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Next Generation Science Standards, and benchmarking science internationally

Grade 7 students conducting experiments on displacement during Science class, Kangding, Sichuan China

Standards have become critical elements of increasingly decentralized K-12 education systems in the current age, as they provide a skeletal framework of target competencies, skills and practices children should aim to achieve to be meeting a certain quality threshhold of desired national/state levels. "...[E]arly state standards helped set the tone for the unprecedented move to align standards in classrooms that we see today" (Glatthorn, Boschee, Whitehead, Boschee - Curriculum Leadership). While there are arguments for and against the facets of standardization, there is a general understanding that it is very difficult to ensure high accountability of student outcomes across a large population.

Common standards serve as an essential element of nation building while ensuring autonomy in curriculum and instruction - standards allow for decentalized control within schools and districts on choices of textbooks and teaching materials, testing, pedagogy, etc. At the same time, they allow for immense economies of scale and advancement of innovation in benchmarking, comparitive policy setting, research, and tools and technologies in education, as these do not have to happen at hyperlocal levels anymore. Undeniably, there is a trade-off with a small loss of local vision setting abilities - but the positives far outweigh the shortcomings. This is the reason why Common Core has created a powerful movement towards building standards around the world.

Why science standards

With Science, the argument for the need for standards not only holds true, but demands even higher emphasis and attention. Science, just like mathematics, and unlike languages, is a subject area where rapid advancement and innovation is changing humanity's understanding of our world constantly.

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The ways students learn and perceive science have large and long-lasting consequences on their self-being and society. Sub-disciplines of science serve as lenses for gaining perspectives on the world. Additionally, market demand for scientifically-skilled labor is at its peak, with some scientific industries claiming to eat up other industries.

In such a world and times, the acceptable margin of error in alignment of student learning with demands of society is reducing everyday. Standards have a huge bearing on design of curriculum (moreso in countries where the curriculum is not simply the govt. textbook) and outmoded science curriculum is a recipe for disaster in preparing children for understanding problems of today and tomorrow.

What are Next Generation Science Standards and what's new about them

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a set of detailed science standards aimed at the US education system developed by a few public sector institutions alongside several state partners. They have been based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education (developed by a team of 18 scholars convened) by the National Research Council (NRC) and their consequent development has been managed by Achieve. They were completed and published in April 2013, after going through a couple of drafts which were opened to public comments (something we think every new curricular framework should aspire to go through, at least).

In many ways, these are the next generation of science standards, as they have been developed upon some research into benchmarking international standards and with a deliberate attempt to propel into the future away from what states previously used (which were "around 15 years old"1): NRC's National Science Education Standards and American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Benchmarks for Science Literacy.

To understand the principles and philosophies of these standards, and why they are a significant deviation from current practice, it is important to identify the status quo of science teaching and learning, as explained by Brian J. Reiser, professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, through an example. Liana Heitin, assistant editor at Education Week, watching a lecture by Prof. Reiser while introducing these standards, reflects on his summary of how science classes are taught today:

Through application: The teacher presents the idea, then students do the lab experiment to see it in action.

Through the "trust me" method: The teacher does the lab, then teaches the idea so kids understand what they just saw. "Why do we need to learn osmosis? Because you really need it in high school," Reiser mocked.

Through the "Mr. Wizard" method: The teacher does something awesome and says, "Isn't this cool? How does this work?"

NGSS, one the other hand, are built on research-based progressive ideas (like inquiry-based learning) on teaching and learning, and gain inspiration from Common Core State Standards (CCSS). According to Brett Moulding, an NGSS Writer, NGSS takes "the vision and Framework for [K-12] Science Education and puts it into a set of standard expections" 2. The core tenets of the NGSSs include, but is not limited to:

  • Making students more prepared for future
  • Tying and weaving in real world problems and critical thinking, reasoning and problem solving. Helping students learn with context.
  • "Career readiness" and "college readiness"
  • Richness in content and practice
  • Meant to prepare students for global readiness
  • Introducing the scientific and technology innovations of the modern era

At the heart of these standards are 3 major dimensions (which are combined to form each standard). These dimensions are:

  1. Practices: "[B]ehaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world and the key set of engineering practices that engineers use as they design and build models and systems"

  2. Crosscutting Concepts: "[W]ay of linking the different domains of science"

  3. Disciplinary Core ideas: These are overarching themes that "should meet the at least two of the following criteria and ideally all four:

    • Have broad importance across multiple sciences or engineering disciplines or be a key organizing concept of a single discipline;
    • Provide a key tool for understanding or investigating more complex ideas and solving problems;
    • Relate to the interests and life experiences of students or be connected to societal or personal concerns that require scientific or technological knowledge;
    • Be teachable and learnable over multiple grades at increasing levels of depth and sophistication."

3 Dimensions of NGSS

Each of these dimensions have subcomponents and touched upon briefly in the video below:

NGSS place a strong emphasis on introducing larger ideas upfront to promote discovery and engagement through the course of the units and lessons. In a lot of senses, and as suggested by Liana Heitin, these remind you of work of Dan Meyer and the Understanding by Design framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe popularized by ASCD.

Competing frameworks / standards used around the world and in the US

In a summary of the International Benchmarking report by Achieve that served as a precursor to the development of NGSS, the authors claim that "conditions are right for the United States to take the lead internationally in forging a new conceptual framework for science, and next generation science standards." This report was a result of a benchmarking research into 10 countries' science standards. These countries either performed well on international assessments (like PISA or TIMSS) "and/or [are of] special interest to the United States", and happened to have integrated ("interdisciplinary teaching approach that presents subject matter according to themes or topics"3) science programs. All this also implies the lack of high-quality non-national-focused science education frameworks/standards; most work in building standards have been focused on specific national education systems. While this makes sense, one may wonder how much local adaptation is needed in science standards in an increasingly "flat" and globalized world, which forms the basis for NGSS. This makes NGSS all-the-more important internationally.

Similar to the case with comparative research reporting for the need of CCSS, the opening of this summary report highlights the (opinion: beaten-to-death) challenge of students in the US being left behind in international assessments in science, which seems to be a cause for worry.

A couple of common characteristics across the standards/framework followed in these countries included:

  • (#2) Physical science (physical and chemistry) was the emphasis in science classes in lower primary through lower secondary
  • (#3) Life sciences is focused entirely on human biology (i.e. there is no holistic "life sciences" as a sub-content areas). On the other hand, science in the US (incl. pre-NGSS) includes physical education in the study of life sciences, under the larger umbrella of science.

Achieve identified and called out several "exemplary" practices in these standards, including:

Using unifying ideas to provide focus and coherence and a way pare content

Providing multiple examples to make expectations for students concrete and transparent

Making meaningful connections to assessment to maintain focus on raising student achievement (Click on the following hyperlink to read the report – Connecting Science Standards with Assessment: A snapshot of three Countries ‘ Approaches-England, Hong Kong and Canada (Ontario))

Attending to organization and format has a significant effect on the clarity and accessibility of standards

Developing students’ ability in planning and carrying out investigations to nurture scientific habits of mind and engagement

Making science accessible to all student populations by providing specific guidance for sub-populations

It wasn't all roses for these countries; Achieve identified several shortcomings too.

Having begun this discussion with research behind NGSS, it is important to look outside the national standards/frameworks world to find comparisons with science programs that are neither nationally governed nor completely open internationally. In this light, the albeit costly and opaque science programs of International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) program cannot be ignored.

The IB Science guides, unlike the predecessors of NGSS, have been constantly evolving over the years to "ensure science teaching and learning remains forward-looking, up-to-date and incorporates the latest scientific developments and technologies"4. Subjects covered in IB's Diploma Program (which is roughly equivalent to AP in terms of years of schooling) include biology, computer science, chemistry, design technology, physics and "sports, exercise and health" 5 To add much validity to the increasing popularity of NGSS however, according to IB, it is "closely following the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and, in collaborating with key organizations and individuals, it is exploring the best ways of supporting schools with the shifts in teaching the new science standards in the classroom". This is possible, because at the end of the day, IB is more a "program" and curriculum, and not a set of standards.

Similar to IB, AP has been constantly reevaluated and improved (by College Board) over the years to make it more relevant and competitive. It seems like there is no clear evidence of strong overlap between AP's science programs NGSS. An Illinois teacher claims that there may be have an attempt to align some courses, but there is no clear mapping as of now.

Adoption and how-to of implementation

Just like what we have learned from the challenges of implementing CCSS in the US and beyond, conceiving a brilliant set of standards is the minor problem here. The more significant and uphill challenge is advocating adoption and building ecosystems to support implementation of new standards, as this is a heavily political and institutional process. Gladly for policy makers and standards' writers, such significant shifts happen less than once a decade. But this time, we are still reeling from the aftereffects of CCSS.

Despite the active participation and leadership of 26 states in the development of the NGSS, only 13 states and D.C. have adopted these standards so far. Heitin suggested that the slow adoption is a result of "[l]ack of federal incentives and preoccupation with CCSS". However, considering that the final version of these standards has been published only slightly over two years ago, these little wins feel huge. But unquestionably, states have been involved since 2011.

While development and standards and benchmarks doesn't take care of the heavy-lifting within the state, it does give local administrators a great starting point. According to AAAS, these benchmarks and standards can be used to:

  • Define the territory. State and local curriculum framework developers can use benchmarks and standards to describe the knowledge and skills they want their students to have. By aligning state frameworks with credible, widely-accepted national guidelines, state education leaders will be able to build support for their frameworks more rapidly. They will also be able to take advantage of implementation tools that are being developed to support these national guidelines.
  • Promote K-12 coherence. Research tells us that learning requires making connections between ideas and creating linkages that make sense in a larger context. Unfortunately, as the data from TIMSS indicate, the U.S. curriculum is too often a series of disjointed ideas and experiences, lacking both focus and coherence. This was an important issue for the scientists, mathematicians, and educators who created Benchmarks, so they built into the document itself the conceptual coherence and the cross-grade, cross-discipline connections that are needed.
  • Rationalize curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Decisions about what to teach, how to teach, and how to evaluate what students have learned are among the most important choices educators make. While there are many reasonable criteria for making such decisions, only by carefully evaluating textbooks, teaching strategies, or tests against specific science literacy goals (benchmarks or standards) will we be able to help students achieve those goals.
  • Provide a foundation for teacher preparation and continuing professional development programs. Using benchmarks and standards as the focus of teacher education and professional development programs can help define a base for teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge and for their understanding of standards-based reform and its implications for teaching and learning. Just as standards and benchmarks can bring coherence to the K-12 curriculum, they can also encourage colleges, universities, and school districts to coordinate their teacher education and professional development efforts. Standards and benchmarks can also help states strengthen their teacher certification and placement requirements.
  • Guide efforts to improve achievement for all students. Setting high academic standards for all students—not just for an elite few—contributes to greater equity in the education system. In science and mathematics, the notion that excellence is out of the reach of girls or minority students no longer persists. A core curriculum based on the goal of science literacy for all students will help create a larger and more diverse pool of students who are likely to pursue further education in scientific fields. These same efforts will help all students gain the knowledge and skills they will need in a world that is increasingly shaped by science and technology.

But to understand why implementation gets so difficult for states, let's look at what adoption by a state looks like, using California as an example. California's science standards hadn't been updated since 19986. This led California to be one of the earliest adopters of these standards. Here are some of things California had to do to before it could up with a plan for implementation:

  • Creating an alternative discipline specific model (to the original NGSS's domain models)
  • Solicitation of inputs from science teachers, administrators and others in the public
  • Putting together a State Implementation Plan
  • Summarizing and incorporating inputs
  • Creating a Science Curriculum Framework (due later this year)
  • A very long list of to-dos in near future (see implementation plan)

These can't be easy. To assist states with this adoption, the National Association of State Boards of Education put out a guide / assessment for readiness for the standards.

The most salient short-term manifestation of a state adopting standards is indeed a Curriculum Framework. But frameworks solve only a part of the problem - the in-distict and in-school implementations still remain herculean tasks. Here is where appropriate budgetary and manpower allocation to curriculum design and professional development (2 of the 8 elements of California's future plan) are critical to revamp previous multi-year plans. And neither of these are areas states have already made major strides on. " far, there are very few resources out there to help them with tasks and assessments. So for the most part, they're making up these mysteries on their own."7 ("mysteries" are the inquiries which guide lessons).

According to New York Times at the time of publishing of these standards, "it could be several years before the guidelines are translated into detailed curriculum documents, teachers are trained in the material and standardized tests are revised".

While technically the responsibility for implementation of these plans lies on the state boards of education, there are a couple of areas where the private and NGO sector is expected to show promising support. This is particularly true with development of curricula. There is a very high need for engaging, highly-aligned and tried & tested well-designed units and lessons that aren't rebranded edits of old curricula. The hope is that newer innovations like Google's VR Expeditions Program will have wide trickle-down effects, while more startups like Mystery Science emerge and grow in popularity.

Outside the US

But as stated before, NGSS is a global opportunity beyond the US, and we really need to begin to act like it is one. Which begs the question: how can smaller countries without mature R&D in education and major resources adopt NGSS? Let's take Ghana as an example here (for no particularly strong reason; its education system is heavily influenced and inspired by the very popular mission schooling as advocated by the British).

Despite having a population just less than the most populated state US state of California, Ghana does not have any curricular frameworks or educational standards. It is one of the majority of countries where the textbook is the curriculum, and a syllabus guides all textbook publishing and instruction at the school level, which the government dutifully puts out every year. To Ghana's credit, however, these syllabi documents (see example) have enough details to support a targeted approach in local planning. The syllabi contains listing of units for each grade, and each unit contains objectives, suggested teaching and learning activities and suggested assessment in brief.

While admittedly impossible-seeming today with current resources, adoption of NGSS for Ghana would require atleast:

  • Massive realignment of units to NGSS domains in each grade level, adjusting for mathematical competencies, high-stakes examinations in grade 10 and 12, and cultural needs
  • Qualifying and organizing govt. and private publishing to redoing science materials through sample materials and units
  • Reorienting focus towards unbundling of materials and new pricing models away from rigid textbooks
  • Budgetary allocations for science labs and equipments for inquiry-based approaches
  • Locally-relevant suggested curricula interventions and programs
  • Redesign of standardized local assessment for each grade
  • Large investment in professional development in rural and urban settings
  • Communication with parents and local community stakeholders involved in the education process

This is expensive, time-consuming and highly political - yet governments able to identify funding, leadership and processes to surpass these battles are going to create huge ripple effects with even the simplest implementations.


Theoretically, this is an exciting direction for science around the world. But if this piece leaves you with some desire to know more tangibly how understand this transforms learning, consider this example by Prof. Reiser, explained by Heitin:

For instance, Reiser showed a lesson in which students were told that there was a large decrease in the number of Galapagos finches between 1976 and 1977. ("I do biology, so I like to focus on things like death," Reiser joked.)

Students were tasked with figuring out why so many finches died and why some were able to survive. They were given access to data on the Web about the time period and had to figure out which questions to ask and what information was relevant.

Eventually students determined that there was a drought around that time, and that the seeds the birds ate were nearly depleted. Birds with slightly longer beaks survived because they were able to open the leftover, tough-shelled seeds.

Making Models

But that's far from the end. From there, students investigate a similar phenomenon—for instance, why peppered moths were more prominent during the Industrial Revolution. "So you have two general models," Reiser said. "Then you ask students to tell the story without the finch or moth."

Eventually, they come up with a model. Something like this:

Natural Selection, NGSS

That's when you deliver the kicker, according to Reiser. "Scientists have built a story like this, too, and it's called natural selection."

[1] Standards Background: Research and Reports | Next Generation Science Standards
[2] Video: Next Generation Science Standards: A Vision for K-12 Science Education - Inspired Instruction: Videos From the Teaching Channel
[3] Thematic or Integrated Instruction
[4] The 2014 IB Science changes: Secondary: Oxford University Press
[5] Science in the DP | International Baccalaureate
[6] Califnornia | Next Generation Science Standards
[7] Teaching the Next Generation Science Standards with 'Mysteries' - Curriculum Matters - Education Week

Image courtesy Peter Morgan on Flickr

Varun Arora
Varun Arora is Founder and Executive Director of OpenCurriculum