Category Archives: Next Gen Science Stds

Curriculum Review and the School Board

Over at another blog about school, Chris asks what’s curriculum got to do with [the proficiency gap]?

I don’t know what the curricular options out there are, though, and I don’t pretend to have any special expertise in evaluating them. But at some point, if we are continually unhappy about the gaps we’re seeing in our students’ proficiency data, how should the board go about assuring itself that our curricular choices are not playing a role in the problem?

It seems to me that the board is in a difficult position. I don’t see how the board can independently reassure itself about curricular–and instructional–choices not playing a role in the problem of persistent proficiency gaps. The information and data the board needs to make that assessment, to the extent the district is collecting it, is entirely within the hands of the administration.

This means that it is the administration that must reassure the board that curricular and instructional choices are not playing a role in a proficiency gap. Is the administration providing adequate reassurance on this issue through the curriculum review process?

Consider the science curriculum review report presented to the board earlier this fall. Ask yourself how many of the listed strengths of the program have anything to do with whether students are actually learning science? [Hint: student enjoyment, activity, collaboration, and technology use are poor proxies for learning.] Ask yourself why there are proficiency gaps when teachers and administrators are in agreement that instruction is being differentiated to meet the needs of students in the classroom and what that means for the likelihood of them effectively evaluating whether curriculum and instruction plays a role in the proficiency gaps? Ask yourself whether there is any attempt to evaluate whether outside tutoring or parental help plays a significant role in determining how much science students are learning?

Whether or not you think the administration is providing adequate reassurance, this issue presents an interesting oversight problem for the board. How can the board effectively evaluate and direct the efforts of the superintendent with regard to curriculum and instruction if it is dependent upon the superintendent and his staff for information about the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction decisions made by the superintendent and his staff?

The most important thing for directors to do, I think, is to independently read up on curricular and instructional trends so that they can think critically and ask questions about the information presented to them by the administration. Directors won’t have time to become curriculum and instruction experts, but I don’t think they need to be experts to represent the community and hold the superintendent accountable for results. They just need to be willing to keep asking questions until they get the answers they need.

New Leadership for the House Ed Committee

The Speaker of the Iowa House released the list of chairs and vice-chairs of House committees today.

The House Education Committee will have new leadership, with Walt Rogers (R-Black Hawk) to serve as chair, with Greg Forristall (R-Pottawattamie) to serve as vice-chair.

Rogers is an interesting choice. The 87th General Assembly will be Rogers’ fourth term in the Iowa House, only one of which–the 85th General Assembly–included an assignment to the House Education Committee. Bills previously co-sponsored by Rogers relating to standards and assessment include:

  • HF 2140 [85th GA] which would have renamed the Iowa statewide academic standards as “Iowa content standards”(removing “common core” designations, among others) and made the statewide academic standards voluntary. [Bill did not advance out of subcommittee and was subsequently withdrawn at the request of Jorgensen (R-Woodbury), current chair of the House Education Committee.]
  • HF 2141 [85th GA] which would have struck Iowa Code 256.7(21)(b)(2) and required the Director of the Iowa Department of Education to take action to exit the Smarter Balanced Assessments Consortium. [Died in subcommittee.]
  • HF 2053 [86th GA] which would have prohibited the State Board of Education from adopting rules to adopt a statewide assessment other than the Iowa Assessments without legislative approval. [Died in subcommittee.]
  • HF 2054 [86th GA] which would have prohibited the State Board of Education from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards and would have required legislative approval of proposed changes from the Iowa Core science standards in use during the 2014-15 school year. [Died in subcommittee.]
  • HF 2290 [86th GA] which would have delayed the implementation of new assessment requirements by one year. [Died in subcommittee, but the one-year delay became part of SF 2323. The Governor signed the delay, but vetoed the portions of SF 2323 that would have suspended the rule adopted by the State Board of Education to adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments.]

The 87th General Assembly will be Forristall’s sixth term in the Iowa House. Forristall has served on the House Education Committee during all of his tenure in the Iowa House. Forristall served as Chair of the House Education Committee during the 84th General Assembly which passed SF 2284, fixing the Iowa Assessments as the statewide assessments for Iowa.

ICCSD Science Program Proposal

Science curriculum changes are back in front of the ICCSD School Board on Tuesday. They will be asked to approve the 2017-18 Program of Studies and specific course changes, which include changes to the secondary science curriculum and the science course acceleration proposal.

The Board will be under pressure to adopt these changes, as any delay for community feedback and changes will reportedly delay student registration for the 2017-18 school year. I hope that the Board will resist that pressure, at the very least, with regard to the acceleration proposal.

The acceleration proposal would permit students to take the new Earth and Space Science (ESS) course as an 8th grader only if they scored a 95th percentile or higher on the 7th grade Iowa Assessment in Science.

The Iowa Assessments are not placement exams and the administration has provided no evidence that this particular cut score would predict success in the new ESS course or that students with lower scores would not be successful. In other words, without further evidence, this requirement looks like a fairly arbitrary one, set to exclude a large number of 8th grade students.

I was interested to see how the numbers of 8th grade students who would be eligible to enroll in the ESS course under this proposal would compare to the number of students who have historically skipped Foundations III. The District reports that 164 students in the current senior class skipped Foundations III; no numbers are reported for other classes.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find the numbers I wanted. So I pieced together these numbers from reports from the DE (2015-16 enrollment by district, grade, race, and gender), the ICCSD 2015-16 Enrollment, Demographics, and Class Size Report, and the ICCSD 2015-16 Annual Progress Report.

Because I couldn’t find demographics by grade level, I multiplied the total number of 2015-16 7th graders [975] by the best percentages I could find (demographics by junior high school building, except for male/female percentages, for which I had to use the percentages for the District as a whole). I also rounded the numbers up or down to avoid fractional students. Consequently, these numbers are best estimates, not actual numbers. The number crunching is further complicated by the fact that the District doesn’t use consistent reporting categories for subgroups between the enrollment report and the annual progress report.

Keep in mind that the Annual Progress Report Above Proficient designation relates to a 90th percentile score or higher related to the 2000 national sample in order for proficiency scores to remain comparable over time. Current percentile rankings are based on a comparison to the 2011 national sample and a grade 7 science score that would have earned a 90th percentile ranking compared to the 2000 sample only earns an 87th percentile ranking compared to the 2011 sample. Which, I think, means that students reported as Above Proficient could have scores from 87th percentile to 99th percentile, and we can’t tell how many would meet the 95th percentile or higher standard being proposed. I do think we can safely say that these numbers likely overstate the number of students who would be eligible to take ESS in 8th grade.


In any case, I hope you didn’t miss that the administration is proposing a rule that would essentially exclude Black or African American students from taking ESS in 8th grade. As a matter of equity, I hope the Board will press the administration for actual numbers on how the proposed eligibility rules affect the participation of students in various subgroups in accelerated science course work and for actual evidence that the proposed rule isn’t essentially arbitrary and needlessly restrictive.

I attended a high school that allowed students to choose honors or non-honors versions of core courses and it seemed to work well. If not completely open, perhaps a rule based on actual performance in 7th grade science might be more inclusive.

Also, the proposed rule about dropping the course if  grades fall below a B- seems to need clarification. At any time? So one low grade could force a student out without an opportunity to raise their grade by the end of the trimester? It seems more reasonable to me that, if this rule is needed, it apply only for grades at the end of the first or second trimester.

With regard to the AP Science Courses Review information provided, I would urge the administration and the Board to consider that packing a schedule with AP courses isn’t the only reason students may want to accelerate in science. The option to accelerate in science is also important to serve the needs of students who are simply ready for more challenge than the one-size-fits-all science courses offered in junior high. In that vein, I would also urge the Board to press the administration to design honors-level courses in ESS and Biology to better serve students who want or need more challenging science coursework.

As an incidental matter, it isn’t at all clear whether students choosing the ESS/Biology/Physical Science course sequence would meet the minimum course requirements for admission to Iowa’s state universities.

Finally, I would urge the Board to ask the administration to share with the community more details about instructional methods and materials the administration proposes to use in implementing the new science standards. If you’re wondering why I keep bringing this up, check out this NGSS-inspired lesson shared on the Iowa Core website. Read it and take a guess about how much these students actually learned about surface tension. Note that the teacher isn’t even certain what, if anything, his students learned.

The State Board of Education adopts standards but has no authority to require our District to use any particular instructional method or materials. Engagement, collaboration, and busyness can happen without any actual learning.  It is important for our students that the District get this right.

Community Comment 11/8

Community comments I hope to deliver at tonight’s school board meeting:

I am here to speak about the science curriculum review recommendations that news coverage indicates you will be asked to approve at the next regular board meeting.

Tonight, I urge the board not to take action to adopt science curriculum recommendations at the next board meeting.

Here’s why: the science curriculum review proposals are not a straightforward textbook adoption that would be easy for us all to understand. Instead, due to the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, the proposals involve significant changes to the district science curriculum. Unfortunately, not enough information has been provided to the community for us to assess how well the proposals will meet the full range of science programming needs of our secondary students.

Fortunately, the Next Generation Science Standards do not have to be implemented until the 2018-19 school year, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason the board–and the community–can’t hear a detailed presentation from the administration at the next board meeting about the proposal to implement the Next Generation Science Standards in the Iowa City Schools, with the board delaying action until the community has an opportunity to provide feedback about the proposal.

The state sets the standards, but we have options about how we, as a district, organize those standards into courses. And choices, also, to make about instructional methods and materials to be used in these courses.

Members of the community have questions about which options are really on the table with this proposal and whether the proposed options are really the best ones for the kids of this district. Questions about proposed course sequences and course syllabi. About whether there will be separate honors course offerings and how decisions will be made about which students get access to accelerated course work. And questions about textbooks and other instructional materials. Very little information, if any, has been provided to the community to answer these questions.

So, please, hear the administration’s presentation, then take at least a few weeks to allow the community to weigh in on the plan before authorizing the administration to move forward with it.

Thank you.


More Questions Than Answers

Just a few quick words about the science curriculum review report presentation at tonight’s board meeting.

Diane Schumacher, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Testing, said tonight that course changes should alleviate concerns of parents about the science curriculum and that there is a science course flowchart that will be presented at an upcoming meeting.

She also said that the Next Generation Science Standards require earth and space science course work (true–see the high school earth and space science standards by Disciplinary Core Idea here, here, and here). Schumacher also stated that administrators believe it will take a full year to teach all 19 earth and space science performance expectations. So, the idea would be to rework the current Foundations of Science III course into an earth and space science course.

Contrary to the report recommendation that all 9th graders be required to take the course, without exception, Schumacher suggested that 8th graders might be permitted to take the course, subject to the usual gate keeping used for placement in accelerated math courses (test scores, teacher recommendations).

Here’s where things are a bit confusing. I took this as a suggestion to shift the doubled up science course problem from 9th grade to 8th grade. Here’s why: the Next Generation Science Standards have middle school standards grouped by grade band (6-8) but when the State Board of Education adopted the standards as the Iowa Science Standards, they adopted them as grade level specific standards* as presented in the Science Standards Review Team Report. So, if 8th grade students have to cover both the 25 8th grade performance expectations and a full year of 9th grade earth and space science performance expectations, how do they manage without taking two science courses in 8th grade? (With the fall back option of taking two science courses in 9th grade instead. Pick your poison.)

Others I spoke to after the meeting heard this differently–that 8th graders opting for the earth and space science course would just take a single science course.

Stay tuned. Hopefully things will be clearer with flowcharts in hand.

*Find the NGSS performance standards for all grade levels, by DCI here.

Science Curriculum Review Report

The science curriculum review committee report is on agenda for Tuesday’s ICCSD school board meeting.

A few comments on the report follow, but first three things to be aware of with regard to science standards in Iowa:

  • In August 2015, the Iowa State Board of Education adopted the Next Generation Science Standards performance expectations, as described in the Science Standards Review Team Report, as the Iowa Science Standards.
  • The Iowa Science Standards are required to be implemented in grades K-5 and 9-12 plus one middle school grade by the 2018-19 school year; an additional middle school grade by the 2019-20 school year; and the final middle school grade by the 2020-21 school year. [Iowa Science Standards Implementation Plan]
  • The Iowa Science Standards are minimum requirements. From the Science Standards Review Team Report (page 41): “It is important to remember standards are the minimum requirements for all students and that those who are planning to major in science will need/want to take more advanced courses.”

The report starts out with a mission statement. I don’t generally hold out much hope for mission statements, but this one particularly disappoints me somehow. I’d like to see the District embrace a straightforward mission involving knowledge–that students should know a lot more stuff after attending our schools than they did before. But I’d also like to see the District explicitly state that the mission is to not just meet minimum state requirements but to also exceed them by providing a college preparatory education to students who choose it.

One of the identified limitations of the District science program is that “40% of parents do not believe Foundations of Science III prepared students for future science classes.” This is at odds with administrator and teacher opinion that the Foundations of Science courses do prepare students for future science classes.

This difference of opinion should have prompted a review of the Foundations III course, including, perhaps, further survey questions to determine where parents believe the course to fall short. The report provides no evidence that has happened, and instead recommends that all 9th grade students be required to take the Foundations III course (or whatever replaces it as the 9th grade science course) without exception. The report also  recommends that the value of the course be better communicated to parents, signaling, perhaps, that the District thinks 40% of the parents are just wrong or misinformed.

Note that the communication is meant to include information on how the Foundations III course emphasizes improving science skills–such as organization, lab skills, and measurement–needed to be more successful in upper level courses. My guess is that parents who believe the course isn’t helpful have students who already possessed sufficient science skills to succeed in upper level science course work.

If the K-6 math curriculum has adequate coverage of units of measurement, including metric system units, I’m hard pressed to see how students need all of ninth grade to prepare to measure things in high school science lab courses. Graduated cylinders, beakers, scales–none of this should be that difficult to work with after short explanation from the teacher. And if the K-6 math curriculum is lacking in coverage of units of measurement, maybe that should be remedied before requiring all students to take Foundations of Science III.

As for “lab skills”, I don’t know what specifically they think 9th grade students are lacking, but I can’t see why specific lab skills can’t be developed through lab work in biology, chemistry, and physics courses; in fact, that seems like the ideal place to develop disciplinary specific lab skills.

In any case, it seems unreasonable to me that ICCSD students should be expected to double up on core courses (see recommendation for concurrent enrollment in 9th grade science and biology). University-bound students need time in their schedules for four years of a world language and arts,music, or other elective courses.

The review report references ACT Science scores, but does not indicate that the review committee collected information on university minimum coursework entrance requirements to ensure that recommendations for secondary course changes don’t disadvantage university-bound students.

In fact, I think all secondary curriculum review reports should provide overviews of current university minimum coursework entrance requirements, including college specific requirements, and course sequence maps demonstrating how District course offerings will allow students to meet those entrance requirements. The science report, in particular, should provide a map showing NGSS minimum course sequence path, an accelerated college prep science course sequence path, and a twice accelerated college prep science course sequence plus AP science course work path.

In short, I’d like to see the board ask the administration–before the District buys or develops new instructional materials–to communicate the possible science course pathways created by the science curriculum recommendations or other proposed or anticipated changes to science courses, ask them to communicate how those pathways satisfy university entrance requirements (and which ones–some colleges set higher requirements), and to ask the administration to come back with other ideas for offering accelerated secondary course work in science that don’t require students to double up on science courses.

ATF: Report and Recommendations on Science

The Assessment Task Force wrapped up our review of statewide science assessment options March 11th, adopting five additional recommendations:

  • ACT Aspire science assessment to be used in the short-term (no longer than the 2019-20 school year), and administered once in each of three grade spans (3-5, 6-8, and 9-12). [One dissenter–not me this time–wrote a dissent, which is included at the end of the rationale section. In short, an objection to using an assessment not aligned to current standards, even for the short-term.]
  • Science assessments to be administered in grades 5, 8, and 10.
  • State to appropriate funds to pay for the statewide science assessments.
  • The Task Force to meet annually to review science assessment options.
  • The DE to pursue additional options for accessing a statewide science assessment aligned with the Iowa Science Standards (NGSS performance expectations). [I was the sole dissenting vote on this recommendation, but did not write a dissent this time. This recommendation seems overly broad, lacking any useful guidance–and potentially very expensive.]

The recommendations for assessing science in only three grade levels and for a state appropriation will require legislative action. For those tracking costs, ACT Aspire provided estimated costs for the science assessment only (rather than the complete ACT Aspire) of $8.00 per student (computer-based administration) or $13.00 per student (paper-and-pencil) plus an additional $1.20 for student score reports.

The ACT Aspire science assessment was the only currently operational assessment submitted for Task Force review. ACT Aspire does not offer an assessment for grade 11, so it isn’t clear what science assessment would be used for that grade level if the Legislature fails to act. The ACT exam is one, obvious option, but that would be expensive to add on top of administering the Smarter Balanced assessments to grade 11 students.

The Task Force report was presented to the State Board of Education yesterday, and is now available on the Assessment Task Force page. The introduction to the Task Force report, which was part of the report when approved by the Task Force, was omitted. I am still waiting to hear back, but hope the DE will be publishing an amended version of the report with the Introduction soon.

Update: The report has been removed from the Task Force page and will be reposted with the Introduction.