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The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a hot topic. But you don’t need to reinvent your curriculum to comply with them; you can analyze and enhance what you already use with your students.

On March 3, we presented a webinar to the AACT community that addressed how to evaluate whether a lesson aligns with NGSS. There was a lot of audience participation, and a number of questions went unanswered due to time, so this article provides answers.

During the webinar, we used resources from the American Chemical Society’s textbook Chemistry in the Community (ChemCom) as examples. Most of the work on the sixth edition of ChemCom was done prior to the release of “A Framework for K–12 Science Education,” the document that preceded and inspired NGSS. Many of the modifications made to the sixth edition were in reaction to research findings.

The three dimensions of NGSS are Science & Engineering Practices (SEPs), Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs), and Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs). To ensure a resource aligns with NGSS, focus on three goals: Identify connections to NGSS in activities, use NGSS tools to make adjustments to activities, and examine performance expectations while identifying a series of learning objectives.

While we used activities from the ChemCom text for this webinar, you can use the same steps to evaluate any activity’s NGSS alignment. Often it will only take a few tweaks to make large improvements. For example, during the webinar, a participant shared that she has students suggest modifications to an investigation or redesign it to obtain better results. I am going to add that to my investigations immediately.

ICYMI (in case you missed it): Webinar summary

Participants reviewed a ChemCom biodiesel activity (from unit 3 in the sixth edition). Participants identified how the lesson addressed each of the three NGSS dimensions. We highly recommend using the following NGSS appendices when performing this analysis on a resource: Appendix F for SEPs, Appendix G for CCCs, and Appendix E for DCIs.

Once we established what dimensions were addressed by the resource, we identified the ones that were missing or could be improved. This second part is the most critical because this analysis will help you decide how to tweak the activity to address more parts of a dimension.

We performed the same analysis on a laboratory investigation—the same analysis can be used for different types of activities. AACT members can view the archived webinar.

Answers for you

The following “dialog” provides answers to questions from teachers at the conclusion of the webinar. We grouped related questions from the webinar and paraphrased them.

Q: Standardized tests are easy to grade (Scantron), but that limits testing actual learning processes. We should test whether students can make connections and problem solve. Is there a way to assess understanding using different methods than traditional testing? Is NGSS standards-based-grading friendly?

Michael: Assessment is always going to be a challenge. Writing great questions is difficult. Compound that with states and districts that tie student performance to teacher evaluations and this becomes a political hot potato. There are groups looking at how students are assessed, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences.

Cece: I find NGSS to be aligned with standards-based grading. Let me give you an example of a performance expectation:

HS-PS1: Use the periodic table as a model to predict the relative properties of elements based on the patterns of electrons in the outermost energy level of atoms.

Part of my assessment of this performance expectation is asking students to apply their knowledge of the periodic table to a modified or fictitious table. They have to compare and contrast properties of elements and are expected to perform a series of investigations that look at trends. At the end of those activities, I look at the student’s performance on those prompts to determine whether their work is exemplary, proficient, or progressing or if the student shows little or no progress toward meeting the goal. When the standard was simply a factoid it was hard to do this.

Michael: Assessment is currently a hot topic. Most of NGSS cannot be assessed by the current crop of standardized tests. NGSS is structured so that testing should occur at the end the grade band; students are not expected to master all the standards in one year. The standards focus on integrating all three dimensions and are not simple factoids, as Cece mentioned. The type of standard many of us are used to is not the same as an NGSS standard. Multiple-choice tests can be used to assess these types of standards, but several questions need to be grouped to test the full understanding of any one performance expectation. ACS is currently developing materials for assessment, as is AAAS. Open-ended problem-solving-type questions are very helpful for assessing these standards.

Cece: I think you will begin to see new types of items in the next few years. The multiple choice idea that Michael referenced might look similar to the ACT science reasoning question groups.

Q: Does NGSS place too much emphasis on how scientists approach a problem versus learning experiences in which students deal with chemistry-related issues and decision making? Not every science student will become a scientist.

Cece: I think NGSS’s goal is not to make everyone a scientist but to help create a more scientifically literate nation. Can students evaluate claims and assess the evidence? Do they believe everything that Dr. Oz claims because he is a Harvard graduate, a professor at Columbia, and a thoracic surgeon? Or do they have the skills to find peer-reviewed research to determine the validity of the claims.

Michael: We want students and all citizens to be able to think critically about a scientific issue and not just believe everything they are told.

Q: Where can I find NGSS-aligned chemistry resources? Are there any textbooks (for general or AP chemistry) aligned to NGSS? Where can I find activities similar to the biodiesel one from the webinar?

Cece: Many publishers are adding ancillaries that address NGSS. The first step is being familiar with the standards and doing an analysis of activities that you already use. I don’t think the changes are as large as many first believed, especially for good teachers. Many great teachers I know have been including this type of thinking and teaching for years but had to worry about getting students ready for the mile-wide inch-deep multiple-choice assessments. Getting students to think is fun and frustrating in equal parts. Assessing their thinking is challenging; Making Thinking Visible is a great resource for strategies.

Michael: ACS is continually working to produce resources for NGSS, as are other organizations. I recommend checking out resources offered through the National Science Teachers Association.

Cece: I also think it is important to find a cohort of teachers. Working smarter, not harder, will improve the experience for your students. If that cohort isn’t available in your school, maybe a neighboring district (or even one across the country) can help. ACS also has an incredible bank of elementary and middle school activities, including Inquiry in Action and Middle School Chemistry.

Audience suggestions for NGSS resources and alignment

  • The Concord Consortium is a great resource for models in all sciences.
  • Textbook websites show standards that their book addresses—for example, Living By Chemistry from Bedford, Freeman, and Worth.
  • IQWST (Investigating & Questioning our World Through Science & Technology) is a textbook that I know is aligned.
  • Check out this article in the May issue of Chemistry Solutions for NGSS resources via social media.

Q: NGSS seems to suggest an integrated science curriculum. Will schools move toward that model, and will colleges accept it? Teachers within a department should collaborate to ensure that all standards are addressed within a high school science curriculum.

Cece: I don’t think NGSS’s intent is to move everyone to an integrated science program. It is, in part, a product of AAAS’s Project 2061, which has a belief that every student should have every science every year. I use other disciplines to make points when teaching chemistry. When I talk about buffers, I use homeostasis and blood chemistry as examples. I try to reference another course my students have taken (or will take) every day. The longer I teach and the more I learn, the less comfortable I am with the “silo” approach to science of biology, chemistry, Earth science, and physics. I sometimes think it would be exciting to teach in a more integrated way, but the reality is that my students will still be expected to take SAT subject tests, so I have to prepare them for that.

Michael: I am not sure about universities accepting integrated science. I have not heard of any that do. I personally do not believe individual sciences will be removed, but discussing topics from other sciences should be the norm. Biologists, chemists, Earth scientists, physicists, etc. all look at similar problems facing our world today. However, they approach the same problem with a different lens. I think it is important that students understand these different lenses.

Q: Does ChemCom alight with NGSS? Some chemistry teachers scoff at ChemCom despite its relevance, and some colleges think ChemCom doesn’t cover enough chemistry, such as the mole. How can we persuade “traditional” types to adopt the text? What level chemistry is ChemCom most appropriate for? How can I get a copy of ChemCom to review?

Michael: Education research shows that relevance is important for students. With NGSS and/or its principles gaining traction in many states and communities, it’s a great time for teachers to examine different ways of teaching chemistry.

The sixth edition of ChemCom differs from previous editions. Calling the course chemistry and using ChemCom has not caused issues for any colleges. The content and thinking required in ChemCom are higher than many other texts. The text was written with college-bound, first-year chemistry students in mind, and it can be altered to work for lower or advanced classes.

Cece: ChemCom definitely addresses the mole concept, especially in the sixth edition. Rather than a unit focused on the mole concept, it is weaved into topics—students learn about moles in nearly every unit. What you don’t see is page after page of the worksheet “drill and kill” activities. There are a number of extra practice worksheets in the ChemCom teacher resource materials.

Every school (district, state) will make its own decision about whether it will offer honors-level courses. Most college-bound students will be expected to take SATs, SAT subject tests, and/or ACTs, which includes scientific reasoning. We are going to have to continue to prepare our students for those tests.

Michael: NGSS is the bare minimum for ALL students. We still want to include higher-level courses for students who excel in science or have a great fondness for science.

In unit 1 (materials), students are introduced to the mole concept and use it to determine molar mass and percent composition. For honors students, this is where you can add empirical and molecular formulas. In unit 2 (air), they use the ideal gas law to convert gas volume to moles. In unit 3 (petroleum), students use heats of combustion to determine energy change in reactions, they perform stoichiometry mole-to-mole conversions, and they are introduced to limiting reactants. In unit 4 (water), they use the mole concept to determine concentration. In unit 5 (industry), students use moles to understand batteries. In unit 7 (food), students again investigate stoichiometry and limiting reactants.

Q: Some districts think that some chemistry topics are excluded in NGSS, such as gases, acids and bases, and solutions. These concepts shouldn’t be left out of a chemistry course.

Cece: All of those topics are implied if not implicitly stated. For example, consider these performance expectations:

HS-PS3-2: Develop and use models to illustrate that energy at the macroscopic scale can be accounted for as a combination of energy associated with the motions of particles and energy associated with the relative position of particles.

This is a great place to give students opportunities to explore gas laws. Both performance expectations can address the mathematical and computational thinking.

HS-PS1-6: Refine the design of a chemical system by specifying a change in conditions that would produce increased amounts of products and equilibrium.

For a student to do this successfully, they need to know what equilibrium is, systems that will reach equilibrium, factors that affect it, and more importantly, how to quantify it. Acid-base chemistry is a perfect way to achieve this.

Michael: I do not think NGSS intends for topics to be thrown away. It would be nice if topics were explicitly identified in the standards.

Q: Students come from middle school lacking knowledge. How can I deal with that?

Cece: Many schools reduced the amount of science taught in earlier grades while enhancing the math and reading in response to the demands of the Common Core State Standards. We have become a nation that only teaches what is tested. The reality is that you are given the students you get every year. Hopefully, hands-on, minds-on activities will draw them in.

Every unit in sixth edition of ChemCom starts with a general stations-type investigation. I call it a “play day.” Some students have experience with some of the activities, some don’t. If I have students who can accurately predict what is going to happen at each station, I differentiate the lesson and have them do an enhancement activity. It could be an animation or working with primary documents. Either way, it’s a more challenging investigation.

These first exploratory activities ensure that every student is on a level playing field, and I can refer to the data gathered as the unit progresses. You can easily add similar activities without completely changing your curriculum.

Michael: ACS is working on aligning Middle School Chemistry with NGSS. There are currently many connections there, and the team is working to add more engineering practices. You can use some of these activities to supplement concepts.

Q: How can I find out if my state has adopted NGSS?

Cece: The NGSS website updates that information. You may want to sign up for their email updates; they share interesting implementation strategies.

We hope we have answered your questions. If you have additional questions about how to ensure that a resource is NGSS-compliant, please use the Disqus commenting feature at the bottom of the page to share them and start a discussion.