Jasmine Scott, a sixth-grader at Cheyenne’s Jessup Elementary, laughs as she listens to the sound made by the unknown material inside her box during science class at the school on Wednesday, Sept. 3. Students learned about the scientific method by making observations and forming an educated guess about the content of their boxes. Miranda Grubbs/staff
CHEYENNE – When the Wyoming Legislature adjourned in March, it left school districts in limbo.
Last-minute passage of a budget footnote prevented the State Board of Education from using or considering the Next Generation Science Standards as it worked to update state standards.
Consequently, the state board stopped its work on the science standards.
Some districts say it is hard to move forward with improving their science curricula without clear direction from the state.
But others are moving forward anyway, since local control in Wyoming allows districts to adopt standards that are more rigorous than the state’s standards.
The legislative footnote’s effect
Wyoming started its current revision process to consider new science standards in 2012.
Before this year’s legislative session, the committee reviewing the standards was considering the Next Generation Science Standards.
The final version of those standards was released in 2013. Their creation was a joint effort that started in 2011 and involved several states, a public review process and several national organizations, including the National Research Council, National Science Teachers Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, an independent, nonpartisan education reform organization, according to information from the standards’ website.
The standards include a focus on three dimensions of science education – practices; cross-cutting concepts, or the links between different areas of science; and core ideas.
Nationally, about 12 states and Washington, D.C., have officially adopted the standards, and several more are taking steps in that direction. Wyoming is among a few states that have rejected use of the standards.
During this year’s legislative session, a budget footnote was passed that cut all funding to review or use the Next Generation Science Standards when revising the state’s science standards.
The footnote to the budget for the Wyoming Department of Education reads that “neither the State Board of Education nor the department shall expend any amount appropriated under this section for any review or adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards … This footnote is effective immediately.”
The footnote went through several versions before it was finally adopted.
The final version was written by Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, who says her version has been misinterpreted.
Part of her goal in rewriting it was to minimize the effect of the footnote, she said.
“We shouldn’t have had a budget footnote,” she said. “My goal was to have the footnote go away.”
Throne said she had about 15 to 30 minutes to rewrite it.
“It was a House footnote,” she said. “The only debate on it was in the House, and then it went to conference committee.”
The footnote didn’t really get vetted in the Senate, she said.
“My goal was to allow the state board to use the Next Generation Science Standards as a template and then basically ‘Wyomingize’ them – tweak them to fit Wyoming better, but not to throw them out all together,” she said. “They spent two years reviewing them, and they still would go to public comment.”
The state’s current science standards are in “dire need of improvement,” she added.
“We have second-rate standards at K-12, and that makes no sense – we need to keep moving forward,” Throne said.
She said what she likes about the Next Generation Science Standards is how they build off one another.
“They start with what they should have in 12th grade and work back,” she said. “They’re cohesive standards.”
She added that she plans to seek to repeal the footnote if she is still in the Legislature during the next session.
“We kind of stopped the process dead in its tracks, and that’s not good for anybody,” Throne said.
Throne added that she isn’t sure the Legislature should be getting involved with setting educational standards.
“Is it appropriate for the state to adopt standards at all?” she said. “The Legislature is supposed to focus on the big picture.”
Members of the State Board of Education aren’t sure the Legislature should have gotten involved either.
The members voted at a meeting in July to stop all work on revising or rewriting science standards until the Legislature lifts its ban.
The motion reaffirmed the current state standards until “the prohibition on considering ALL relevant science standards, including the Next Generation Science Standards, is rescinded by the Legislature.”
But it also reminded school districts that while they have to align to state standards, they may have “more rigorous, challenging science standards” at the same time.
“The board came to the realization that if they’re going to look at all the options on the table, they needed to be all there, and the board didn’t feel that,” State Board of Education Chairman Ron Micheli said.
The delay means that the state won’t finish revising its science standards until after the next legislative session, which starts in January, he said.
But the state’s delay may not mean a delay in the review work districts are doing, he added.
“There was nothing in the motion to preclude the fact that they could go forward with standards on their own,” Micheli said.
Debates regarding the standards
Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, introduced the budget footnote.
He said at the time that he didn’t like the focus on evolution in the biology standards or the insistence on presenting climate change as something caused by human activity.
“The Next Generation Science Standards treats manmade climate change as settled fact, and we are the largest energy-producing state in the country, so are we going to concede that today?” he said. “The Next Generation guidelines also take a firm stand that children must learn about evolution as the central organizing idea of the biological sciences.”
The Next Generation standards also only treat questions on the origins of life and the universe from a nonreligious viewpoint, he said.
But Teeters isn’t alone in these objections.
Other groups, including Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core, object to the standards.
The standards have missing foundational skills, group member Cynthia McKee said. And they offer a poor connection between the sciences and mathematical concepts.
“Probably the most alarming aspect of the science standards are their subjective treatment of controversial scientific issues, such as origins and environmental science,” she said. “Parents understand that science sometimes asks both religious and political questions, and proposed answers are opinion science.”
Students shouldn’t be “indoctrinated” on these subjects, she said. And all scientific information should be given.
But topics like evolution have been in classrooms for many years, school officials said.
The current state science standards include a section on evolution in species for students in both eighth grade and 11th grade. The standards requires that students be taught evolution and be able to apply it.
Many schools also already address topics like climate change, several school officials added.
While there are national groups that support use of the Next Generation Science Standards that have gained some members in Wyoming, there also are some Wyoming-based groups advocating for the standards.
One such group is Wyoming for Science Education.
The group’s goal is “to advocate for a process of science standards review that allows the state to look at all sources and decide what are the highest quality and best for Wyoming schools, without fear of stepping on political toes,” group member Marguerite Herman of Cheyenne said.
The state needs to be able to look “unblinkingly” at science and decide what is best for students based on fact, she said.
That’s why the group supports use of the Next Generation standards, she added.
“They are high-class, 21st century, peer-reviewed (standards) and are based on what students need to know, what industry needs students to know and an understanding of how people learn science,” Herman said. “A result is we’re teaching our students how to think like scientists.”
Problems with Wyoming’s current standards include that they offer little guidance for the lower grades, and there is no articulation – progression of subjects between grades – for standards from kindergarten through 12th grade, she said.
The Next Generation standards offer students a set of standards that have core principles, build concepts from grade to grade and promote the work of doing science instead of memorizing information, she said.
“They deal very matter-of-factly with all major science topics, they are high quality, and they are internationally benchmarked so our kids will be learning and competing on the same level as students around the world,” Herman said.
Moving forward, she said she hopes to see politics removed from the process of setting educational standards.
“The Legislature set the review process back, and our kids are the losers in the process,” Herman said.
District responses to the standards
Even if the standards aren’t adopted by the state, local control means that school districts can align their curriculum to the Next Generation Science Standards, as long as those standards are more rigorous than the standards the state currently has, Wyoming Education Association President Kathy Vetter said.
Local control also means that school districts develop their own curriculum, and teachers can be left to decide how to best meet the needs of their students, she said.
“The state standards are still the minimum,” she said. “Hopefully, they’re reaching above and beyond, especially for students going into areas that require a lot of science. It really is what is best for our students.”
About 15 school districts in Wyoming have already started aligning to, or are considering aligning to, the Next Generation standards, Herman added.
Both Laramie County School Districts 1 and 2 were in the process of revising their district science curricula when the Legislature passed its footnote and derailed the state’s review of the science standards, district administrators said.
In LCSD2, the footnote put a halt to some of the work to revise the district’s curriculum, Superintendent Jack Cozort said.
“We saw the footnote, and we slammed on the brakes,” he said.
The district did move forward with rewriting its curriculum by blending the new potential standards with what had been approved in 2008, he said.
“We knew we had to do something with our curriculum,” he said. “We couldn’t stand still because the curriculum we had was the 2008 curriculum.”
Cozort said he doesn’t see keeping to the 2008 standards as a good option.
“I can see them pulling those and trying to make them more rigorous, but there’s not a lot of rigor inside them – what you’re looking for kids to be able to do in science wasn’t there yet,” he said.
The district also already had discussed how to teach controversial topics, he said.
“Science is seeing the difference of opinions, evaluating and deciding for yourself,” Cozort said.
The district focused on building a curriculum for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, he said.
“We started finding that the same concept was taught (several times), but we had big holes where things weren’t being taught,” he said.
Some topics were moved into new grades, he said.
But the work to revise the curriculum along the lines of the Next Generation standards was at least a place for the district to start, he added.
In LCSD1, the pause on reviewing the state science standards also came while the district was trying to update parts of its science curriculum, said science curriculum coordinator Melanie Fierro.
“It does put us in a little bit of a bind,” she said. “We need to decide if we want to stay the course or move the direction that 15 other districts have taken.”
The district went into its period of review at the end of the school year not knowing how it was going to move forward, she added.
“The students are still using standards that are based on rote memorization versus learning skills associated with science and being able to actually apply the skills that they’re learning and putting the knowledge they gain to use,” she said.
The change from the state’s current standards to Next Generation standards would be a “paradigm shift,” she said.
“Students are learning the content and how to apply their knowledge relating to the content,” she said. “NGSS focuses on application of knowledge and practice of skills. It moves us from ‘this is what I know’ to ‘this is how I use what I know.’”
The standards also offer a better and more defined path for elementary students to cover multiple areas in the sciences, she said.
Practical effect of the controversy
Herman said she has heard stories from out-of-state teachers who are afraid to bring up controversial topics in science because they don’t have support.
But she said she hopes that isn’t happening in Wyoming because districts have some flexibility.
“If school boards go forward, they have the resources,” she said. “If you’re in a district without them, your hands may be tied, and you won’t have the resources.”
Adopting new science standards at the state level gives help and resources to all districts, she added.
Teaching science and leaving out the topics that some people don’t like also sends a poor message to parents and students, said Minda Berbeco with the National Center for Science Education.
Cutting out topics doesn’t give students an accurate idea of what science is, she said.
“Scientists don’t avoid uncomfortable topics,” she said.
The political debate also can have an effect on teachers, she said.
“Standards help set the guidelines for professional development and what teachers should know going into the classroom,” Berbeco said. “If you leave out a topic, they’re less likely to learn about it.”
Another strength of having science standards used by more than one state is that it makes transitions easier for students, she said.
“With the situation going on in Wyoming, because we have such a mobile population right now, one of the goals was to have common standards between states so that students who were moving would not get hodge-podge science education and could be equally prepared to enter the workforce or equally prepared to enter college,” she said. “If you have one state declaring that, ‘We’re not going to teach these standards,’ those students will be underprepared, and they’re not going to be competitive.”
Published on: Sunday, Oct 26, 2014 – 12:11:41 am MDT
Article source: http://www.wyomingnews.com/articles/2014/10/26/news/01top_10-26-14.txt