Districts Out Ahead of States in Adopting Science Standards

By Liana Loewus — May 05, 2015 7 min read
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While statewide adoptions of the Next Generation Science Standards continue to prove slow and steady, some districts are jumping the gun on their states and starting to bring the new standards to classrooms as soon as possible.

In many cases, science teachers themselves have led this charge.

“I think what you’re seeing really is grassroots support among science teachers everywhere regardless of what’s happening at their state level,” said David L. Evans, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, which provided guidance during the standards’ development.

So far, just 13 states and the District of Columbia have formally adopted the standards, which emphasize scientific inquiry and engineering design, and ask students to link broad concepts across the science fields. Many states have been too tied up with the Common Core State Standards—providing professional development, preparing for the new computerized tests, and fending off political backlash—to consider adopting new science benchmarks. In other states, such as West Virginia and Wyoming, controversial language in the science standards regarding evolution and climate change have waylaid adoption. (West Virginia recently adopted a version of the standards that was modified to reflect doubt about climate change.)

Bucking a Trend

But in states such as Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania, which have not yet adopted the standards—and may never do so in totality—some districts are moving ahead with the Next Generation Science Standards anyway.

State Adoption

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. West Virginia joined earlier this year, but not without first making a few tweaks to the standards’ language about climate change.

“We recognize that Pennsylvania for a variety of political and financial reasons may not be quick to make the change, but we’re committed to the more rigorous and engaging standards the Next Generation will provide,” said David Geanette, the director of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for the 8,400-student Neshaminy district in Langhorne, Pa.

In fact, at NSTA’s national conference in Chicago this March, more than 100 teams of teachers and administrators from individual districts attended a block of sessions that focused on the new science standards. The groups came from 34 states, according to Mr. Evans, 25 of which had not yet adopted the standards.

“In states that we know are going to struggle with adoption because of current common-core issues or legislative issues, it’s neat to hear teachers in the districts saying we’re going to do this on our own,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, a senior vice president at Achieve, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that oversaw the development of the science standards.

Florida’s Early Start

In Hillsborough County, Fla., which serves 200,000 students and is one of the largest districts in the state, elementary teachers have been incorporating inquiry and engineering-design challenges, based on the common science standards, into their instruction for nearly two years. (The standards were published in April 2013.)

“We’re still teaching what the state says is important but we’ve added layers to our work that look like the Next Generation Science Standards,” said Larry Plank, the director of STEM education for the district. “We’re adopting a lot of the elements and making a lot of culture shifts and changes. The feel of [how we’re using the] engineering practices is the same as it would be in an adoption state.”

Even though Florida was not one of the 26 “lead state partners” that contributed to the standards’ development, Mr. Plank connected with the writers and attended professional development early on, and has championed the standards in his district since before they were finalized.

The chance of Florida adopting the standards as is, according to Mr. Plank, is “zero.”

“We’re not in a political climate here where we’re able to do that,” he said. “But will we [eventually] have standards that look a lot like the Next Generation Science Standards? I would bet on it.”

Meanwhile, the 3,700-student district in Pulaski, Wis., has officially adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, with the approval of the local school board and the encouragement of many teachers.

“What we expected to happen was the state would do their adoption in the summer of 2013, but that didn’t happen,” said Jenny Gracyalny, the director of learning services for the district. “So we decided go forward. ... We’re a local-control state anyway.”

The state standards in place were developed in 1998, which she said frustrated teachers. “It was our teachers who really said that these [Next Generation] standards accomplished what we needed,” she said. “If I’d had my way originally, we’d have taken it a little slower and not gone for adoption, but it was them saying our standards are old, they’re not relevant for students, we need to make some changes.”

Full implementation will take some time, though, and is not expected until the 2016-17 school year, she said.

Phasing In Standards

In Neshaminy, Pa., the district has taken a slow approach to implementing the Next Generation Science Standards as well. This year, 6th grade teachers are using them; next year, the district will add 7th grade teachers; then 8th.

The state’s current standards have been in place since 2002. “We are still doing the state standards, we’re just going beyond them and teaching them in the way science should be done, through the [NGSS] practices,” said Brian Suter, the lead K-12 science teacher for Neshaminy and an 18-year teaching veteran. “At the end of the day, the current research says this is what’s good for kids,” he said, referring to the standards’ evidence-based framework.

Middle school teachers in particular are on board with the need for change, said Mr. Geanette, the district’s STEM director. "[They] have gone for over a decade without having a lot of attention paid their way,” he said. “They’ve been hungry and determined to reinvent science education.”

In Wyoming, where the science standards have caused particular uproar—the state initially passed a law forbidding their adoption altogether but has since ended the ban—as many as 15 districts are using the NGSS, reports the Casper Star-Tribune, a newspaper in the state.

And in Nebraska, one of the four states that never adopted the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics, and is therefore unlikely to adopt the science standards, one of the largest districts is already doing some NGSS work. James Blake, the K-12 science curriculum specialist for Lincoln public schools, which have 38,000 students, is piloting the standards at one middle school starting next year, in part because the teachers there were eager to teach the NGSS practices, or behaviors that scientists engage in.

Bubble-Test Problem

One problem with implementing the Next Generation Science Standards in a state that has not yet adopted them is that the end-of-year science assessments are likely still linked to the state’s existing standards. State summative tests tend not to use the hands-on, inquiry approach that the NGSS promote.

But some educators say they’re not too worried about that wrinkle.

“We’re going to make sure we’re putting kids in those situations with problem-solving and designing and engineering,” said Ms. Gracyalny of Pulaski, “and it should take care of itself when a bubble test is put in front of them.”

As of now, there is no standardized test aligned to the science standards at all, so even those states that have adopted are muddling through assessment issues.

Another hurdle that districts and states are dealing with is a lack of resources aligned to the standards.

“We all know sometimes textbook companies slap a sticker on that says they’re ready or aligned to NGSS but they didn’t make a lot of changes,” said Ms. Gracyalny.

That’s part of why Neshaminy is rolling out the standards so slowly.

“The major companies aren’t willing to put big bucks into this yet,” said Mr. Geanette. “It’s the beginning of a process here in Neshaminy.”

But as Mr. Blake of Lincoln points out, there are also benefits to diving into the standards at the district level, rather than doing so under a state mandate. “There is some freedom, being in a nonadopt state, to take the pieces [of the standards] we can do a better job with and not be forced to cover so much breadth,” he said. For now, he can use the “cafeteria plan,” as he calls it, picking and choosing slices of the standards to implement when teachers are ready.

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Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2015 edition of Education Week as Science Standards Pop Up in Districts


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