology, and physics out of the way by the end of 11th grade is important for students who will take placement tests for out of state universities. It looks like Naperville schools are set up to accommodate this goal.

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