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The Next Generation Science Standards, Two Years In (Part 3: Implementation)

Monday, May 4, 2015 -- Shagit Thakkar

Over the past several weeks, we have been examining the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and where they stand at the two-year mark. In my last post, I focused on NGSS adoption trends. In this final installment, we shift the spotlight to NGSS implementation. And as I’ve done throughout these posts, I’ll be sharing insights gained during our recent trip to the NSTA national conference. 

As we’ve learned, adopting the NGSS can be a process full of speed bumps, stop signs, and even U-turns—or it can be a smooth ride. But adopting the standards is just the beginning of what can be a long road for states and districts. They must now integrate the new standards into the classroom.  

NGSS Implementation: Slow and Steady? Or Swift?

Two years in, what do we know about NGSS implementation trends?  Looking at the 13 states that have adopted so far, it’s fair to say that implementation strategies vary quite a bit. But across the board, there seems to be a common theme: (1) within any state, full implementation of the NGSS will require a gradual approach and lots of patience, and (2) it's important to get the ball rolling as early as possible after adopting.

Some adopting states, for example, moved quickly to create multi-year implementation plans that are rich in detail and very transparent to their stakeholders. Kansas presents educators with a four-year model that spans from their adoption year (2013-14) to a fully revised, NGSS-aligned curriculum in year four.  Similarly, California has presented a six-year plan that spans from adoption in September 2013 to the anticipated date of their first NGSS-aligned state assessments.

Other adopting states are using transition timelines that are shorter and/or less elaborate at this point. It could be inferred that the transition in these states is happening more swiftly – or that the transition is every bit as lengthy as in the examples above, just not as well-publicized. 

Also, calling back to my last post, remember that district-level adoption is a factor here. In an environment where school districts can bypass the state and adopt the NGSS on their own, it follows that those districts will be charting their own paths for implementation timelines, strategies, and so on.

Professional Development:  A Key Component of NGSS Implementation

In any NGSS implementation strategy, it’s safe to say that the focal point will be professional development—i.e., the mechanism for training teachers, administrators, and all appropriate stakeholders on the new standards.  Whereas two years ago, professional development (PD) programs tied to the NGSS were almost nonexistent, we are now seeing waves of initiatives coming from many directions, including:

  • central NGSS drivers such as Achieve and the National Research Council (NRC),
  • teacher-driven organizations like the NSTA, and
  • state and local-level drivers such as state boards of education and school districts.

As one might expect, the NSTA national conference is a great forum for ideas on NGSS professional development. Not only did the 2015 conference spotlight well-known PD resources already available—things like the NGSS Sample Tasks and NGSS Evidence Statements by Achieve (more on these below)—it also provided a platform for PD resources that may be newer or lower-profile. 

An invaluable resource at any teachers’ conference is, of course, the abundance of different teachers’ perspectives. I attended numerous sessions led by groups of teachers (representing schools and school districts from several different states) whose aim was to help other educators with the NGSS.  Specifically, these were forums designed for teachers to coach fellow teachers on their own locally developed NGSS strategies. Here are some takeaways from these sessions:

  • At the local levels, there are impressive NGSS ramp-up initiatives taking place that are not always visible in state and national forums. 
  • In many cases, local NGSS PD programs are taking on formidable structure.  One example is the creation of layered steering committees (at the district, school, and department levels) that talk with each other about implementation progress at regular intervals.
  • It was helpful to hear teachers talk openly about both the successes and the pain points in their implementation process.  Factors such as budget and schedule constraints as well as the sheer magnitude of change from the old standards to the new standards were pointed out as challenges. 
  • However, teachers were also quick to note that these challenges can be offset completely by the benefits of moving to new standards.
  • Teacher perspectives seemed to underscore the theme mentioned above:  a full transition to the NGSS is not a simple task, and a slow and steady approach is important.

To cap the discussion on professional development, I’ve included below a few notable resources:

  • NGSS Evidence Statements by Achieve – elaborates on the scope and aim of each NGSS Performance Expectation. 
  • NGSS Sample Tasks by Achieve – a set of sample tasks that demonstrate ways to integrate content knowledge with science practices. 
  • Guide to Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards by the NRC – a guide for educators tasked with transitioning their policies, curricula, and assessments to align with the NGSS.
  • New Science Standards by the National Association of State Boards of Education – a guidebook for state boards of education to assess the degree to which they are prepared to adopt the NGSS. 
  • Standards Comparison Tool by Achieve – a tool that allows educators and administrators to compare and identify the degree to which any two sets of standards differ.

The Last Piece to the Puzzle: NGSS-Based Assessments

The NGSS Performance Expectations represent what students should be able to do – not just a list of things students should know – to be proficient in science. That is, of course, one of the NGSS' signature aspects - the careful integration of how to do science with what to know about science.

How can educators build summative assessments around performance expectations that are based on “doing” science rather than just “knowing” facts? This is the challenge facing educators in NGSS-adopting states. 

The answer to the question, for starters, is that assessments don’t have to be one-dimensional. They can take on different forms in different settings or media. In a full-day workshop at the NSTA conference aimed at developing NGSS assessments, we took a look at several strategies. Below are some notable assessment development strategies discussed at the conference:

  • “Unpacking” the Standards: when preparing an assessment item aligned to an NGSS Performance Expectation (PE), the first step is interpreting that expectation correctly. Systematic methods for unpacking each performance expectation can help educators understand the individual PE and each of its three dimensions (Science Practices, Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts).
  • Performance Tasks: summative assessment methods for a NGSS Performance Expectation don’t need to be limited to traditional formats.  Hands-on, real-world activities, or “performance tasks,” should be pulled into summative assessments. 
  • Media Types: similarly, multimedia—e.g., virtual labs, audio/video, and interactive question forms—can be leveraged in high-stakes tests, allowing for better evaluation of the “how” aspect of science practices.

So, how far away are we from seeing state assessments aligned to the NGSS?  The short answer is, we’re looking at years, not months. Each state will have its own timeline, of course. As mentioned above, California is pinpointing 2018-19 as its anticipated first NGSS-based testing cycle. Across the board, the 2016-17 school year looks to be a popular target for pilot or field testing. This again points to the theme that slow and steady is best as states break ground with the NGSS. Here are two assessment trends to watch:

  • What shape will high-stakes NGSS assessments take on? Will they mirror formats we are seeing in PARCC and SBAC assessments on the Common Core side? Or will we see something very different for science?
  • Will states work together when creating NGSS-based assessments? Or work independently? States will look to find a balance between the benefits of maintaining autonomy and the benefits of pooling resources when tackling a large, complex project.

Final Takeaways

So, pointing back to the original question: where do the Next Generation Science Standards stand, two years in? With a current adoption base of 13 states and a presence that extends beyond that, the new standards are certainly influencing how U.S. students and teachers are going about science education.                                                     

However, it remains to be seen how the push and pull at the policymaker levels will impact the future of the NGSS, if at all. Personally, I would say that the slow and steady approach to implementation will help guard against the kinds of growing pains that can invite backlash, and the NGSS will have staying power.

With all that being said, what do you think? Are the NGSS poised for success? What is your experience with the NGSS at the two-year mark, and where do you see the new standards in another two years? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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