What Are Next Generation Science Standards?

Middle school science class
In middle school, students will be allowed to decide for themselves what science fair projects to do. (Image credit: Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock)

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a set of internationally benchmarked science standards for K-12 science education, published in April 2013. Voluntarily adopted, the standards were developed over the course of two years by 26 partner states to meet the need for new scientific education standards in the United States. Students are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills as well as scientific and mathematic literacy. The standards are adopted at a state level, with no federal funding or backing.

Why do we need new standards?

The standards were created because science education across the country had remained largely unchained over the past 15 years, despite major advances in scientific fields and changing industries that need a scientifically minded workforce. American students were lagging behind other countries in science and math, despite the opportunities and potential within the country. American students are being outperformed by many other countries, and their scientific and mathematic skills are testing so low that students are woefully unprepared for college. In 2012, 54 percent of American high school graduates did not meet college readiness benchmark levels in mathematics, and 69 percent of graduates failed to meet the college readiness benchmark levels in science, according to the 2012 ACT College Readiness Benchmarks Report.

The United States, as a whole, was suffering economically because of this learning deficit. In 2012, foreign competitors filed more than half of all patent applications; the U.S. share of high-tech exports continued to decline, while foreign countries' high-tech exports rose. In order to compete with these other superpowers, the United States needed to refocus its science education and inspire its students to become interested in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Research also showed that scientific and technological literacy transcended the careers only within the STEM fields. The National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium created 16 career clusters, which included all occupations. All clusters called for at least three years of science, with 14 clusters calling for four years. Critical thinking and scientific application skills are useful in almost all careers.

Beyond career development, Americans need better scientific skills to apply to their lives as a whole. Scientific and mathematic skills are a major part of adult literacy — Americans need to worry about personal finance, retirement planning, and understanding their healthcare needs. Scientific and mathematic literacy are incredibly important to all of these necessary life choices.

How were the standards developed?

There were no federal funds or incentives used to adopt the standards, as the creation was entirely state-driven and primarily funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, developed the framework necessary to create an outline of the science that all K-12 students should know. Non-partisan nonprofit Achieve managed the 26 states in developing K-12 science standards in a cohesive manner, based on the framework created by the National Research Council.

The NGSS are based on not just scientific content, but also how students learn science effectively. Rather than teaching endless scientific facts and lists to students, teachers focus on key scientific disciplines and delve into deeper understanding and knowledge. Research shows that students retain the information much more effectively when taught in this manner, as well as understanding the application of the science. Scientific inquiry and ideas are encouraged to go hand in hand, preparing students not just for college readiness, but also workforce readiness.

What do the new standards change?

Under the NGSS, students should meet performance expectations rather than simply listing what kids should know or understand. The performance expectations state what students should be able to do, demonstrating that they've met the standards. This allows teachers to create clear and specific targets for curriculum, teaching and assessment.

The performance expectations are also built on foundations from the NRC's framework — a science practice, the core discipline, and a concept that cuts across other scientific disciplines. This allows a deeper coherence of the subject matter — students connect to other ideas they've learned within science and engineering. This also ties in closely with the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts.

The standards themselves are very specific. Starting in kindergarten, students learn about the environment around them, such as weather, climate and ecosystems. As children progress through elementary school, they learn more about the relationships among ecosystems and animals, astronomy, engineering and design, and biology.

In middle school, scientific education ramps up with basic chemistry and physics. Students learn about force, energy and waves, as well as a deeper look at biology and Earth sciences. The curriculum includes a more complicated look at how organisms interact with their environments, including natural selection and adaptations. Engineering design also becomes a part of the curriculum.

High school is the culmination of all of these topics. Students dive deeper into chemistry, learning about chemical reactions. They also learn more about Earth sciences, life sciences, and how the skills they've learned can be applied to college or careers. The NGSS website has a breakdown of NGSS topics broken down by age group.

How should the standards be implemented?

Achieve has created a workbook to help administrators across all states implement the NGSS standards.  It begins by deciding on a strategic leadership team, and creating a timeline for adoption of the standards. A key part of the process is to define the goals based on the district or state. Evaluating where the students stand now and where they've stood in the past is important to understanding where to go with the standards and what the goals should be.

The next step is to understand how the state factors into the adoption process, as this can present both obstacles and opportunity. This will help you understand the best way to determine a specific metric and target for the goals, and create a performance baseline. Once a strategy is put together, plan on problem solving along the way. A new implementation will always run into issues, and you must be ready to adjust routines as necessary. For more information, download Achieve's implementation workbooks and chapters.

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