The Next Generation Science Standards were recently released and many states are considering adopting them. As this transition occurs, science educators will be forced to grapple with the question of “How can I tell whether resources are aligned to the new science standards?” To answer this pressing question, it’s best to explore what the Next Generation Science Standards entail.

Suppose we had this fifth-grade performance expectation (PE):

5-ESS2-2. Describe and graph the amounts and percentages of water and fresh water in various reservoirs to provide evidence about the distribution of water on Earth.

A first step might be to check whether students have the opportunity to meet this expectation in the current curriculum through a series of learning investigations that asks students to use information about the different reservoirs of water on Earth — oceans, lakes, ice caps, etc. — and make a graph from it. A gap analysis describing the alignment of the curriculum to each standard is one way to accomplish this.

However, educators must remember that identifying gaps such as in the above example is only a first step. The Next Generation Science Standards are performance expectations for assessments (both statewide and at the classroom level), and not a curriculum. So, while pre-existing learning investigations may be an acceptable way to meet this PE, they are also not the only way to address it. From here, educators need to think about whether alignment is simply massaging current curriculum to fit PEs, or whether a gap analysis provides for some truly innovative opportunities. For example, it would also be possible to craft a project-based unit on the water cycle, perhaps including an investigation of local waterways, constructing models of the local watershed, and embedding an engineering project to create a device to improve water quality. This big picture approach moves from a standard gap analysis to an integrated design where the foundations of the NGSS can truly be seen in action. In fact, this sample unit could be used to address both the standard above and three others in fifth grade:

5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.

5-ESS3-1. Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.

3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Units such as these not only ensure that required disciplinary core ideas are “covered” at the appropriate level, but also address many other important considerations, such as directly engaging students in scientific and engineering practices, and assisting students (and teachers) in seeing the disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) connections the cross-cutting concepts provide. This is where the original graphing activity starts to fall short, because in isolation it might meet the “letter” of the practice “Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking” but it doesn’t quite attain the “spirit” of having students engage in multiple practices in an authentic context, as scientists and engineers do. In fact, under our revised unit design, the graphing activity might actually become a performance-based assessment task at the end of the unit (or a formative measure during the unit) rather than an activity designed to teach the material to be learned.

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