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NJ's Next Generation Science Standards: The Quiet Revolution

New standards emphasize experiment and explanation rather than rote memorization

science kid

As New Jersey schools continue to move to the Common Core State Standards for language arts and math, the state’s expected adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards is getting less attention but may be equally transformative.

The New Jersey Board of Education is poised to approve the new science standards as part of its five-year review of the standards for all the main subject areas.

Advocates and science educators say it could portend a big shift for science education in the state. But questions remain to the roll-out of the new standards -- and possibly a new way of teaching -- just as educators statewide are dealing with a host of reforms, including how they are evaluated.

The Next Generation standards were developed and written by a consortium of 26 states, including New Jersey, and are meant to introduce more hands-on experience and exploration to science instruction, supplanting the traditional focus on memorizing content.

The state itself had already moved to similar standards in 2009, but the Next Generation Standards are meant to be more explicit and directly connected to Common Core.

They also place more emphasis on engineering skills, and restructure New Jersey's current standards to combine core content with the skills to apply them, and also incorporate interdisciplinary concepts.

“The Next Generation Science Standards are the next logical step in science education in New Jersey,” said Michael Heinz, science coordinator for the state Department of Education who presented the standards to the board last week.

The final approval is not expected until early July, with public hearings on all the standards slated for June. But last week, the state board members were especially effusive about the science changes, saying they speak to the growing needs of schools to adjust to the changing technology and science that are driving so many careers and fields.

“It’s exciting to see this in our standards,” said Ronald Butcher, a board member and former Rowan University administrator. “This is in fact the kind of education that our students need, so they can succeed in this new world that is coming so quickly at us.”

For many educators in New Jersey’s schools and classrooms, the shift has been coming for a few years, and the formal adoption of the standards brings that process full circle.

Challenges and Questions

But there remain plenty of challenges, as well as questions, as more schools are held accountable to meeting the standards.

“With all the changes going on, it will take major shifts in how teachers teach,” said Kristen Trabona, science supervisor in Mahwah schools who has worked with the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association in preparing districts for the changes. “It’s not just changing the curriculum, it’s a major overhaul.”

She fully supported those changes, saying a more inquiry-based approach to testing theories and explaining answers is needed, but it will require more training and time for teachers. And this would be added on top of the new evaluation system for teachers that has already added pressure on districts.

‘That’s where the stressing and frustrations come in,” Trabona said.

Still, the state has been presenting the standards to districts for the better part of a year, and she said some districts like her own are readier than most. “For others, there may be some catching up,” Trabona said.

Others said the questions around assessments will be key, a process still at least a few years away. The state is required under federal law to administer a science test in elementary, middle, and high school, and the new standards would be the basis of those tests.

The state has put out a request for proposals for a new science test, but will continue to administer its current test for at least another year.

“The whole purpose of the new standards is how you apply what you have learned,” said Vikki Smith, a chemistry teacher at New Milford High School. “But how do you assess that children have met that expectation? We don’t really know that.”

Still, she agreed the shift is critical and hopefully will spur more students into science majors and careers.

“We need to spark the passion for them in a world driven by science,” she said. “It will not be an overnight fix, but if the goal is to get kids to think and not just accept things, that’s a good thing.”

Missy Holzer, an earth and space science teacher at Chatham High School, was one of the science educators on the taskforce that worked with the state Department of Education, and she agreed there will be a transition for some districts that have not started to make the changes to the 2009 standards.

And there will be fears, too, especially about the assessments. “At the hearings on this, it was interesting to hear the fears,” she said, “and with the supervisors, their minds immediately went to the assessments, even if we aren’t even there yet.”

But she said it would be worth it. “Where we grew up memorizing things, here it is much more exploration and explanation,” Holzer said.

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