STEM Beats - Next Generation Science Standards

NEW DATA: Will We Make Time for Science and Engineering in our Elementary Schools?

March 28, 2017

For years, STEM education advocates have wanted to introduce fundamental principles of engineering as early as the elementary grades. Many have embraced the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for aiming to do just that. Are the NGSS living up to their billing so far? In elementary schools, the answer is…yes and no.

As we noted last month, states adopting NGSS are already devoting more attention to engineering and technology in eighth-grade classrooms. In fourth grade, by contrast, the picture is mixed, with most NGSS states surging ahead in those areas but others staying stagnant. Why? Odds are, the answer has to do with time. States where elementary schools spend little time on science will probably not fulfill the promise of NGSS.

We analyzed survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science to see how teachers are spending their instructional time, focusing on states that adopted the standards before 2014.[1]

We found mostly good news, but with a glaring exception:

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Most NGSS states ramp up engineering & tech in 4th grade--but not CA

California started low and ended low, falling well short of the national average for growth.

When we explored how often fourth graders discussed engineering challenges in school, we saw similar patterns:

Elementary students tackle engineering in most NGSS states--except CA & WA

California and Washington State both saw little change since 2009, and both remained significantly behind the national average for students who frequently discuss the kinds of problems engineers solve.[2]

What do these two states have in common? Elementary schools in both spend little time teaching science in fourth grade:

Some states spend less time on science

In 2015, fourth-graders in Washington State and California were much less likely to devote time to science than peers in any other state on the list of NGSS early adopters. Science is almost the only vehicle for engineering in most elementary schools, so if schools don’t attend to science, they won’t attend to engineering.

The relationship between time for science and time for engineering seems to hold for all the states we examined:

Scatterplot--relation between time for engineering & time for science

Things may still look up for California and Washington State. All NGSS states were just starting to implement the new standards in 2015, when NAEP collected these data. In fact, California remains in the early stages of implementation.

As states build their new science tests and adopt new accountability plans, they may yet create more incentives for elementary teachers to teach science. After all, most elementary teachers don’t decide on their own to give science short shift. They take their cues from states or districts that do not include science in their accountability plans, offer meager professional development in the subject, or skimp on teaching materials.

NGSS can achieve only so much if science—and thus engineering--remains the forgotten stepchild of elementary education.


[1] Our findings represent correlations (though strong ones) in a relatively small number of states. Three states that adopted NGSS before 2014 were not part of our analysis, because we did not have data on them: Kansas and Vermont (which did not participate in 2009 NAEP science), and Washington, DC (which did not participate in 2015 NAEP science). We examined results for the following survey questions: “In this class, about how much time do you spend on engineering and technology? (teacher-reported)” (None, a little, some, a lot); “In a typical week, how much time do you spend teaching science to the students in the class? (teacher reported)” (<1 hour, 1-1.9 hours, 2-2.9 hours, 3-3.9 hours, 4-4.9 hours, 5-5.9 hours, 6-6.9 hours, 7 hours or more); “About how often do your science students discuss the kinds of problems that engineers can solve? (teacher reported)” (Never or hardly ever, Once or twice a month, Once or twice a week, Every day or almost every day).

[2] From the evidence at hand, Washington State seemed to do somewhat better in technology than in engineering. The data don’t tell us why, but fourth-grade teachers may have found time for technology content in subjects other than science.

Tags: Next Generation Science Standards, science

New Data: New Science Standards Are Boosting Engineering in Schools

February 21, 2017

Let's usher in this year's National Engineers Week with some good news. We've crunched some numbers, and it looks like efforts to make engineering part of the K-12 curriculum are beginning to pay off. 

Why? Our guess is that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are succeeding in their aim to integrate engineering and technology into science classrooms. These standards debuted in April 2013, and eight states adopted them by the end of that year: California, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington State.

We had a look at data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade science test to see if schools in those eight states were teaching more engineering and technology. NAEP is a good tool for this exploration, because it surveys teachers and students about engineering and technology in the classroom, among other subjects.

What we found suggests that the Next Generation Science Standards are making a difference in schools. Between 2011 and 2015, teachers in the first states to adopt the standards increased the amount of class time they spent on engineering and technology:

NGSS is boosting class time

Sticklers might note that these gains could have occurred before April 2013, when the new standards burst upon the scene. Unfortunately, we can't settle that question definitively, because we lack data from that year. Still, the data we do have make a very strong case for NGSS. States that adopted the standards after 2013, or that never adopted them at all, saw smaller gains between 2011 and 2015.

One striking finding from our analysis is that the early adopter states started from behind. This pattern holds when we examine each of those states individually. In 2011, eighth-graders in our eight NGSS states were less likely than their peers in the nation as a whole to spend at least "some" time on engineering and technology. The picture looked dramatically different in 2015:

Individual states ramping up engineering & tech

What does it mean to spend "some" or "a lot" of time on engineering and technology? The results of another NAEP survey question offer at least some insight: "About how often do your science students discuss the kinds of problems that engineers can solve?" Here again, it appears that the NGSS states started well behind their peers but caught up:

NGSS boosting engineering in classrooms

These data reinforce our conclusion that teachers in NGSS states have grown more likely to focus on engineering. So far, so good. But are their students noticing the difference? The results of another NAEP survey item suggest that they are...but only up to a point.

NGSS students more likely to notice tech & engineering

Again, the NGSS states have made swifter progress than other states, but it seems a tad early to declare victory. Even though more than half (52 percent) of eighth-graders have science teachers who spend time on engineering and technology, far fewer (31 percent) seem to have noticed that fact.

Of course, students may still be learning about engineering and technology without realizing it, but their lack of awareness is troubling. After all, the Standards themselves specify that students should "understand the work of scientists and engineers" and "recognize" that what engineers do is "a creative endeavor." We know we haven't reached the goal line if so many students don't yet recognize engineering or technology when they see it.

On balance, though, we should be optimistic. We have strong evidence that standards can make a difference in the classroom, and in a relatively short time. In fact, engineering and technology are probably more pervasive now than our numbers suggest: almost two years have passed since the 2015 NAEP test, and more states have adopted the Standards.

The ultimate test of the Standards' success, of course, will be students' performance. That verdict will have to wait a bit longer. States are still developing tests that incorporate engineering--and they can use federal money to do it. And a representative sample of U.S. eighth-graders will take NAEP's next Technology and Engineering Literacy Assessment in 2018.

In the meantime, states and districts must continue the hard work of creating teaching materials, training teachers, and providing supplies to make engineering real in the classroom. If they succeed, future Engineers Weeks will bring even better news.

NOTE: We were not able to assess the impact of NGSS on another jurisdiction that adopted them before 2014: Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the 2015 science NAEP did not include state-level results for DC.

Tags: engineering, computer science, Next Generation Science Standards