What Does the DESE Have To Say About its Revised Science and Technology Standards?

Image reproduced from the Presentation: Overview of the MA Draft Revised STE Standards http://www.doe.mass.edu/stem/resources/StandardsOverview.pdf

This evening I attended the winter meeting of the North Shore Science Supervisors Asssociation. The guest speaker was Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Director of Science, Engineering and Technology, Jake Foster. Besides holding the longest title I have ever read, Jake was an NGSS writing team member and responsible for the committee of Massachusetts educators ultimately responsible for the most recent draft release.

Mr. Foster started by outlining the unique time frame the state’s newly drafted standards and by and large the value it presented to districts looking forward to science, technology and engineering standards revisions. With “no public survey planned until the 2015-2016 academic year” districts “may choose what to do” when it came to deciding in what way and how quickly to move forward. When asked if changes were likely, Foster responded by stating that it is firmly believed that the standards are “structurally sound.” While Foster expects “some tweaking after feedback, no major shifts are anticipated with some exception in regards to the high school expectations and college/career readiness.”

When confronted on the cool feedback from some districts regarding the middle school spiral curriculum, Foster emphasized that the standards crafters wished to keep “as much consistent with the NGSS as possible.” Foster acknowledged that, “the state never makes you do anything… except take MCAS (to which there were slight chuckles), and the assessment is expected to remain an end of band assessment with no mandate or money for any form of grade by grade testing.” Foster insisted districts could “do what they want but the state had to do something” and that the spiral format has been designed “with overarching themes such as structure and function, systems, and cause and effect at each grade level.” Foster noted that while districts appeared to be roughly split 50/50 in regards to spiraling or sandwiched curriculum, but “the vast majority of kids in Massachusetts are taught in integrated systems” with sandwiched districts being smaller in overall population. Therefore the adoption of a spiral curriculum was ultimately selected to stay as true to NGSS as possible and to “nudge” the state toward standards that would help ease the challenges faced by transitional students.

When testing was brought up towards the end of the Q&A, Foster applauded the audience for waiting so long to introduce the question before answering it, then went on to emphasize that the practices built into the standards would be exactly that, integrated into the assessment and “always in the context of the content.” When asked what that looked like, Foster admitted that conversation was one that still needed to be fully had, and that he and others responsible for assessment development were watching the PARCC closely, expecting that “what happens with PARCC will reveal a lot” and that while no transition plan has been outlined for any switch between the MCAS and PARCC, any such switch would “likely be modeled on ELA and math transitions.”

Lastly, Foster asked that we as science leaders help him carry the message to our fellow educators that the new standards and embedded practices does not imply that science classrooms become those of full inquiry. Foster recognized that it is implied that the standards be attainable in one academic year, given that skills leading up to that year have been practiced. Foster also recognized that there were some instances, particularly in math where a science teacher may have to “teach some math where it is introduced” but also emphasized that overall “there is strong overlap,” particularly with ELA common core and its inclusion of informational texts.

Jake reminded and encouraged everyone to use the tools provided by the DESE when developing curriculum, district determined measures or other initiatives, identifying the concept map as a particularly valuable tool for better visualizing learning progressions and connections between content and scientific concepts. A link to these resources has been provided here.

Overall I was left feeling satisfied with Foster’s frank and open dialogue with my fellow association members about the path being pursued by the state toward changes in our science standards and implementation. The slow approach will be a boost to educators and systems already over-burdened with changes towards common core alignment, RETELL certification, and the potential for new standardized tests down the road. I fear, however, that some many districts may squander this time and opportunity to begin implementing adjustments in curriculum now. Foster said himself that the standards are implicitly attainable, but only if skills required have been previously practiced and developed. This poses a potential hurdle for schools that have not emphasized such skills in science curriculum at lower grades previously or have reduced the amount of time on learning for science over the years to emphasize more attention toward ELA and math. I’m proud of my colleagues across the Commonwealth who came to the realization that Massachusetts will be better served with standards that have been tweaked to “stand alone” as Foster put it while advocating for inclusion NGSS’ cross-cutting concepts into curriculum yet to be written on district levels. The standards have stayed true to what I feel has always been the NGSS main intent, to get students “doing” more science in their classrooms and forfeiting some of the peripheral content to focus on disciplinary “core ideas.”
For me and others the real work begins now. How will we use these revised standards to design more enriching science, technology, and engineering curriculum for our students? How will we collaborate with one another to achieve the most we can by sharing the heavy lifting associated with such an endeavor? And what can we expect from the DESE in terms of continued support and the types of assessments we can expect our kids to be exposed to that measure both practice AND content?

About MrMusselman

@BurlMAschools Science Specialist and @CambridgeCollg Science Methods instructor. @NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
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