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NGSS curriculum development: From gaps to great

5 min read


Now that the Next Generation Science Standards have been released and many states are considering adoption, a question that many science educators are pondering is: “How can I tell whether resources are aligned to the new standards?”

Let’s look at how we might begin to answer that question. Suppose we had this fifth-grade performance expectation (PE):

5-ESS2-2. Describe and graph the amounts and percentages of water and fresh water in various reservoirs to provide evidence about the distribution of water on Earth.

A first step might be to check whether students have the opportunity to meet this expectation in the current curriculum through a series of learning investigations that asks students to use information about the different reservoirs of water on Earth — oceans, lakes, ice caps, etc. — and make a graph from it. A gap analysis describing the alignment of the curriculum to each standard is one way to accomplish this.

Figure: Click on image to enlarge. Sample Gap Analysis Created for fifth-grade curriculum (colors represent potential time input for alignment and curriculum development; blue is least time, green is sizable, red is large). Contact Fred Ende if you would like a copy of the full document.

However, educators must remember that identifying gaps such as in the above example is only a first step. The Next Generation Science Standards are performance expectations for assessments (both statewide and at the classroom level), and not a curriculum. So, while pre-existing learning investigations may be an acceptable way to meet this PE, they are also not the only way to address it. From here, educators need to think about whether alignment is simply massaging current curriculum to fit PEs, or whether a gap analysis provides for some truly innovative opportunities. For example, it would also be possible to craft a project-based unit on the water cycle, perhaps including an investigation of local waterways, constructing models of the local watershed, and embedding an engineering project to create a device to improve water quality. This big picture approach moves from a standard gap analysis to an integrated design where the foundations of the NGSS can truly be seen in action. In fact, this sample unit could be used to address both the standard above and three others in fifth grade:

5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.

5-ESS3-1. Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.

3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Units such as these not only ensure that required disciplinary core ideas are “covered” at the appropriate level, but also address many other important considerations, such as directly engaging students in scientific and engineering practices, and assisting students (and teachers) in seeing the disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) connections the cross-cutting concepts provide. This is where the original graphing activity starts to fall short, because in isolation it might meet the “letter” of the practice “Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking” but it doesn’t quite attain the “spirit” of having students engage in multiple practices in an authentic context, as scientists and engineers do. In fact, under our revised unit design, the graphing activity might actually become a performance-based assessment task at the end of the unit (or a formative measure during the unit) rather than an activity designed to teach the material to be learned.

This distinction between curriculum and assessment is very important, because it means that to determine alignment in many cases we need to look at the vision of the NGSS, including use of the three dimensions — Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross-Cutting Concepts, and Scientific and Engineering Practices –, integration with the common core ELA and math standards, and a focus on depth of coverage over breadth. At this year’s National Science Teachers Association conference in San Antonio, Ted Willard from NSTA shared an ongoing project to create rubrics for the NGSS similar to the tri-state rubrics for Common Core alignment. Rubrics such as these which take into account multiple factors are one method of avoiding an overly narrow focus on alignment to the letter rather than the enduring purpose of the NGSS.

In conclusion, alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards is a complex topic, and will likely mean very different things to different people. However, alignment must mean more than just “checking boxes” or a simple “crosswalk” from old standards to new. After analyzing existing resources using techniques such as a gap analysis, educators need to think long and hard about whether the curriculum truly meets the intentions of the K-12 Framework for Science Education and NGSS, and what alterations would be needed if it does not.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the director of SCIENCE 21 and currently serves as Regional Science Coordinator for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES.  Fred is an ASCD Emerging Leader and along with writing here, he also blogs at ASCD EDge.  

Adam Percival (@ampercival) is a former middle-school science teacher and currently leads science curriculum design at CompassLearning. Along with writing here, Adam also maintains a blog on science education and educational technology.


  • National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.  (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. Washington D.C.: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.
  • National Research Council. (2011). A Framework for K-12 Science Education. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.
  • NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.
  • Tri-State Collaborative.  (2013). Quality Review Rubric for Lessons and Units. Retrieved from: