Educational standards establish clear expectations for students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills, and provide benchmarks for estimating student achievement. We do not have mandatory national education standards in the United States. Instead, each state adopts and defines its own standards, and develops assessments to measure student progress toward meeting those standards. There are many resources to help ensure the presence of rigorous standards that prepare students to compete successfully in postsecondary education and the global economy. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 holds schools and districts accountable for students’ mastery of state academic content standards, and for developing systems that support schools in need of improvement. By 2006-2007, all states had content standards in reading, mathematics and science.
Recognizing the need for consistency and rigor across all states, the nation’s governors and education commissioners led the development of a set of common educational standards. These standards, known as the Common Core State Standards, were published in 2010, and have been adopted formally in 45 states and three territories. The Common Core State Standards provide expectations and common benchmarks in mathematics and English/language arts (ELA). The Common Core does not include educational standards for science, but they do include expectations for literacy in history/social studies, science and technical subjects. Many curriculum resources now incorporate these kinds of cross-curricular materials. The Common Core State Standards are intended to supplement science, technology, and engineering standards, but do not provide such standards on their own.
Key resources for establishing state or district science education standards include the National Science Education Standards from the National Research Council (NRC; part of the National Academies); and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Developed in the early and mid-1990s, these sources have served as the basis for many curriculum programs and state education standards. However, they gradually became dated as science, technology and the educational environment continued to advance. The United States’ declining position in the global economy and as a leader in research innovation over the past ten years is due, in part, to a lack of fundamental science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge among our workers. Clearly, new recommendations were needed to guide the preparation of K-12 students as scientifically literate individuals, informed citizens, knowledgeable consumers, and successful matriculants into post-secondary education.
The first step toward updating the science education standards was the development of the research-based A Framework for K-12 Science Education, led by the NRC. The Framework focuses deeply on integration across STEM fields, and includes strategies to prepare students for the 21st Century workplace. It engages students actively in science and engineering practices, and in the application of crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of core STEM content. According to the Framework, the learning experience should require students to address fundamental questions about the world, and to discover how scientists and engineers investigate and answer these questions.
The Framework provides direction and guidance for standards developers in states and districts, teachers, curriculum designers, assessment developers, science administrators, and educators who teach science in informal environments. It also recommends that standards be built around three primary dimensions. The first dimension, “scientific and engineering practices,” is intended to help students understand the nature of science by engaging them in their own investigations, as well as in engineering processes that require application of knowledge and development of systems. The second dimension focuses on “crosscutting concepts” that are relevant across multiple science and engineering fields. Examples include the complementary nature of form and function, the flow of matter and energy, and the nature of causal relationships. The third dimension looks at “disciplinary core ideas” within four domains: physical science; life science; Earth and space science; and engineering, technology, and the applications of science. These core ideas are meant to anchor further knowledge gains, provide a means of solving problems, and ensure students’ understanding when investigating more complex concepts. All the core ideas are critical to students’ success in STEM fields and to individuals’ ability to function effectively as citizens and consumers.
The Framework for K-12 Science Education informed the development of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a new set of K-12 science education standards developed through a collaborative, state-led process. After several drafts had been produced, and then reviewed by states and the public, the final version of NGSS was made available on April 9, 2013. It lays out disciplinary core ideas and performance expectations for K-12 students by grade level/group, domain, and science topic. In addition, it provides strategies for addressing the three major dimensions of the Framework for K-12 Science Education. Because no science topic exists in a vacuum, each NGSS standard includes connections across domains and grades, and with the Common Core Standards. The Next Generation Science Standards reflect major advancements in science and in our understanding of how students learn. They have the potential to guide science education with a research-driven, scientifically sound, STEM-integrated approach.