Aligned science curriculum, better results? Research finds a connection

Using an elementary curriculum aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards improved student learning in science, a new study found.

The survey, from research and analytics firm WestEd, examines the 1st grade Amplify Science curriculum, a commercial program designed to teach to the new standards. The Shared Expectations, published in 2014, emphasize scientific practices and the exploration of scientific phenomena in addition to content knowledge.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have adopted the NGSS, and other countries say they have used the standards to develop their own. However, curriculum market analyses found that high-quality materials to fit this new learning framework were still hard to come by.

This study provides some of the first evidence that available products are helping elementary school students meet these new learning goals, said Christopher Harris, senior director of science and engineering education research at WestEd and lead author of the paper.

Harris led a similar study of Amplify’s middle school science curriculum last year, which found that the company’s program improved science performance in 7th grade.

Amplify’s curriculum is “part of this new generation and new era of learning materials,” Harris said. “This study shows that it improves early science learning and benefits literacy development.”

Studying the curriculum at scale

The researchers focused on 40 schools in three school districts in California, a state that has adopted the NGSS and approved a recommended list of matching texts. The full sample included 2035 students. In 2021-22, schools were randomly assigned to either use the Amplify Science program in 1st grade or to continue their education as usual.

In schools that used Amplify’s curriculum, students performed 0.24 of a standard deviation better on NGSS-aligned assessment questions—an achievement impact that researchers say is equivalent to the average student improving your percentile rank by 10 points.

When the study was conducted, there were no ready-made, NGSS-aligned assessments for 1st graders, so the researchers created their own, drawing on best practices for assessing science in the upper elementary grades, Harris said. Students in the treatment condition also outperformed their peers on the nature vocabulary assessment.

When it comes down to it, the main question we all have to ask ourselves about any curriculum in any subject is, “Does it work?”

Matt Reed, Vice President of Science for Amplify

Amplify classrooms performed slightly better than control classrooms on a pre-NGSS standardized science test, but the researchers characterized this difference as “negligible.” This test covered general science knowledge but did not assess NGSS practices—such as interpreting data in tables, making predictions, or choosing investigative tools.

Amplify is not the only elementary science program that has been tested against the NGSS standards. Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning, a curriculum developed by researchers at Michigan State University, has been found to raise 3rd grade student achievement on standardized science tests aligned with the NGSS.

All of these studies were conducted in the past few years—researchers are just beginning to test whether new programs designed to teach NGSS standards work. Large-scale, randomized controlled trials of curricula are rare in general, especially in science, which often receives less attention than subjects such as reading or math.

Matt Reid, vice president of science for Amplify, said he was pleased that new science materials are beginning to undergo third-party evaluations: “When it comes down to it, the fundamental question we all have to ask ourselves about all curricula in every thread is “Does it work?”

Possible connections between science and literacy development

The study also compared the two groups’ performance on a standardized 1st grade reading test. They found that the scores on this reading test for the two groups were similar.

This is a remarkable finding, said Okhee Lee, a professor of early childhood education at New York University who studies science and language learning. Lee was not involved in the WestEd study.

Science advocates have long argued that the subject gets short shrift in elementary school, displaced by large blocks of time devoted to reading and math—subjects that are tested annually starting in 3rd grade, while science is tested more often. rarely.

Using Amplify’s curriculum requires spending more time on science than K-5 teachers reported typically spending on the subject in national surveys, the researchers wrote — a tricky proposition for schools under pressure to raise reading scores.

But spending more time on science didn’t affect reading comprehension, Lee said. “You haven’t lost,” she said.

Researchers don’t know for sure why the reading scores are stable, but it could be that teaching science supports literacy development, Harris said. “That you can add science to the mix and still stay on par with kids doing their regular English/Language Arts education throughout the year is really intriguing,” he said.

Amplify Science specifically integrates practice with literacy skills throughout the program, Reed said.

And the findings may be reassuring to educators who see spending more time on science as a “risk” to ELA scores, Harris said. Still, he added, schools need to evaluate whether the programs are aligned with their state standards — and consider what support elementary teachers, who often don’t come from science backgrounds, might need to implement the materials effectively.

“You can take a really good set of study materials and still stumble with them,” Harris said.

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