New Science Standards Designed for Wide Range of Learners

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 28, 2013 8 min read
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When the writers of the Next Generation Science Standards began sketching out a new vision for K-12 science education, they gave themselves a mandate: Develop standards with all students in mind, not just the high achievers already expected to excel in the subject.

Now, three years later, their notion—that every student should get a deep, rigorous science education that prepares the ground for demanding coursework, a college degree in the sciences, and a career that could follow—has helped produce a set of standards meant for the most-advanced science students, as well as students who previously may have been steered away from taking a science class, writers of the standards said.

Teachers and advocates for these “diverse” learners said the standards and the supporting documents that accompany them offer an unprecedented opportunity to push a far broader array of students into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career pipeline.

But they also acknowledge that raising the cognitive demands of science education when there are already yawning achievement gaps between white, Asian, and affluent students, and their poorer, English-learning, black, and Hispanic peers will require major shifts in practice for many science teachers. Eighth grade English-learners who took the 2011 earth, life, and physical sciences portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, scored an average of 106 on a 300-point scale, far below the 170-point proficiency cutoff.

“Science really can be the great equalizer,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, a former high school chemistry teacher who oversaw the development of the new science standards as a senior vice president at the Washington nonprofit Achieve. That organization was one of the leaders of the science standards-setting effort. “But because science has the unfortunate stigma for only being for a select group of students, we couldn’t afford to come out of the gate without having our diversity and equity work, and some resources for teachers, as a companion to the new standards.”

Next Generation Science StandardsFocus on Diverse Learners

  • Economically disadvantaged students
  • English-language learners
  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • Students with disabilities
  • Girls
  • Gifted and talented students
  • Students in alternative education

The diversity and equity team was composed of classroom science teachers with expertise and experience in working with at least one of the target groups of diverse learners.

Major components of diversity and equity team’s work:

  • Bias reviews – The diversity and equity team twice combed through each standard to review it for any gender, language, cultural, and contextual bias that might present barriers to different types of learners.
  • Appendix D – A 21-page document that accompanies the NGSS and presents a strong case for how the new standards are designed for all students. It includes detailed information on the science achievement, demographic growth, and effective instructional practices for each major category of diverse learner.
  • Case studies – Real-world, detailed descriptions written by teachers, who developed lessons based on some of the new standards, taught them over multiple days in their home classrooms, and closely documented the strategies they used to reach their target group of learners and how students reacted.
  • Diversity/Equity theme throughout NGSS – The team incorporated instructional practices and relevant research on teaching diverse learners throughout all the NGSS materials.

Source: Education Week

The Next Generation Science Standards—through the work of a diversity and equity team composed mostly of classroom teachers—went through extensive bias and sensitivity reviews to make sure the standards didn’t include language with multiple meanings, like “draw on evidence,” that might confuse students still learning English, for example.

The diversity and equity team wrote a 21-page companion document to the standards—Appendix D—that discusses how the standards can be made accessible to all students and the specific instructional approaches that teachers may use with various types of learners.

Real-Life Examples

And, in a major effort to help teachers, the team wrote real-life case studies describing how effective instruction using the new standards might look in classrooms with seven different types of science learners: English-language learners, students with disabilities, students who are racial and ethnic minorities, poor students, girls, students in alternative education settings, and gifted and talented students.

“We wanted to show teachers that the NGSS are doable and that they can do this with any student,” said Emily Miller, a 2nd and 3rd grade English-as-a-second-language and bilingual resource teacher in Madison, Wis., who was one of the 41 standards-writers and a member of the diversity and equity team. “We also wanted to demonstrate through these case studies that squeezing out science in schools that are under [accountability] pressures has been the wrong direction. We show the value of using a part of the day that is among the most engaging for kids and how you can integrate reading and math.”

The Next Generation Science Standards, developed over three years by a coalition of 26 states and some national groups, seek to foster K-12 students’ deeper understanding of science in part by asking them to use the same kinds of practices that scientists would use. The standards—adopted so far by Rhode Island, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, and Vermont—ask students to apply what they learn through the practices of scientific inquiry and engineering design. They weave together three dimensions—disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts—and outline clear performance expectations. Those performance expectations spell out the actions students must perform to demonstrate what they’ve learned, such as planning and conducting investigations, analyzing data, and building models.

Much of the push to keep traditionally struggling students at the forefront of the writing team as it developed standards came from Andrés Henríquez, who at the outset of the process was a senior program officer at Carnegie Corporation of New York, the major funder of the NGSS. (Mr. Henríquez is now a program officer at the National Science Foundation.) Mr. Henríquez has long been an advocate for English-language learners and other diverse learners.

Recruitment Aim

Mr. Pruitt of Achieve made understanding the wide range of students’ learning needs a top priority as he helped recruit and select members of the writing team, which included several science teachers with expertise in working with diverse learners. An often-cited critique of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics is that the needs of diverse learners didn’t get enough attention as the standards were written.

“Diverse learners and equity for all students was key to the work from the inception of the NGSS,” said Okhee Lee, a professor of science education at New York University who was on the standards-writing team and was tapped by Mr. Pruitt to lead the diversity and equity team. “The common-core documents do not have any modifications or adaptations for diverse learners. Those are now in the hands of practitioners to figure out.”

Case Studies

When the diversity and equity team set out to write its case studies, team members first had to develop lessons based on some of the standards, talk about the strategies they would use to reach all their students, and then teach the lesson over a period of time and document how it went. The studies, or vignettes, are rich on detail, with citations on the instructional strategies the teachers used and packed with thorough descriptions of how students’ understanding of content—the composition of soil samples from different areas of their neighborhood, for example—unfolded at the same time they were stretched to express themselves in English, a language they are still learning.

Ms. Miller, the 2nd and 3rd grade resource teacher who wrote the case study that focuses on English-learners, said she hears all the time from colleagues that rigorous science instruction for poor, minority, and English-learning kids is “impossible.”

“What we hope the vignettes show to teachers is that we are normal teachers, just like them, and we did this in our classrooms and it worked,” she said.

Lessons on Matter

In the case study focused on economically disadvantaged students, a 9th grade chemistry teacher challenged her students, in a multiday lesson on matter, to explain why a railroad tanker car had dramatically imploded after it had been washed out with steam and all its outlet valves closed. She kicked off the unit with a class discussion to size up her students’ prior knowledge on the molecular nature of matter by asking them how gases had behaved in earlier investigations they had done. She wrote students’ answers on a chart.

After showing them the video of the imploding tanker car, she asked them to work in small groups to talk about what had happened and to develop models that would explain the implosion. She circulated among them, asking guiding questions as they drew their models and discussed what they thought had happened. One group of students noted that they see smashed aluminum cans in their neighborhood all the time and that maybe an “airfoot” had stomped the tanker down. “What is the imaginary foot?” the teacher asked them. “Air,” answered one of them. The teacher told them to add that idea to their model, validating the students’ discussion of smashed cans as a real-world connection between their neighborhood and science.

Over the next two days, the teacher asked her 9th graders to revise their models after conducting simulations of the imploding tanker with aluminum soda cans. Working in small groups, students filled the cans with water and each group subjected them to different variables (amount of water in the can, temperature of a water bath for submerging the cans, time on a hot plate, volume of the can, and how much each can was sealed shut) to see what would happen. They made predictions and defended them when questioned by the teacher. She also assigned students a reading on air pressure for homework to help build their understanding.

By the end of the unit, students had continued to improve their models and, drawing on evidence from their experiments, were able to explain why the tanker had imploded.

Said team member Rita Janusyk, a 4th grade teacher in a suburban Chicago district and a former science coordinator and director of enrichment programs for gifted students: “The idea was to paint a very vivid picture of what this looks like in the classroom and to show a slice of life in a complex world of science instruction in a particular classroom.”

Peter McLaren, a state specialist in science and technology for the Rhode Island department of education and a member of the standards-writing team, said he will use the vignettes for teachers’ professional development. Beyond the descriptions of unfolding lessons and student’ responses, he said, the contextual information about the historic performance of diverse learners in science and their increasing numbers in classrooms that have traditionally been populated with middle and upper-class white students is important for teachers to understand.

“The case studies are really about kids,” he said. “And for some of my colleagues who are only now beginning to see these kids show up in their classrooms and are asking themselves how they are going to teach them, this is a tremendous resource.”

Ms. Lee, an expert on how science can support English-language acquisition for ELLs, said as a content area, science has the strongest potential to be relevant for students from backgrounds not traditionally seen as mainstream.

“In and of itself, science is about understanding and explaining the natural phenomenon in the context of where a person lives,” she said. “We just have to provide those connections and that relevance to our students.”

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Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Diversity Goal Set Tone for Science Standards


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