Can't we all just adapt?

Our extended hiatus from updating this blog should not be misconstrued as a resignation to the inevitability of Common Core, but may be attributed rather to the unwelcome escapades of Helicobacter pylori, for which amoxicillin and clarithromycin, both made available in the 1970’s, are part of the currently recommended recourse.  Although H. pylori are not (yet) one of the antibiotic resistant pathogens, Garry Trudeau, as drawn in a Doonesbury strip, aptly captured the contradiction of creationists’ belief that bacteria, too, exist in exactly the same form as when they were created, six millennia or so ago, by suggesting that believers not be allowed to utilize any antibiotic except for penicillin in its originally discovered form, which was indeed a potent slayer of infection 60+ years ago.
Photo source: http://microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Helicobacter
While we here at ccssimath.blogspot.com are sufficiently persuaded by the irrefutable evidence of evolution and the adaptability of microbes to circumvent poisons that might be directed towards them, we are not convinced that adaptation in its general form is universally necessary, nor will adaptation be successful wherever and whenever attempted.  Additionally, as we will explain in one of several digressions, some discussions of adaptation may be premature, and need to be preceded by more fundamental understanding in order to place adaptation in its proper context.

When Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium announced a highly ambitious plan to make their Common Core exams “computer adaptive” (while PARCC plans to administer traditional one-size-fits-all tests), it raised new concerns (at least to us) about the feasibility of such assessments posed as questions in SBAC’s myriad item formats, many with portions requiring typed answers.  Computer adaptive testing (CAT) is nothing new, of course, with exams like NCLEX, taken by aspiring nurses, utilizing the format successfully.  NCLEX, though, is completely multiple choice, where there is never ambiguity as to whether a question is answered correctly according to rubric, and in which the exam by design poses the next question based on the correctness of the previous answer.

SBAC’s plan begs the question: with thousands of students simultaneously testing in front of computer screens, how will SBAC assessments decide on the fly whether a question is answered correctly, particularly those requiring manually entered written responses?  Will there be an Oompa Loompa inside the computer who will read the answer and render judgment?  Will a student’s answer be flashed to a central location where banks of trained graders will read the response and make on-the-spot decisions?  Will there be a computer algorithm that can interpret a student’s response, typos and all, and accurately assess the correctness and completeness of the answer?  SBAC’s field tests to date have not been adaptive, and SBAC has provided only a general description of its plans for CAT, so only time (short as it now becoming) will tell whether SBAC can pull it off.


Whatever your opinion of CCSSI, the phrase “Common Core” has taken on a life of its own and become something of a piƱata—bandied, battered and misshapen by both its supporters and detractors—so it comes as no surprise that a new set of common standards for science has deliberately avoided the term entirely and been dubbed the “Next Generation Science Standards”.  Although this is a blog about the mathematics standards, which were (inexplicably) developed independently from the ELA standards, NGSS attempts to tie in to both ELA and math standards at each grade level.  We could start an entirely separate blog about the science standards, for which we have high hopes, too, but it’s worth previewing here some of the kindergarten standards just to see in what general direction students will be taken.

With the realities of climate change already intruding upon the world, each plant or animal species’ adaptability to a changing environment has suddenly been thrust to the forefront as a central question of its long term survival, and just as importantly, to maintaining, if possible, its part in the delicate balances of nature that have taken millennia, if not millions of years, to achieve.  So it is certainly appropriate and timely that in a modern science curriculum such issues be raised, rather than looking at science as a diorama.  This brings us to NGSS for kindergarten, where we will begin and end our brief foray.

Three kindergarten standards delve into the area of what might be termed the life sciences.  We reprint them here:

K-LS1-1.  Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.
K-ESS2-2.  Construct an argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs.
K-ESS3-1.  Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants and animals (including humans) and the places they live.

If we assume that kindergarten is, for some children, their first exposure to formal schooling, we here at ccssimath.blogspot.com have to wonder exactly what was in the collective minds of the science standards’ drafters.  Another way to ask the question might be: what is wrong with this picture?

We’ve previously excoriated the math standards for being developmentally inappropriate at times, and we are going to have to level the same charge here, for these science standards overlook the most important characteristic that kindergartners collectively have: the “Big C”.

No, not that “Big C”, but Curiosity.

The Next Generation Science Standards come up short to both pique and sate students’ natural curiosity.

What, instead of “describing patterns”, “constructing arguments” and “using models”, should kindergartners be doing in the area of, say, botany?

KISS: give each student his/her own pot, some dirt, and a seed.  Plant the seed.  Water the pot daily.  Draw a picture everyday of what you see.

(Repeat with a hyacinth bulb in water; there are some things you can’t see in dirt.)

In an attempt to make the science standards “next generation”, the drafters apparently have forgotten what it’s like to be a child.  Nowhere in the standards does a child have the opportunity to witness first-hand where plants come from.  Nowhere in “describe, construct and use” is there the opportunity just to have fun and get one's hands dirty (literally) by participating in science.

That plants come from seeds is kind of miraculous, but certainly not obvious.  Millions of children each growing their own plant from a seed, there’s an inevitable sense of pride, accomplishment and awe.  Maybe, just maybe, enough children will be so smitten by the connection between seeds and plants that they will decide then and there to become farmers, and the long-continuing exodus from the American rural heartland will reverse course.

Many scientists will point to a profound experience in childhood that set them on their career path.  School needs to provide that experience sometimes.

The adaptation issues raised in NGSS are important, of course, but we’ll put it to the standards’ drafters bluntly: not for kindergarten.  You’ve put the cart before the horse.

The first step to becoming a successful scientist, professional or amateur, is to learn to observe.  Early childhood is for wonderment, not for dissertation.  Structure is not only unnecessary, it may be counterproductive.  The science standards seem so heavy-handed with requiring analysis and argument at such an early age that they may squash, not pique, students’ curiosity, and that would be a shame.

But don’t take our word for it: read the final version of the science standards and judge for yourself.


While Staphylococcus aureus and other drug-resistant bacteria did not actually “adapt” to antibiotics, the combined effects of mutation and natural selection is the same, or such infections would be relegated to the past.  In a warming world, plants and animals, without time to evolve, will have to adapt to a changing environment, move beyond their historical range to maintain a livable environment, or perish.

As for computer adaptive Common Core exams, the idea may seem trendy and progressive, but their value and necessity for accurate assessment is not evident.  As oddsmakers, we’ll end this ramble on the topic of adaptation by setting the morning line: SBAC’s chances of successfully implementing CAT for Common Core is closer to the likelihood of all plants and animals species adjusting to climate change (nil) than Staph’s surviving the next fifty generations of antibiotics (100%).


  1. Hi, sorry to be off topic, but I don't know any other way of getting in touch with you. I have following your other blog (Five Triangles) for some time, and really like some of the problems you put up there. I would like to talk to you about the possibility of publishing some of them on Illustrative Mathematics (with attribution, of course). Could you get in touch with me at william.mccallum@gmail.com?

  2. Hello Author of 5 triangles as well
    I have some interesting and challenging problems for school level.
    Can I send them to you for 5 triangles?
    Howard Phillips

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  4. I may be off base (though I tend to think it's more that the people who develop the tests and do not teach at the grade level being assessed), but.....here are my interpretations of the standards and see if you think that developmentally they match expectations for a 5-6 year old:

    K-LS1-1. Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.

    Plant some plants.
    Observations could include, "Hey, we put water on all the plants and they grew. The bean grew, the flower grew....." "The bean and flower we didn't water died." ETC.

    K-ESS2-2. Construct an argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs.

    "I found in this (grade level appropriate) book that it says all plants need water. I know I help water the plants at my house with my mom. When it doesn't rain, we have to water the plants. My dog is an animal and we put water in his dish every morning. When we forget to give him water, he sometimes drinks out of the toilet. I know I drink water all day too."

    K-ESS3-1. Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants and animals (including humans) and the places they live.

    Using a photo of a desert to show how cacti survive with little water. Cut open a cactus that resides in the classroom and watch the water pour out. "How did it get that way if we only water it once a month?"

    Drawn photos by children of a cactus getting little rainfall/ photo of a marsh with plants that grow IN water.

    Just some off the top of my head ideas. These standards make perfect sense to me. The standardized tests do not.