CSTA Classroom Science

High School NGSS: The Sneaker Wave

By Sarah Pedemonte, Vanessa Lujan, and Harold Asturias

Sneaker waves are very large, powerful coastal waves that approach and surge further onto the shore suddenly and unexpectedly. If you have visited any of our golden state’s beautiful beaches, you may have noticed the many posted signs warning visitors of hazardous sneaker waves. High school Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is a sneaker wave because it is a surprise event. You may be wondering - “how is high school NGSS implementation a sneaker wave? There is nothing surprising about needing to support NGSS in our high schools and classrooms.” And yet, high school NGSS is a sneaker wave - because it is commonly considered solely an “instructional shift”, districts and schools are being caught by surprise as high school NGSS implementation have uncovered unexpected shifts to secondary structures, processes, and systems. We describe a few of the unexpected and surprising - or sneaker wave - questions district and school leaders are encountering in addressing the critical issues of access and equity.

If NGSS is “all students, all standards,” is it really NGSS if students graduate with two years of high school science?
The NGSS are designed for all populations of students, which means that every student must have access to all the standards in their courses. Our California Science Framework provides guidance for how districts and schools can give this access to all of the NGSS high school standards to students. Districts can adopt the suggested three-year or four-year course models or offer science courses that integrate the NGSS performance expectations differently. Separate from this, the University of California admissions requires students to have two years of approved high school science courses that address NGSS on their transcripts but recommends three years of NGSS science. In California, data show that many students take three years of science at high school. Some California high schools and districts are adopting a three-year science graduation requirement, but for many, it remains a serious consideration and process that may be years down the road. It would involve school board member cultivation and buy-in, parent education, etc. Other districts and high schools are implementing flexible schedule structures for accelerated course models and concurrent classes that would allow a student to have met all the standards by the end of their second year of high school, which has major implications for the high school master schedule. And still, if NGSS requires a minimum of three years of science, and educators must teach all students, all the standards, a shift in district secondary science policy and the process is necessary to ensure the full vision of NGSS.

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Students: Placement or Choice?
Supporting high school NGSS implementation also encompasses course access for all students. In the past, high schools made decisions on where to place entering high school students with respect to freshman science courses. Over time, schools have experienced a shift from placement (creating a common pathway for students) to choose, allowing entering high school students to choose what they want to study and what they feel ready to study. When electing to implement a structure of choice over placement, schools support the idea that students are able to make informed decisions about the courses they select. In these cases, students are presented with courses that range from core science classes to non-core science classes and are guided by school staff, such as counselors, in selecting the appropriate course. The sneaker wave is that across a district, even across a school, these science course offerings can have divergent content (NGSS-aligned and non-NGSS aligned), rigor (three-dimensionality) and student accessibility. Course-taking patterns begin to emerge; which middle school a student attended or the color of their skin determines what science pathway they choose in high school. We trust our schools to help students with science interests and passions by offering them opportunities to explore the subject at high levels because it will give them a boost into college and careers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. To achieve NGSS, we need to ensure equitable course-taking practices for all students. The decisions made by students directly impact the accessibility and achievement in science in 9th through 12th grade and beyond.

What kinds of opportunities are created by a solid foundation?
In October of last year, the Hechinger Report published an article written by well-known and highly-regarded math education researchers - Jo Boaler, Alan Schoenfeld, Phil Daro, Harold Asturias, Patrick Callahan, and David Foster - about the successes in math access and achievement by San Francisco Unified School District secondary students. The article describes how the district worked with external partners to improve the student math learning experiences at the secondary level and how to interrupt inequitable practices in math course access and resulting achievement. 

The district team looked at student course-taking data for patterns of success and failure in math, and the student populations that were not being successful in math were predictable. They examined common perceptions around math by district staff: assumptions made about student ability, judgments made about math content prerequisites for advanced high school science classes, and impressions of which advanced math courses students needed to be competitive for university/college. The team also took a close look at student experiences from math course placement discussions through interviews with students and families. They spent time looking at the research to learn more about the standards they were shifting towards and the literature on student tracking. They carefully built an argument for change on a systemic level. They were determined to interrupt inequitable practices in math at secondary and create common pathways from 6th through 12th grade in order for students to meet the standards and the district goals for graduating 12th graders.

The most striking aspect of the SFUSD story is that by setting a common math course pathway across all middle and high schools in the district, they created a solid foundation for math learning. This foundation allowed their high achieving students to excel further into the advanced math course offerings and allowed for the traditionally low achieving students to experience success. The story is an inspiring one that has potential impact and significance for high school science and NGSS.

The sneaker wave: what’s next?
It hardly needs to be said, transitioning to new standards is a lot of work. Everyone involved with improving learning opportunities that meet the expectations of the NGSS, and help secondary students be prepared for both college or career, have the responsibility to work together to improve the way our secondary school systems meet students needs. At the high school level, supporting equitable access and achievement for students as expected by the NGSS is a sneaker wave. Instead of getting hit by surprise we can read the warning signs, we can anticipate the very large, powerful wave that comes with implementing NGSS at secondary - through both improvement to instruction and the structures and processes of the system.

Further Reading
University of California A-G Subject Requirements: UC Area "d" Laboratory Science Course Requirements, and announcements, Laboratory Science D Updated Discipline

Hechinger Report: OPINION: How one city got math right

SFUSD: Policy shifts in Math show promise

Education Week: A Bold Effort to End Algebra Tracking Shows Promise

2016 Science Framework for California Public Schools, Chapter 10. Access and Equity 

Sarah Pedemonte is a Science Education Specialist at UC Berkely and a member of CSTA, Vanessa Lujan, Ph.D., is Deputy Director of the Learning and Teaching Group at the Lawrence Hall of Science, and Harold Asturias is Director of the Center for Mathematics Excellence and Equity at Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley


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