Common Science Standards Make Formal Debut

April 09, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 11 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the size of the standards-writing team. It includes 41 members.

Includes updates and/or revisions.

The final set of standards aimed at reshaping the focus and delivery of science instruction in U.S. schools was publicly unveiled Tuesday, setting the stage for states—many of which helped craft the standards—to take the next step and consider adopting them as their own.

More than three years in the making, the Next Generation Science Standards are designed to provide a greater emphasis on depth over breadth in studying the subject. They seek not only to provide students with a foundation of essential knowledge, but also to lead young people to apply their learning through scientific inquiry and the engineering-design process to deepen understanding.

“Coupling practice with content gives the learning context, whereas practices alone are activities, and content alone is memorization,” an executive summary of the standards says. “The integration of rigorous content and application reflects how science and engineering is practiced in the real world.”

Other top priorities in the standards include promoting coherence in the teaching of science across disciplines and grades and having a clear and sustained focus on “cross-cutting concepts” in the curriculum, such as patterns, cause and effect, and stability and change.

The final version of the standards comes after two rounds of public comment on prior drafts, with the most recent issued in January.

The 26 “lead state partners” in developing the standards have pledged to “give serious consideration” to adopting them. Several other states that were not lead partners, including Florida, Louisiana, and Wisconsin, have been providing feedback on drafts and are expected to take a close look at adoption.

Officials reached in several lead states said they were generally pleased with the final revisions.

Ellen K. Ebert, the science director for teaching and learning for the Washington state education department, said she “absolutely” saw evidence of her state’s feedback in the end product.

“We had quite a diverse set of eyes looking at the drafts,” she said, including a “leadership team” of 40 individuals from different sectors, as well as broader outreach to the community and even groups of students who provided their views.

“It was very important for us as a lead state to use our opportunity to get as many of our teachers, students, parents, business people, as many of our interested stakeholders involved as possible, to feel like they had a voice,” Ms. Ebert said.

For Washington state, an adoption decision could come as soon as this summer, she added.

Finding a Balance

Observers say the treatment of evolution and climate change, two politically thorny issues, may complicate decisions in some states. With biological evolution, for instance, the standards make clear that the concept is a fundamental underpinning of the life sciences. And with climate change, the document calls human activities “major factors.”

Meanwhile, Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank that has been a strong supporter of the Common Core State Standards in math and literacy, said that, based on a quick look at the final version, he still sees evidence of problems his organization identified with earlier drafts. One primary concern is that the strong focus on scientific and engineering practices, what he calls the “obsession with practices,” will diminish the learning of basic science.

“There is a risk here that the activities are going to drown out the knowledge,” Mr. Finn said, once the standards are translated to the classroom level. “You can end up being a great performer and not know much science.”

But David L. Evans, the recently named executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said that critique is misguided.

“I think it’s kind of a false dichotomy,” he said, arguing that while the standards have deliberately reduced the amount of content typically addressed in standards, the document’s power is in the integration of knowledge with scientific and engineering practices, as well as promoting cross-cutting concepts.

“The new standards address the balance between content and practices quite nicely,” Stephen Best, an assistant director in the Michigan education department’s office of educational improvement and innovation, said in an email. “We don’t feel that this diminishes the content, but rather that these practices help make the content more relevant and accessible for all students.”

A state’s decision to adopt the standards is only the beginning of a long and complicated process, experts say, including translating them into a curriculum with aligned instructional materials, developing strong assessment tools, and providing educators with the training and support to understand and teach the standards faithfully.

“There are a set of challenges at every step in the chain,” said Mr. Evans of the NSTA, based in Arlington, Va. “Many teachers are going to need significant amounts of professional-development help to implement the standards. That’s going to be true for traditional disciplinary teachers—the biology teacher, for instance—as well as elementary teachers, who typically don’t have strong backgrounds in any of the sciences.”

Conceptual Framework

The standards-development process started in January 2010, when the congressionally chartered National Research Council convened a panel of experts to create a “conceptual framework” to guide the new standards. Armed with that framework, a coalition that ultimately grew to include 26 states came together to craft standards based on the document.

Other partners in the effort include the NSTA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that also helped with the development of the Common Core State Standards.

Throughout the process, the states and others provided guidance and direction to a 41-member writing team composed of K-20 educators, as well as experts in science and engineering.

Major funding for the development of the standards was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Other funders include the Noyce Foundation, the Cisco Foundation, and DuPont. (Both Carnegie and Noyce support Education Week’s news coverage.)

The standards target four disciplines: physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and the applications of science. They are organized by grade level for K-5 but as grade-banded expectations for middle and high school.

Each standard is organized into a table for the given topic at each grade level or grade range. The table has three main sections, starting with performance expectations at the top. Below that are “foundation” boxes that expand on and explain those performance expectations in relation to three dimensions: science and engineering practices; disciplinary core ideas; and cross-cutting concept statements.

Also, some features are still absent. A footnote says that “connection” boxes that relate the core idea to other science standards, as well as to the common-core standards in English/language arts and math, will be available later this month. In addition, many appendices exploring dimensions of the standards in greater detail will come later.

The executive summary emphasizes that the standards are exactly that, standards that reflect what a student should know and be able to do, not a curriculum.

“While the [Next Generation Science Standards] have a fuller architecture than traditional standards—at the request of states so they do not need to begin implementation by ‘unpacking’ the standards—the NGSS do not dictate nor limit curriculum and instructional choices,” it says.

The summary also makes clear that the standards are not intended to limit how much science students learn, but to lay a foundation that all students need.

“All students—whether they become technicians in a hospital, workers in a high-tech manufacturing facility, or Ph.D. researchers—must have a solid K-12 science education,” it says. But the standards “do not define advanced work in the sciences. Based on review from college and career faculty and staff, the NGSS form a foundation for advanced work, but students wishing to move into STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields should be encouraged to follow their interest with additional coursework.”

One area of science that may well see increased time and attention because of the standards is earth and space sciences. Several experts noted that at the high school level, for instance, those topics typically are far less apt to be taught than biology and chemistry.

“As you look across our coursetaking [patterns], there are not many earth-science classes at high school, so it could be very exciting at high school, or they might be fretting about how they’re going to do that,” said Ms. Ebert from Washington state. “Our job is to think about how that content can either stand alone or be pulled into other classes.”

Contentious Topics

It remains to be seen how the issues of climate-change education and evolution will play out, and whether they may make adoption in certain states more politically difficult.

The standards make clear that evolution is fundamental to understanding the life sciences. They also call for teaching about climate change and describe human activities as “major factors.”

That language, also included in earlier drafts, has come under fire from Joy Pullman, an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank in Chicago that has been critical of claims about the human role in rising global temperatures. She maintained that the standards seem intended to incorporate “alarmist global warming [ideas]” into the science curriculum.

On the flip side, many advocates for expanding access to climate-change education appear to be heartened by the explicit inclusion of the topic in the science standards.

“If the climate-change activists are already declaring that their side wins in these standards, the climate-change doubters are going to fight against these standards. And I don’t have a dog in this fight myself,” said Mr. Finn of the Fordham Institute.

Fordham, drawing on a number of experts in science, has periodically graded state science standards. It’s expected to provide such a grade for the Next Generation Science Standards, as well as an analysis of how those standards compare with individual state standards.

Beyond the Fordham Institute’s concern about the balance between science content and practices, another fundamental concern of the group is whether the standards contain enough explicit core science content to begin with. Mr. Finn said he would defer to his panel of reviewers in judging the science, but based on the January draft, Fordham had expressed disappointment on that front.

“Are the important things that kids need to learn in science adequately represented here and are they explicit?” he said.

Some engineering experts criticized the January draft of the standards, saying it gave the subject short shrift and was a step backward from an earlier version.

But Cary I. Sneider, a member of the science-standards writing team, said the final version reflects significant changes that help to address such concerns.

“The engineering concepts were fragmented” in the prior draft, said Mr. Sneider, an associate research professor at Portland State University in Oregon.

“Engineering design is woven deeply into the core of the standards,” he said, “so it should become really a part of every science education program, from K to 12.”

In fact, also as part of the changes, a standard explicitly on engineering design, with its own set of performance expectations, was restored for both the middle and high school levels.

Assessments Ahead?

One big question that remains is whether adopting states will come together, as they did with the common-core standards, to develop a shared set of science assessments that align with the standards. Several state officials and experts say that is certainly a possibility.

One challenge is paying for such assessment development. The federal government provided some $360 million in Race to the Top aid to fuel the work of two state testing consortia in crafting common assessments for math and literacy. No such funding appears imminent for the science standards.

Still, the National Research Council, which developed the framework for the science standards, is now working on a separate document aimed at guiding the development of tests pegged to the standards, including with recommendations on steps needed to develop valid, reliable, and fair assessments.

There is no sign, however, that the Obama administration will provide any incentives, or pressure, for states to adopt the new science standards. Many advocates for the standards have previously said they would prefer that the Obama administration not do so.

In a recent interview with reporters, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was asked about the common science standards and seemed to suggest such action by his department was not likely.

“There’s a growing recognition among states that having everyone do this in isolation doesn’t make sense,” he said. “If these are good, strong standards, I think there will be significant interest out there without us needing to do a lot.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week


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