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Under the microscope: The Next Generation Science Standards

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Learning & Development

The what, the how, and the why of the Next Generation Science Standards.

There is a growing sense of anxiety among educators that learners are too willing to embrace the perks of modern living while failing to understand the science and engineering responsible for them.

Aiming to tackle this imbalance are the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which represents the first major set of recommendations for science instruction since 1996. Given the fast-moving nature of technological and scientific advances, the standards have set lofty educational goals and raised more than a few questions in the process. Here, we take a look and try to provide some answers.

What are the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)?

The Next Generation Science Standards are a series of goals and best practices for raising the standard of high school science education. They mark part of an effort to demystify the sciences for learners, to standardize science teaching, and to increase college enrollments in scientific and technical subject areas.

However, the Next Generation Science Standards are not a curriculum. There is no official lesson plan or textbooks. Instead, the standards are intended to serve as more of an outline that accommodates flexibility in terms of instruction.

When did the NGSS start?

The NGSS are relatively new – they were originally announced in April 2013 with the support of the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association of Science, the National Research Council, and the non-profit Achieve.

Which states have adopted the NGSS so far?

Twenty-six states were involved in the development of the NGSS. These are known as the Lead State Partners, and they include:

Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia

Though some 40 states have shown interest in adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, only 19 have to date, with New Mexico recently joining Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

Collectively, the adopting states are estimated to account for roughly 35 per cent of the K12 student population in the US.

Why are the Next Generation Science Standards important?

The purpose of the Next Generation Science Standards is to make scientific knowledge more available, relatable, and understandable to a greater number of learners. This is largely driven by the fact that science plays so central a role in modern life. As the NGSS website puts it:

“Never before has our world been so complex and scientific literacy is critical to making sense of it all. Science is also at the heart of America’s ability to continue innovating, leading, and creating jobs for the future. That why all students … should have access to a high-quality science education.”

What are the benefits?

The benefits – or at least the intended benefits – for students are considerable. Rather than just focusing on the importance of committing basic facts to memory, the NGSS aim to nurture a more holistic understanding in students of the subject matter at hand.

The standards encourage a high-level of student participation and call for educators to help build a strong base of scientific knowledge in learners through crosscutting material rather than keeping it siloed.

Establishing such a base of knowledge could have applications far beyond the remit of STEM. #NGSS Click To Tweet

Establishing such a base of knowledge could have applications far beyond the remit of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subject areas. If students develop the facility to connect ideas and concepts in lessons, then the knock-on effects could have a deeply positive effect on their lives – something Time has previously noted:

“Even students who choose not to continue their education on a STEM field will be able to apply STEM principles in their lives, perhaps by evaluating claims made in advertising, or by observing patterns of occurrences in their day-to-day existences.”

What does “crosscutting” mean?

Crosscutting essentially refers to the connections that link the various scientific disciplines. The NGSS employs crosscutting to allow learners to form a more holistic picture of the world by gathering insights from branches of science and using their own critical thinking skills to examine how they are related.

The aim is to help students establish a solid contextual framework for understanding new information from disciplines that were previously siloed off from one another. One example of this in action might be recognizing possible connections between the spread of disease and global warming.

So, despite the apparent differences between scientific disciplines, crosscutting aims to teach students to spot things like patterns, similarities; causes and effects; systems and system models; structures and functions; and changes and stability.

What are the criticisms of the NGSS?

The criticisms of the NGSS are almost as considerable as their stated virtues, with some commentators suggesting that they reduce teachers from an active role to a passive one.

While the relative newness of the standards makes such criticisms difficult to qualify, they do raise an important concern about the time and resources it would take to develop a curricula that is compliant with the standards and the teacher training required to properly implement this curricula. This might be particularly problematic for schools that are less well-resourced and may consequently struggle to keep up.

Another criticism of the standards is their lack of math content – a conspicuous absence given the integral part of math in the sciences students are being asked to understand.

The standards have also been met with stern resistance from religious conservatives who baulk at the NGSS’s insistence that students must learn about both climate change and evolution.

How are the Next Generation Science Standards different to the Common Core State Standards?

In many ways the ambitions of the two are the same, but in different subject areas. The NGSS are aligned with the Common Core State Standards by grade and difficulty level (though there is debate concerning math standards – see link in previous section).

States don't have to adopt the #NGSS, but pressure will likely increase with popularity. Click To Tweet

The NGSS aim to do for science what the Common Core attempted with math and English – establish a higher standard that emphasizes critical thinking and investigation.

States are not obligated to adopt the NGSS, but pressure to do so will increase as the standards become more popular.

How will the Science Standards be taught?

The NGSS divides science into four areas: the physical sciences; the life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and applications of science.

Students must develop a sound understanding of the core concepts and practices in each area and be able to apply them. Each standard is comprised of 3 areas: Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI), Science and Engineering Practices (SEP), and Crosscutting Concepts (CCC).

Mastery in these is built up gradually, as the Hechinger Report notes: “the standards call for schools to help students build on science knowledge from one year to the next and make connections across disciplines that have historically been approached as completely separate.”

However, to understand core concepts requires a deeper level of engagement. Experience and participation are likely to be more effective than observation, and so educators are expected to use more case studies in their instruction and introduce students to more real-world examples through repeated day-trips to relevant sites.

How are the Next Generation Science Standards assessed?

As already mentioned, the Next Generation Science Standards put the onus on students to demonstrate a rounded understanding of the sciences and to make connections and develop models to prove this.

If performance expectations have changed, it stands to reason that so will the means of #evaluation. #NGSS Click To Tweet

If performance expectations have changed, it stands to reason that so will the means of evaluation. It’s likely that rather than simply answer multiple choice questions, students will be required to explain their answers, provide evidence to support them, and display a clear understanding of how their evidence supports their assertions.

Assessments for the new standards must therefore not only encourage and measure deeper thought and concept mastery, they must also engage students in a way that is in keeping with more holistic methods of in-class instruction.

Micheál Heffernan

Senior Editor

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