Eight Things to Know About the Next Generation Science Standards

By Liana Loewus — February 23, 2016 4 min read
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By now you may have heard that there’s a set of common science standards that some states are adopting called the Next Generation Science Standards. But if that’s about where your knowledge ends, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

The science standards have undoubtedly taken a backseat to the Common Core State Standards, which have been the subject of ongoing political and instructional controversy. But as of last week, 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards—meaning millions of students will soon be learning the new benchmarks in their classrooms. And many more individual school districts have jumped the gun on their states, and decided to bring the science standards to their schools ahead of statewide adoption.

So why haven’t the Next Generation standards, which outline what K-12 students need to know about physical, life, and earth and space sciences, gotten the same attention and backlash as the common core? First, they’ve been adopted much more slowly. While nearly every single state adopted the common-core standards within nine months of when they were published, we’re two years into having the common science standards, and just over a third of states have opted in. Second, the states that have adopted them are taking their time with implementation. In many places, the transition will take three or four years, or even longer. And third, there are currently no assessments attached to the science standards, so the stakes are much lower for teachers, schools, and students than they are with the common core.

There has been some pushback regarding the standards’ language on climate change. The NGSS say that global warming is happening and that human activities are a primary cause, a view that 95 percent of climate scientists agree with. That’s caused a bit of hubbub, in particular in West Virginia.

But don’t be fooled—the train is chugging along on these science standards. More states will adopt, more teachers will implement, and there will be assessments soon enough. So with all of that on the horizon, here’s what you’ll want to know about the standards themselves.

1) The standards prize performance over memorization. They don’t just ask students to memorize the facts—they ask students to apply them, analyze them, interpret them, compare them, and make models of them.

2) The standards are multilayered. Each standard has a performance expectation (see No. 1 above) and three additional “dimensions": science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. It’s a bit confusing, but think of the performance expectation as the standard itself—what students will be expected to do by the end of the year. The other dimensions describe how to act like a scientist and make connections across the science fields while learning the facts. In essence, the point is to fully integrate knowing and doing in the classroom.

3) They include a lot of engineering and design. This is completely new to many teachers—especially at the elementary level. Think about it: How many teachers have taken an engineering class? Very few. Teachers will need professional development and good curricula to help with this.

4) The standards link up with the common core. For each performance expectation, the NGSS document has a list of common-core math and English/language arts standards that it can be linked to. There’s no real requirement teachers do this, but it’s an acknowledgement that the two standards initiatives go hand in hand.

5) Some people say the NGSS don’t focus enough on specific science concepts. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave the standards a “C” grade, saying they’re too “broad and general” and lack “essential content.” Some teachers have said they deemphasize factual content as well, instead focusing on practices and application, which is different from most previous state standards.

6) But overall the standards have a lot of support from the science education community. The NGSS are based on research about how students best learn science, and a lot of professors, scientists, education department folks, industry representatives, and teachers have come out in support of them.

7) Teachers don’t have enough materials aligned to the standards. I hear this again and again—that the standards are great but teachers have nothing to teach them with. Many districts are creating materials of their own for now. But this is very hard work, and there’s a lot of hunger for more products in this realm.

8) Assessments will be here soon. Some pilot tests are underway already. In Illinois, officials are promising to have NGSS-aligned tests ready by this spring. And there’s a good chance that once there are operational tests in place, more ears will perk up, and increasing backlash to the standards won’t be far behind.

(Top Image: From the Next Generation Science Standards document, with labeling by Paul Bruno)

For more on the Next Generation Science Standards:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.