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EDlection 2016: Iowa Rallies Around New Science Standards

By Carolyn Phenicie | July 11, 2015

EDlection 2016 is The Seventy Four’s ongoing coverage of state-level education news, debates and votes in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. The Iowa caucuses are scheduled for early February.
Maine’s governor vetoed its costs, West Virginians decried its climate change language and Wyoming legislators rushed to initially ban its implementation, but Iowa, just a few months ahead of its return to the every-four-years presidential spotlight, now seems ready to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards — more rigorous K-12 benchmarks in biology, chemistry and other sciences.
The standards have routinely been compared to the Common Core English and math standards that have come under fire in recent years from conservatives — including many of the 2016 Republican presidential contenders — who see them as ill-conceived national intrusions into local district control. That stigma, plus the additional minefields of evolution and climate change — both covered in the standards — could have made for rough going, even in Iowa, a farming state with a longstanding progressive streak. But adoption in the region where Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and company will have to make their mark in the February caucuses seems to be going about as smoothly as possible.
“There’s so much else politically in the wind in Iowa these days that the activists may have other things to occupy themselves,” says Josh Rosenau, a policy director at the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that advocates the teaching of evolution and climate change in public schools. Rosenau credits Iowa for avoiding the “unnecessary conflicts” that have broken out in other states, often over those two issues dear to his organization.
Next Generation Science supporters argue the standards are needed to improve science education for American students, whose scores lagged behind 22 other industrialized countries — think Estonia and Vietnam — on the 2012 international science exams. They also point to shared expectations at a time when kids are increasingly moving from district to district or state to state throughout their school careers.
“There’s something absurd about having 50 different sets of state science standards,” Rosenau said. “Science is the same every place. It’s the same in California and Kansas and Kathmandu.”
Twenty-six states, including Iowa, signed on to help develop the NGSS in 2011 and worked with the National Research Council, National Science Teachers Association and other groups in writing the standards. Leaders of those states promised to give “serious consideration” to adopting the standards, and Iowa’s move to implement stems from Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s executive order mandating review of the state’s entire curriculum, starting with science. Branstad hasn’t yet publicly cheered the new standards, and while he has backed the Common Core in the past, his executive order emphasized that Iowa — not Washington — controls state curriculum. Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have adopted the standards.
Financial concerns led Republican Gov. Paul LePage to veto a bill in Maine that would have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards
Support for the standards among Iowans has been widespread: An online survey conducted by the state’s Board of Education this spring was mostly positive, with more than two-thirds of respondents saying they agree these standards will better prepare students for college or career. But some respondents used a free-form section asking for “concerns” to focus their comments on evolution and climate change. One parent railed against “the blatant indoctrination of children that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is a FACT when it is NOT!” Another warned that “Bible-believing Christians WILL pull their children out of public school because of these standards.”
Commenters, who completed the survey anonymously, were divided over whether the standards are too aggressive or too flimsy. Some, including the state’s science review team, questioned whether students would have the requisite math skills to keep up with higher-level science.  Others, including speakers at four public meetings held around the state this spring, said the standards fall short. Many cited a 2013 report from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute that criticized the standards with a “C” grade for rigor.  (The same report gave Iowa’s current standards a “D.”)
Similar criticism  has reached the state legislature. Republican Rep. Sandy Salmon has twice introduced bills blocking the standards. They “take us backwards rather than forwards,” she said, citing the Fordham report as well as the standards’ “focus on students performing activities rather than learning a base of knowledge that you need to engage in scientific reasoning.” Salmon said she wrote to the Board of Education expressing her concerns but concedes that its members will likely adopt the new standards.
Financial concerns led Republican Gov. Paul LePage to veto a bill in Maine that would have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, calling the program an “unfunded mandate” on schools already implementing new teacher evaluation systems and annual tests. “If state government is to make such demands on our local schools, it should only do so while also providing the funding necessary to carry out the work demanded of them,” he wrote in May.
Rosenau called that argument “somewhat implausible,” noting that lawmakers allotted an extra year for the state to transition to the new standards, spreading out the costs.
Iowa’s science review team agreed in April to support using the NGSS performance expectations. The Board of Education will weigh final adoption once the review team delivers a full report.
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