Science Standards for the Next Generation

Newly released science standards expect students to be capable of designing experiments and making evidence-based arguments.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that were released last month outline the science content that students are expected to master at each grade level in the U.S. They’re the culmination of a long process—supported by 26 states and led by the non-profit organization ACHIEVE—to improve America’s K-12 science education and develop consistent performance expectations state to state.

“The main difference [between the NGSS and previous broad national standards developed in 1996] is that there is a strong emphasis on the practices and processes of science in contrast to an accumulation of lots of facts or factoids,” says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. Going forward, students should be studying a smaller number of topical areas in much greater depth, as well as engaging in hands-on science by constructing experiments and making evidence-based arguments, according to Evans.

The new guidelines include content recommendations that may prove to be controversial, including teaching high school students in detail about the effects of human activity on climate change and insisting that students must learn about evolution, The New York Times reports.

The standards also integrate engineering and technology—subjects that have historically been given short shrift in science curricula—into lessons at all grade levels. The aim is to “elevate engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry in classroom instruction,” according to an NGSS paper that explains some of the changes.

“In some ways the new standards will make it easier for teachers by placing the focus on the processes of science with less on the overwhelming amount of content we sometimes ask our teachers to teach,” Evans says. But there will be some difficulties for instructors as they learn how to teach in new ways and how to plan their class time to give students more interactive experiences, he adds.

Elementary school teachers—some of whom don’t have strong foundations in science—will also be under increased pressure to prepare students for future science learning, says Evans. The NGSS emphasizes early science education so that each year students can build on what they have already learned.

Teacher response to the standards has been very positive overall. According to a National Science Teachers Association survey, 83 percent of teachers thought the NGSS would dramatically improve science teaching, although a large number—32 percent—identified the need for “considerable” professional development in order to successfully apply the new standards in their classroom.

Nationwide implementation of the standards is not mandatory, so it’s up to states to decide whether to use the recommendations. Should a state adopt them, it must then design curricula that train students to meet performance expectations. As the emphasis shifts from mastery of facts to mastery of practices, new ways of measuring student performance will probably need to be established, too. “The current form of fill-in-the-bubble testing procedures is not likely to be very effective,” says Evans.

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About Leslie Taylor

Leslie Taylor is the digital media manager at Maine Audubon and is a former web editor for Science Friday.