Live Action NGSS

These Standards are made for doing.

As many classrooms are realigning curriculum to the carefully crafted and highly praised Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), many classrooms are coming up short of the intended rigor and requirements.

In our action research we have noticed some key shortcomings, and would like to offer helpful solutions.

Issue #1 Misalignment 

Low Rigor and Below Grade Level Expectations for the practices finds middle and high school classrooms implementing the expectations the standards attribute to early elementary science.  The standards describe what students should be doing not what the teacher should be demonstrating or doing for them.  For example:  Ask and Answer questions means that the student develops their own question and works to find solutions rather than the teacher posing a single question for all students.

Helpful Solutions:

Start with NGSS’s  Appendix F.  From here, we get a clear picture of what students should be able to do at each grade band from K through 12.  For example students in 3-5 should “represent data in tables and/or various graphical displays (bar graphs, pictographs, and/or pie charts) to reveal patterns that indicate relationships,” where as high school students can “analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims.”   

Next, check out NGSS’s Appendix E.  This one is your vertical alignment key.  From here, we get a clear picture how concepts progress as the student’s sophistication of thinking progresses.  For example, in topics that are covered in the curriculum of multiple grades, we see a repeat of the concepts memorized and the complexity of thought in that area (ex: ESS3.A Natural resources).  Using this appendix we get a clear idea of the rigor and sophistication of application expected as the learner progresses.

Issue #2: Lack of Inquiry

This is particularly common at elementary and middle school levels.  Teachers may not be comfortable or trained in letting students “figure out”

Helpful Solutions:

Inquiry means walking away from telling the answer to the students.  That’s not an easy habit to break.  Start small and value process over the product or “correct” answer.  

Try This:  Come up with an “overall question” for a lesson. Ask students to designs ways to find a solution.  Reassure yourself that it will not damage the student to fail.  Rather they begin to see that science involves trying and trying yet again.  Its OK to not get it the first time, and struggle is a valuable part of the process.

Not sure how to talk about this with students?  Try: The Most Magnificent Thing or What Do You Do With an Idea?

Issue #3: Three Dimensional Learning=Missing

The NGSS components are not designed for teachers to dip their toes into once in a while.  Rather, there are multiple elements that should be working in tandem.  Teaching data analysis in isolation has no meaning if students can not comprehend the content the data is connected to, just as making a model without core disciplinary ideas to make the model about is meaningless!

Helpful Solutions:

Start your crosswalk with an analogy.  Believe it or not…The Cross Cutting Concepts, The Disciplinary Core Ideas, The Scientific & Engineering Practices and even The Math and ELA Common Core are all simultaneously coming together in the arena of science!  Sounds exciting.

Try this helpful analogy…

A chef preparing a meal needs:

  • The Recipe (District Scope and Sequence/Curriculum)
  • The Ingredients (Disciplinary Core Ideas: DCI)
  • The Techniques (Science & Engineering Practices–skills applied to DCI content)
  • The Mixing Tools (Cross Cutting Concepts–to bring the DCIs together)
  • The “Real World” Taste Testers (Common Core–Learning through reading and math how Science lives in our world today)

Each of the elements impacts the others.  Just because you have the best ingredients, for example, does not mean you will have the best dish!

(creative analogy inspiration credit: Champaign Unit District 4, Illinois–Mike and Jamie)

NGSS Practices: The Skills of Science


Are you implementing NGSS with the expected RIGOR?

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are an exceptional set of guidelines to foster a deeper understanding of the skills associated with science and engineering.  Rather than focusing on laundry lists of facts to be memorized, the standards really set students on a path to “doing” science in schools and having the right types of learning opportunities to be successful at the next levels of learning.

That is…if they are implemented properly.

Assessment Framework ImageContent and Skills in Science are each a side of the same coin–inseparable and individually so important.  Pure content memorization becomes meaningless if it never is applied or used, and you can’t engage in skill practice without the grounding arena of the content.

The NGSS Scientific and Engineering Practices hit a home run with skill articulation.  But, one of the biggest roadblocks I have encountered to successful implementation in schools is a total misalignment of complexity per grade.

The NGSS standards include 8 Practices that most teachers are excited to include in lesson planning and design.  This is exciting as it encourages teachers and students to focus on transferable skills with leverage, endurance and readiness for the next level of learning.


Practice 1.  Asking Questions & Defining Problems

Practice 2.  Developing & Using Models

Practice 3.  Planning & Carrying Out Investigations

Practice 4.  Analyzing & Interpreting Data

Practice 5.  Using Mathematics & Computational Thinking

Practice 6.  Constructing Explanations & Designing Solutions

Practice 7.  Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Practice 8.  Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information.

The Problem:

Because the 8 practices are included as a single list for all grade levels, some teachers misalign their rigor.  For example, a teacher at the 6th grade level aligned her question to Practice 4, and simply asked them to read a data table.

grade 6 misaligned

This question would be better suited at the grade 2-3 level rather than the 6th grade level.

In the 6th grade, we would more appropiately ask the student to use that data to either interpret or provide evidence for a phenomena related to temperature fluctuations, or even distinguish between correlation and casual data.  To do this, we would have to provide the student with more than just a single week of temperature data.  We would likely need to provide the student with geographical information, longitudinal data, and background information and content instruction in causes of temperature change.

The Solution:

But there is somewhere we can look for assistance!  The NGSS Appendix F provides detailed descriptions of what application of these practices would look like at grade level bands.




Our Kids At The Core Question Stems are free member resources that can also set you on the path to proper alignment.  Sign up for free today.



The Power of Success Criteria

Success criteria goes beyond identification of instructional objectives.  Success criteria supports teachers and students by adding clarity to the learning process.  By utilizing success criteria appropriately, the teacher can tap into the potential of several powerful professional tools.

Instructional Objectives Need Criteria

Nine years ago I took up golf.  I hated every moment of that struggle to get the ball straight and in the air.  Each time I went to the driving range or out with friends, it was an embarrassing and humbling experience.  I knew what I wanted to do, but did not understand how to do it.  Fortunately, my wife came to the rescue and bought me lessons.

Those lessons did not make me a scratch golfer (far from it), and they did not give me instant success.  With my goal of getting the ball to go straight, my coach gave me practical steps towards achieving that goal.  As the lessons and practice in between increased, so did my skills.  Although I’m still one of the worst golfers out of my friends, I can now achieve my objective of getting the ball to go straight more times than not.

Getting the golf ball to go straight (note: not long or even in the air) was my instructional objective.  I knew the objective, but did not understand the criteria to meet that objective.  That is very similar to what happens in many classrooms across the country.

Teachers are identifying their instructional objectives

but many do not identify the necessary success criteria

to meet those instructional objectives.

The notion is simple.  Once an instructional objective is established, it is up to teachers to identify and communicate the success criteria students need to complete to accomplish the objective.

Powerful PLC Conversations

The first critical question of any PLC is “What do we expect students to learn?”  While this question is asked and answered several times during a school year, teams often do not dive deep enough into the question to state the success criteria necessary to achieve the goals.

For Example: When a team of teachers gets together to analyze the data on the progress of students, it is easy for the team to identify strengths and weaknesses of students, the lesson, curriculum, etc.  The next level of work is for the team to identify what specific steps need to occur to support students in achieving the next identified level.  If it is identified that a large concept or skill is the deficit, the team then needs to decide what specific success criteria need to occur for students to reach the identified goal.  By doing so, the team creates greater clarity for instructors and students.  Furthermore, the curriculum has a greater chance of being guaranteed and viable because of the alignment and commitment generated through this work.

As teachers we often discuss the concepts students need to learn, but rarely come to consensus as to the specific criteria to achieve those concepts. When success criteria is discussed in PLC’s, a guaranteed and viable curriculum is more easily ensured and executed.

This aides teachers in obtaining a greater understanding of necessary information for students.  Furthermore, a team of teachers discussing the success criteria in a PLC gives teachers a chance to learn together and increase their own depth of understanding.

Linear or Circular Success Criteria

Success criteria can take different forms.  Most commonly is going to be either linear or circular progression of criteria towards achieving an instructional objective.

1.  Linear Success Criteria 

Linear success criteria is the most common.  These are step by step building blocks to achieving the instructional objective.  This type of success criteria builds upon each other and can be easily communicate in a list.  For example, an algebraic instructional objective may require students to understand, solve and follow a specific set of steps towards achieving an instructional objective.  One cannot skip a step and still achieve the instructional objective.

2.  Circular Success Criteria

Sometimes achieving an instructional objective requires weaving and blending success criteria together.  In this case, the success criteria may be circular and weaves criteria together to help work in unison towards accomplishing the learning objective.  Testing theories, making inferences, and several performance pieces may require a circular set of success criteria.

Success Criteria as Formative Assessment

Success criteria provides a structure to formatively assess student progress.  If the success criteria is linear and builds upon each other, then meeting the first success criteria is critical.  This is a tool and opportunity for formative assessment.  The success criteria in the scenario tells the instructor if they are ready to move to the next piece or not.

If the criteria is circular, then formatively examining the success criteria helps an instructor better understand areas where breakdowns in understanding prevents students from fully realizing the instructional objective.

Powerful Student Feedback

Feedback is critical to learning.  It is widely known the that effective feedback positively impacts student achievement (Hattie, 2009).  Success criteria provides the space to get that feedback along the way.  Teachers utilizing success criteria understand what matters and should get measured to ensure student learning.  More importantly, these teachers have structured areas for critical feedback to students.

Once the success criteria is established and communicated, the teacher has an opportunity to share the explicit success criteria with students.  Once the success criteria is in their hands, they can explore it further and use that success criteria to help provide feedback to their peers.