While not as rapidly embraced as its math and ELA cousins, which have great merit, a new set of science standards has slowly gained traction in a majority of states. And although we at Fordham do not love the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), they and their close approximations are becoming the norm. If states are going to adopt these standards and stick with them, then it makes sense for schools and districts to align their instructional materials and teaching practices to them. A recent research brief from WestEd tackles the important next step by evaluating the efficacy of one particular set of materials.
WestEd’s team conducted a controlled trial of the Amplify Science Middle School (ASMS) physical science curriculum, developed by scientists at the University of California–Berkeley in collaboration with Amplify Education. Data came from fifteen schools in three districts across two states during the 2019–20 school year. The districts varied in size and served diverse student groups. The researchers paired schools based on their demographic characteristics and prior student performance on state math and ELA tests and then randomly assigned schools, within each pair, to the treatment or the comparison group. The study included eight schools in the treatment group and seven in the comparison group, with a total of twenty-eight teachers and 1,780 students (the original sample was larger but, unfortunately, had to be limited to classes that completed the curriculum prior to pandemic closures).
Teachers in the treatment group implemented the ASMS curriculum and received a total of twenty-four hours of training from the Berkeley developers. The curriculum package includes a digital platform for students and teachers, along with materials for hands-on activities, that being an important element of NGSS. Students interact with physical materials and within a digital workspace that provides access to custom-written science articles, simulations, and design tools. The lessons follow an instructional sequence meant to build students’ proficiencies with NGSS performance expectations over time, and the study comprised two ASMS units: the structure and properties of matter and chemical reactions. Teachers in the comparison group taught the same units aligned to the same NGSS-influenced standards but used a variety of non-ASMS curricula that included off-the-shelf and district-created permutations. Student learning was measured using an assessment developed by the WestEd team that focused on the three dimensions of science learning articulated in the NGSS. Curriculum use and details on instruction were measured using weekly teacher logs and a final survey.
Results show that treatment students scored 7.3 percent higher on the assessment than did students in the comparison schools. The results were similar across gender and racial and ethnic groups and for students with different prior math and literacy achievement. The estimated effect size of 0.36 is equivalent to the average student in the treatment schools improving a massive fourteen percentile points (moving from fiftieth to sixty-fourth percentile) relative to the average student in the comparison schools. Treatment group teachers reported high levels of positive engagement and satisfaction: More than 80 percent agreed that they and their students benefited from using ASMS curricular materials, 88 percent reported that ASMS supported them in engaging students in science discourse, and 54 percent reported that using ASMS changed the way they taught science. Unfortunately, an analysis of differences between the instruction given in treatment and comparison classrooms was not complete in time to be included in this publication.
Experience tells us that not all instructional materials are created equal, and attention to curricular quality is a welcome development. The more rigorous analyses of student outcomes via various curricula, the better.
SOURCE: Christopher J. Harris, Mingyu Feng, Robert Murphy, and Daisy W. Rutstein, Curriculum Materials Designed for the Next Generation Science Standards Show Promise: Initial Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial in Middle Schools (San Francisco, CA: WestEd, January 2022).