New Massachusetts Science Standards Are Subpar

High School Student Holding Molecular Model

As a result of ignoring input from a distinguished national expert, Massachusetts’ Next Generation Science Standards adopted last spring by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) fall short, according to the second of a two-part analysis of the standards published by Pioneer Institute.

“The standards purport to explore fewer topics in greater detail,” said Paul R. Gross, lead writer of What Goes Up Must Come Down: New, Lower K-12 Science Standards for Massachusetts, and other, recent reports on the new, so-called Next Generation Science Standards for K-12. “But a series of additions make the new standards no less broad and shallow than their predecessors.”

California State University Northridge Biology Professor Dr. Stan Metzenberg’s study of a draft version of the standards that were released for review by the BESE was largely ignored by drafters of the final version. He found that the draft standards excluded or minimized a number of important topics included in the earlier standards such as Mendelian genetics and large parts of cell biology.

The new curriculum frameworks also compress separate standards for each of the human body’s seven major systems (digestive, circulatory/excretory, respiratory, nervous, muscular/skeletal, reproductive and endocrine) into a single composite standard, reducing students’ knowledge and lessening their ability to talk to and understand their own physicians and make good health choices.

“Massachusetts has sacrificed science standards that were a national model for replacements that are clearly inferior,” said co-author Ze’ev Wurman.

The new standards are an adaptation of standards issued by the D.C.-based educational lobbyist Achieve, Inc. And although there are a number of Massachusetts additions and repairs, they still miss important content and fail to make key connections.

Recently released results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessment found American students still trailing far behind their Asian peers. Half the fourth graders in Singapore who took the test scored high enough to be considered advanced in math, compared with just 14 percent of U.S. students.

Under the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act and the previous state standards, Bay State students have achieved stellar results: leading the nation on every grade tested in reading and math from 2005 to 2013 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, called “the nation’s report card.” In 2007 and 2013, Massachusetts students were among the top performers in the world on international math and science tests.

The authors also find that the standards are expressed in a way that is unclear and unnecessarily complicated.

About the Authors:

Paul R. Gross is University Professor of Life Sciences, emeritus, of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, having served also as Vice President and Provost, and Director of the Center for Advanced Studies. He has taught on the faculties of New York and Brown Universities, the Universities of Rochester and Edinburgh, and at MIT. He was Director and President of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and a Trustee of Associated Universities, Inc. His scientific research and publications are in developmental and molecular biology. He writes also on the public and academic cultures of science, and on science education and literacy, and is active as a consultant in the creation of K-12 and college academic standards.

Ze’ev Wurman is a senior fellow with the American Principles Project. He participated in developing California’s education standards and the state assessments in mathematics between 1995 and 2007 in various capacities. Between 2007 and 2009 he served as a senior policy adviser with the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. In 2010 Wurman served on the California Academic Content Standards Commission that evaluated the suitability of the Common Core standards for California and was one of its two members who voted against their adoption for California. He has been published in professional and general media. In his non-educational life he is an executive in a semiconductor start-up company in the Silicon Valley and holds over 25 U.S. patents.

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2 thoughts on “New Massachusetts Science Standards Are Subpar

  1. The Gross-Wurman report on the new Massachusetts science standards makes some good points, but it misses the mark on some key issues. Namely, the report fails to acknowledge that the Massachusetts standards (as well as NGSS) approach science from a purely materialistic (naturalistic) viewpoint. The standards assume that only naturalistic explanations are valid in science, and in doing so they omit the possibility of intelligent causation (intentional design). Further, the standards do not reveal that they employ methodological naturalism, the unproven assumption that only materialistic causation is permissible.

    Materialistic philosophy is particularly apparent in the coverage of “origins science,” the study of the origin and development of the universe, of life, and of life’s diversity. The standards present the Big Bang theory uncritically, and the origin of life is not covered at all (presumably because there is no viable naturalistic explanation for it). Biological evolution (common descent) is presented as fact, and no distinction is made between microevolution (adaptation) and macroevolution (large-scale change). The standards also fail to mention that narratives in historical origins science are tentative and unrepeatable by experiment. This makes them much less reliable than theories in present-day operational science.

    Gross and Wurman also do not discuss the biased coverage of environmentalism in both the Massachusetts standards and NGSS. In particular, both sets of standards accept anthropogenic global warming as fact. Activist environmental positions are taken on sustainability and the negative effects of human activities on the environment.

    Overall I can agree with most of the findings by Gross and Wurman. I only wish they had noted the very serious deficiencies of the standards in the areas of origins science and environmental science.

  2. The main problem with standards is when they become the end all of learning. when that happens they have little to offer individual learners. They become benchmarks, not doors to personal and social inquiry, exploration, discovery, and imagination. The more rigid the standard the more useless it is.

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