NSTA STEM Expo 2013: Common Core and the NGSS

The first talk I attended had Steven Pruitt, a representative from Achieve Inc., and Juan Carlos Aguilar, from the Georgia Department of Education. I won't bore you with all my notes on the talk, but there were a couple of interesting points made which warrant some comments.

Pruitt pointed out that the Process Skills descriptions in the standard is not a classroom activity. It is a learning goal, or more specifically, a description of something the student should be able to do. My own thoughts are that the two are pretty tightly coupled. It would be hard for the students to demonstrate proficiency or mastery of the process skill without a classroom activity, but his real point was that simply doing an activity involving this process skill is not evidence of proficiency or mastery. I would agree. I would also point out that in a lot of cases, the process skills are going to require a more hands-on approach to learning science (and the related subjects!). I don't know about other sciences, but I do know that physicists would talk about their work, they use the word "do" as in "are you doing physics."

I'll indulge in a little reminiscence....

As a high school student in my second year of chemistry (junior year for me), we spent the entire first quarter doing lab work. Maybe a little more than the first quarter. The topic was inorganic analysis (qualitative cation analysis of solutions). After the basic lab safety exercises, learning to create out own glasswear (well, custom tubing and droppers anyway), we were thrown into the lab. Tests were labs: "here's a test tube with 2ml of solution, what's in it?" I can safely say that by the end of the quarter, we had all mastered the lab techniques and process skills for successful chemistry lab work. Most classes can't really afford that much lab work, but the one lab day every blue moon is never going to allow anyone to master any of the process skills. Students have to both know something and be able to do something. I'll throw out a Boy Scout reference. This is how most of their merit badge awards work: learn something about the topic then do something to demonstrate practical knowledge of the topic.

Aguilar made a few comments to point out that the adoption of the new standards is not really on any time table yet. Most of his comments were what you might expect and perfectly reasonable. There are political processes that have to be followed, e.g., public review, Board of Education review, assessment chagnes, etc. Two of his comments were particularly noteworthy. First, if classroom practices are good, then actual assessments should not be very important. I feel like I need to shout that one from the rooftops. Really, think about it. If what you are doing in the classroom is good, then whatever they do for assessments should show that the students are succeeding. Okay, there's always the possibility of a really bad assessment (pineapples, anyone?). And he omitted the currency testing obsession with getting the highest possible score rather than more simply demonstrating competence.  But still, if classroom practices are good, then actual assessments should not be very important. There.

The other comment, which I called him on, was that states would need to be convinced that the change (from current science standards to the NGSS) was necessary. I pointed out that I felt that was an excessively high bar and not warranted. If students currently do mediocre, then strictly speaking, a change is not necessary. I would prefer to see the bar set at the level that the change is expected to be beneficial. He agreed and said he would probably change his future wording with the understanding that a beneficial change in the standards still results in a lot of necessary administrative changes (the afforementiond political and assessment changes).

Overall, I'd say I have two big take-aways that I hope will affect teacher practices. First, that the process skills are the real metric of student understanding. Second, that classroom practices need to be the focus, not assessment.