When educators set out to establish the Next Generation Science Standards, their primary purpose was to Develop standards with all students in mind, not just the high achievers already expected to excel in the subject. After three years of revisions, the Next Generation Science Standards are in a state that at face value certainly seem like they are well-suited for all students. As with any education reforms, only time will tell.
Educators believe that with the new proposed science curriculum, every student should and will get a deep, rigorous science education that prepares them for demanding coursework, a college degree in the sciences, and a career that could follow.
Teachers and advocates for these “diverse” learners said the standards and the supporting documents that accompany them offer an unprecedented opportunity to push a far broader array of students into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career pipeline.
But they also acknowledge that raising the cognitive demands of science education when there are already yawning achievement gaps between white, Asian, and affluent students, and their poorer, English-learning, black, and Hispanic peers will require major shifts in practice for many science teachers. Eighth grade English-learners who took the 2011 earth, life, and physical sciences portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, scored an average of 106 on a 300-point scale, far below the 170-point proficiency cutoff.
“Science really can be the great equalizer,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, a former high school chemistry teacher who oversaw the development of the new science standards as a senior vice president at the Washington nonprofit Achieve. That organization was one of the leaders of the science standards-setting effort. “But because science has the unfortunate stigma for only being for a select group of students, we couldn’t afford to come out of the gate without having our diversity and equity work, and some resources for teachers, as a companion to the new standards.”
The Next Generation Science Standards—through the work of a diversity and equity team composed mostly of classroom teachers—went through extensive bias and sensitivity reviews to make sure the standards didn’t include language with multiple meanings, like “draw on evidence,” that might confuse students still learning English, for example.
The diversity and equity team wrote a 21-page companion document to the standards—Appendix D—that discusses how the standards can be made accessible to all students and the specific instructional approaches that teachers may use with various types of learners.
And, in a major effort to help teachers, the team wrote real-life case studies describing how effective instruction using the new standards might look in classrooms with seven different types of science learners: English-language learners, students with disabilities, students who are racial and ethnic minorities, poor students, girls, students in alternative education settings, and gifted and talented students.
“We wanted to show teachers that the NGSS are doable and that they can do this with any student,” said Emily Miller, a 2nd and 3rd grade English-as-a-second-language and bilingual resource teacher in Madison, Wis., who was one of the 41 standards-writers and a member of the diversity and equity team. “We also wanted to demonstrate through these case studies that squeezing out science in schools that are under [accountability] pressures has been the wrong direction. We show the value of using a part of the day that is among the most engaging for kids and how you can integrate reading and math.”
The Next Generation Science Standards, developed over three years by a coalition of 26 states and some national groups, seek to foster K-12 students’ deeper understanding of science in part by asking them to use the same kinds of practices that scientists would use. The standards—adopted so far by Rhode Island, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, and Vermont—ask students to apply what they learn through the practices of scientific inquiry and engineering design. They weave together three dimensions—disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts—and outline clear performance expectations. Those performance expectations spell out the actions students must perform to demonstrate what they’ve learned, such as planning and conducting investigations, analyzing data, and building models.
Much of the push to keep traditionally struggling students at the forefront of the writing team as it developed standards came from Andrés Henríquez, who at the outset of the process was a senior program officer at Carnegie Corporation of New York, the major funder of the NGSS. (Mr. Henríquez is now a program officer at the National Science Foundation.) Mr. Henríquez has long been an advocate for English-language learners and other diverse learners.
Mr. Pruitt of Achieve made understanding the wide range of students’ learning needs a top priority as he helped recruit and select members of the writing team, which included several science teachers with expertise in working with diverse learners. An often-cited critique of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics is that the needs of diverse learners didn’t get enough attention as the standards were written.
“Diverse learners and equity for all students was key to the work from the inception of the NGSS,” said Okhee Lee, a professor of science education at New York University who was on the standards-writing team and was tapped by Mr. Pruitt to lead the diversity and equity team. “The common-core documents do not have any modifications or adaptations for diverse learners. Those are now in the hands of practitioners to figure out.”