Standards in Science Unveiled

April 16, 2013 8 min read
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The final version of standards aimed at reshaping the focus and delivery of science instruction in U.S. schools was publicly unveiled last week, 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.

The 26 “lead state partners” in developing the standards have pledged to “give serious consideration” to adopting them. Some 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 Washington state’s education agency, 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 ... 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 standards’ treatment of evolution and climate change, two politically thorny issues, may complicate adoption decisions in some states.

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 sees evidence of problems his organization identified in earlier drafts. One primary concern is that the heavy focus on scientific and engineering practices, what he calls the “obsession with practices,” will diminish the learning of basic science.


At the heart of the new Next Generation Science Standards are performance expectations for topics in the science disciplines. They are intended to focus on the performance required to show science proficiency.

Energy: (Kindergarten)
• Make observations to determine the effect of sunlight on Earth’s surface.
• Use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area.

Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity: (Grade 3)
• Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and environments in which they lived long ago.
• Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.

Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions (Middle School)
• Apply Newton’s Third Law to design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects.
• Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object.

Engineering Design (Middle School)
• Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
• Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modifications of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Earth and Human Activity (High School)
• Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.
• Use a computational model to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated impacts on other Earth systems.

SOURCE: Next Generation Science Standards

“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,” said Stephen Best, an assistant director in the Michigan education department’s office of educational improvement and innovation. “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. “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.”

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 developing 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.)

Four Disciplines

The standards target four disciplines: physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and the applications of science.

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 expectations in relation to three dimensions: science and engineering practices; disciplinary core ideas; and cross-cutting concept statements. Also, “connection” boxes that relate the core idea to other science standards, and to the common-core standards in English/language arts and math, will be added later this month.

The executive summary stresses 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 says the standards are not intended to limit how much science students learn, but to lay a foundation, with some students taking further advanced coursework in high school.

It remains to be seen whether the standards’ handling of climate-change education and evolution will 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.”

The handling of climate change is coming under fire from Joy Pullman, an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank in Chicago that is critical of claims about the human role in rising global temperatures. She said the standards “push schools to teach children to believe the debatable idea that humans [have] caused dramatic, dangerous global warming.”

A 2011 NRC report (not connected to the science standards) sums up the evidence on climate change this way: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems.”

Advocates for expanding access to climate-change education appear to be heartened by the explicit inclusion of the topic in the science standards, and the way it’s handled, saying the issue often gets little or no attention in schools.

Engineering Design

Another issue of debate may be whether, amid the push to cover less content in greater depth, the standards include all the science students need to know.

That was a key concern of the Fordham Institute, which drew on a number of experts in science in its review of prior drafts. The think tank, which has periodically graded state science standards, is expected to provide such a grade for the Next Generation Science Standards, plus analysis of how they compare with the standards of individual states.

Mr. Finn said he would defer to that panel of reviewers in judging the science. “Are the important things that kids need to learn in science adequately represented here and are they explicit?” he said.

Some engineering experts criticized an earlier draft of the standards, saying it gave the subject short shrift. 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.

“Engineering design is woven deeply into the core of the standards,” said Mr. Sneider, an associate research professor at Portland State University in Oregon, “so it should become really a part of every science education program, from K to 12.”

The final version also has a middle and high school standard explicitly on engineering design, with its own performance expectations.

Some states may make adoption decisions soon. The Maine education department said its state board anticipates a vote on the standards later this spring, and Kentucky’s board in June is expected to vote on provisional adoption.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week as Standards in Science Unveiled


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