The NGSS as assessment standards

Several people have pointed out that at its heart the NGSS is a set of Performance Expectations (PEs) for students. In other words, the NGSS is intended to identify what students should know and be able to do in science by the time they reach particular grade levels. The theory behind this approach is that states adopting the NGSS will assess students using these performance expectations (which include all three dimensions: disciplinary core ideas, scientific practices, and cross-cutting concepts).

Teachers are free to add to what is in the NGSS. In fact, because these standards are intended for all students, some students’ learning surely will go beyond the standards. For example, students in Advanced Placement classes, who are likely to attend college, are expected to learn more science than what is included in the NGSS.

Architects of the NGSS adopted this approach in part to satisfy teachers who were saying or thinking, “Just tell us what the test will cover and I will teach my students accordingly.” At the same time, designers of the standards wanted to keep the total set of expectations to a realistic size. In other words, they developed the NGSS as a floor or a minimum, not a ceiling.

This is all understandable, yet it begs the question whether the set of minimum expectations that comprise the NGSS is an appropriate set. If we assume that many school systems are hard pressed to teach their students everything in the NGSS—something we have also heard from well informed people—then it seems likely that for many students the totality of what they learn in science will be dictated by what is in the NGSS.

Is it really sensible that students studying in science classes aligned with the NGSS could graduate high school without discussing the relation between science and public policy (e.g., food and water safety, pharmaceutical testing, or regulating nuclear energy)? Or without even knowing the names and functions of key government science agencies like the FDA, the CDC, or the IPCC? Does it make sense that the NGSS does not encourage teachers to prioritize societal and personal concerns related to science—including science-based issues like smoking, vaping, immunizing children, and the quality of supposedly “scientific” information in advertising and social media? These are examples of goals or expectations missing in the NGSS.

In contrast, the NGSS expects all students to be able to “evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning behind the idea that electromagnetic radiation can be described either by a wave model or a particle model, and that for some situations one model is more useful than the other.” Also, according to the NGSS all students should be able to “use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem.

Think about these priorities the next time you are on a bus or subway or in some other place with dozens of people representing a broad slice of the American population. Are the NGSS expectations what you think is the most important science for every adult to know? Are these the right expectations for all students?