The Next Generation Science Standards, Two Years In (Part 2: Adopting the Standards)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 -- Shagit Thakkar

As promised, here’s the first post-conference follow-up!  Last month, I mentioned Edmentum's upcoming trip to the NSTA national conference and my goals as an attendee there. Believe it or not, this April marks two years since the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). At the two-year point, what types of impacts are the NGSS having? What are the key trends? How is the transition going? These are a few of the guiding questions I took with me to the conference. My main objectives: to talk with educators, attend workshops, and in general, try to size up the NGSS and where they stand, two years in.

NGSS Adoption:  Are the standards gaining ground?                                      

When tracking NGSS trends, a great place to start is state-level adoption. At the two-year mark, 13 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. For perspective, remember that 26 states signed on as “lead states” and helped write the NGSS (but were not obligated to adopt). The most recent states to adopt: West Virginia, New Jersey, and Illinois, all of which signed on last year.

Is there a trend here? A simple numbers game suggests a slowdown in NGSS adoptions after an initial wave: eight states plus D.C. in 2013, five states in 2014, and none to date in 2015. Upon closer examination, though, we see that educators are finding ways to bring the NGSS to the classroom even if their state hasn’t adopted formally. For example:

  • District-level adoption: I found out at the conference that schools in Wisconsin, for example, are rolling out the NGSS by adopting at the district level. (Wisconsin has not yet adopted at the state level.) Wyoming is another example of a state supporting district-level adoption. 
  • Standards inspired by the NGSS: Some states are opting to write custom science standards modeled after the NGSS. Though many of these states are not official NGSS-adopters, we are seeing that core elements of the NGSS (e.g., the integration of science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts) are often very prominent in the state-specific versions.
  • Trends to watch: (1) Will district-level adoption continue to gain steam, and (2) to what degree, if any, will core themes of the NGSS influence state-specific science standards? One takeaway here is that a snapshot of state-level adoptions might not tell the whole story on how heavily the NGSS are being used in public schools. 

For a complete picture, of course, it is important to note that opinions on the NGSS vary widely. The NGSS continue to have their share of strong supporters, strong detractors, and anywhere-in-betweeners. That's not entirely surprising. The very idea behind the NGSS involves meshing two issues that are polarizing on their own: (1) opting for common/shared education standards over locally developed standards and (2) the task of deciding which topics should or should not be covered in ANY set of science standards.

Over the past two years, we’ve seen plenty of NGSS pushback and related legal activity in individual states—anything from lawsuits challenging parts of the NGSS to bills aimed at blocking the NGSS completely. Some of these measures focus on the NGSS directly, while others address concerns about common standards as a whole, whether they are the Common Core State Standards, the NGSS, or anything similar. I'm led to believe that any level of Common Core pushback in the market has moved policymakers to take a more guarded approach with the NGSS.

What’s important here is that these kinds of events can strike up healthy debate within states. With the NGSS in particular, I am seeing that after any period of public debate and heightened awareness, states have shown a willingness to reverse course. A "lead state" might choose not to adopt, an adopting state might later move to block the standards, and a state that has blocked the standards might even move to repeal the block. Wyoming is a great example—last month, the governor of Wyoming repealed legislation from a year ago that had blocked state-level consideration of the NGSS.

So, my findings from the NSTA conference point to a familiar theme—NGSS adoption has been a push-and-pull process that varies greatly from state to state. What is notable is that those pushes and pulls can happen at any level, state to district, and we’re seeing a lot of constructive debate and thoughtful decision-making as a result. Now, what has come next for states and districts that have adopted, and how have they gone about implementing the standards? Stay tuned for my next post!