NGSS STORYlines: Incorporating Fiction & Pop Culture In The Science Classroom


By Kailey Rhodes, Rubicon International

The Next Generation Science Standards advocate for a shift in the way we teach science.  One of the primary shifts is prompting students to identify areas for scientific investigations, instead of simply introducing “Chapter 11.”  It’s not enough to tell students what they’re going to learn – it’s important that we provide a “why” for our scientific learning.  Storylines are specific experiences that anchor (and necessitate) further scientific exploration. Teachers can refer back to their narrative throughout the unit; they host the exploration, justifying our investigation of the way light behaves, the behavior of water permeating a leaf, the reason seasonal changes affect a population of wolves. As the Next Gen Science Storylines Project states:

In a storyline, students should be involved in co-constructing the question we are working on, and should see the activity as helping make progress on that question. In a storyline, the coherence is from the students’ perspective, not just the teacher’s.

Master teachers aim to incorporate scientific narratives: in order to begin a unit on Forces and Motion, perhaps Mr. Hendricks reads an article about a local football star with a severe concussion in last weekend’s game.  Maybe Mrs. Morse tells the students of a trip to South America that she’s canceled due to the Zika virus outbreak, which prompts students to question the behavior of viruses and instigates their cell unit. These narratives grab students’ attention and exemplify the way that the real world prompts real science. 

But lately, we’ve been wondering: Why stop with real-life examples?  What if we explored fiction as a framework? What if we really did create storylines? 

Consider Mr. Edwards, who begins the Genetics unit with, “Open up your textbooks to Chapter 11 and prepare for guided note-taking.” Now imagine Ms. Gibbons who opens a novel and begins reading an excerpt from Veronica Roth’s Allegiant, a popular dystopian book in the Divergent series:

Divergent Book Series

“ ‘But when the genetic manipulations began to take effect, the alterations had disastrous consequences. As it turns out, the attempt had resulted not in corrected genes, but in damaged ones,’ David says. ‘Take away someone’s fear, or low intelligence, or dishonesty . . . and you take away their compassion. Take away someone’s aggression and you take away their motivation, or their ability to assert themselves. Take away their selfishness and you take away their sense of self-preservation.”

“Is this science fiction or science fact?”  Ms. Gibbons asks. “Can we genetically determine a person’s emotions? Is this possible today, or could it be?”

Instead of copying down notes, students generate questions about the limitations of genetics, potentially drawing in larger questions of ethics, eugenics, and subjectivity. They hit walls in their knowledge, identifying areas in need of investigation. This necessitates further exploration and guidance from the teacher, who has created this narrative of inquiry upon which students can anchor their knowledge.


If the purpose of a storyline is to justify knowledge and promote student advocacy for what we’re learning, what limits us from bringing in the fiction that our kids are reading in other classes or absorbing through pop culture?  If the purpose of a storyline is to engage our students and anchor their scientific exploration, why don’t we use something thatalready engages them?

Here are a few other reasons why fiction provides a rich framework for storylines in the science classroom:

  • Fiction is accessible and low-stakes. As some students don’t self-identify as “scientists,” a fictitious scenario lowers the stakes of right-or-wrong dichotomy. Students may be more willing to explore in an environment that hasn’t already been solved.  Asking students to evaluate the scientific plausibility of the skin-healing salve in The Hunger Games poses less risk for students afraid of appearing incorrect.  It also lets them act and think like scientists!  Real science is creative, exploratory, and full of incorrect hypotheses.
  • Fiction offers cross-curricular connections! Perhaps the students will read Brave New World for Language Arts summer reading – instantly, you have a shared experience that your students will connect with when they walk in your door, and a ready-made platform for exploring genetics, air travel, ecology, energy, and onwards.  If not a novel, create a class culture surrounding scientific phenomena in Star Wars, which also allows the Social Studies teacher to explore themes of class systems, poverty, and language distinctions. Students can more clearly see that all subjects are interwoven in real life.
  • Fiction is moldable by you, the teacher – it can accommodate your classroom pursuits. If you wish to introduce a physics problem with Mark Watney’s rover in The Martian, what if it simply happened on Sol 62? Sure, it’s not in the book, but it’s just as likely to have occurred as what is on page 213. Perhaps you wish to explore atmospheric sciences on a neighboring planet in the Star Wars galaxy – perhaps the planet was never actually discussed in the series, and now you have an imaginary world upon which to explore!
  • Fiction allows for a multitude of projects, both formative and summative. After reading The MartianAmy Scheer’s ninth graders at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) engineer a “Mars rover” and, using Python programming language, plan a route around the school akin Watney’s trip across Mars’ landscape. Students are encouraged to plan, test, fail, and revise their designs, just as scientists (and the fictitious Watney) practice real design engineering. Whether it’s designing a more efficient Storm Trooper helmet or providing a scientific explanation for the magical Platform   9 ¾, the world of fiction affords a wealth of creative, engaging problems and projects to present to your students.
MICDS Mars Rover

Students at MICDS must simulate Mark Watney’s Mars journey by using Python programming language to carry their rover on a course throughout their STEM facility.

  • Fiction can span multiple units. Perhaps you use Harry Potter’s year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as a backdrop to your entire year’s curriculum. Perhaps you explore chemistry using Professor Snape’s Potions class, and later explore Newton’s Laws of Motion  in terms of Quidditch.  Perhaps you ask students to offer scientific explanations for otherwise “magical” events.  Again, the flexibility of the fictitious world is open to you — Alan McCormack, Professor of Science Education at San Diego State University, often shows his students his own “enchanted teapot” and asks students to “imagineer” real solutions for making the teapot “magical,” only revealing his true design after his students share their possibilities.
Imagineer Teapot

Alan McCormack gives students a teapot template, and through Design Engineering (“imagineering”), students create a teapot that will spout when shaken.

Our main goal as science teachers is to engage our students as scientists.  Whatever we can do to ignite their passion to investigate, explore, and experiment will create dynamic classrooms that our students will be excited to attend.  And let’s not forget a huge perk to engaging with fiction in your science classroom: your cool factor will exponentially increase!

We were inspired by sessions at the National Science Teachers’ Association Conference (#NSTA16) for this post. Thank you to the following presenters:

Alan McCormack of San Diego State University is a science workshop facilitator and former NSTA President who has presented on Harry PotterDr. Seuss, and other magical illusions for science teachers. He has presented at previous NSTA conferences and has just returned from the Brain and Learning Conference in Orlando, Florida.  You can catch his next presentation, “Dazzling Deceptions: Discrepant Events for Science,” at the NSTA STEM Conference in Denver, Colorado, this July. Reach out to him at for more resources or to invite him to present!

Amy Scheer has taught math at the high school level for a number of years and is currently the JK – 12 Math Chair at MICDS in St. Louis where she works with faculty in math and science to create an integrated STEM curriculum and to explore new pedagogies to help advance STEM education.  Amy has presented nationally on topics such as curriculum revision, assessment and using technology to enhance curriculum in the classroom. Join Amy and other featured speakers this summer at theSummit for Transformative Learning, a conference designed to bring expert and classroom practitioners together to explore ways to enhance and maximize student learning. Visit the conference site to sign up, or email Amy at

Core Talk: The 2016 Presidential Hopefuls and Their Views on Common Core

With the Presidential race heating up, we here at Core Talk thought it would be a good idea to check out the candidates’ views on Common Core and the future of education.

Currently, the top-three Republican candidates are Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio, all of whom support dismantling Common Core as it currently exists. Despite not agreeing on much, the three aforementioned candidates believe that education needs to be handled at a state and local level, not by the federal government.

On the other side of the ballot, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders appear to be less forthcoming with their stances. Neither candidate openly supports Common Core on their campaign website, but both have taken actions that show their support.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the top contenders’ stances on Common Core:

Cruz (R):

  • In addition to voting in favor of an anti-Common Core amendment in the Senate, Cruz said, “We should repeal every word of Common Core.” Cruz also proposes to eliminate the department of education altogether and switch the focus to the local and state level.

Trump (R):

  • Claiming that Common Core is a “total disaster,” Trump proposes massive cuts to the department of Education, including shutting down large portions of the department. Trump argues, “We are terrible at education, but we spend far more money than anyone else.”

Rubio (R):

  • Rubio believes Common Core is “unconstitutional” and voted in favor of an anti-Common Core amendment in the Senate. Senator Rubio has promised to reverse Common Core, and has instead highlighted the importance of vocational schooling and additional educational opportunities that are innovative and incentivized.

Clinton (D)

  • Clinton believes that a system like Common Core was developed to provide equality and equity in the education sector so that all students had equal access to a great education. However, “…lot of states unfortunately haven’t had that, and so don’t understand the value of a core, in this sense a Common Core.”

Sanders (I):

  • In direction opposition to Cruz and Rubio, Senator Sanders opposed anti-Common Core legislation in the Senate. However, he has not fully supported or opposed Common Core, but “he opposes a repeal of Common Core standards.”

There you have it folks. Our team will continue to keep an ear out for education news as the race develops, and until then…

…Stay Classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

Core Talk: NSTA 2015 – Models

Now that we’re back ready to process all that we’ve learned while at NSTA 2015, one topic keeps circling our minds: models.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) indicates students should learn about models as well as work with models throughout their K-12 experience.  Teachers, for the most part, recognize the importance of models, realizing they are effective ways to explain complex phenomena, yet there are many misconceptions surrounding the use and best practice of models as related to the NGSS.  Today, we hope to break down some of these misconceptions by defining models and articulate the shifts in thinking tied to using models in your science classroom.

What is a model?

A model, at its most fundamental, is a simplified representation of a system that can explain and help make predictions regarding a phenomena.  This means models can be mental representations as well as external, expressed representations.  Models can be as simple as a 2D drawing, or as complex as a physical reenactment of a system.

In a discussion of what models are, we’ve found it is just as productive to describe what models are not.  As Dr. Stephen Pruitt mentioned in his featured presentation this past weekend at the National Science Teachers Association 2015 Conference, “If you can eat it, it’s probably not a model!”

What Dr. Pruitt meant by that was that the days of creating jello mold representations of cells should be long gone.  Models should never be created for the sake of creating a model.  Rather, they should always be used in relation to helping explain a phenomena.  In that vein, models are also not art projects.  They are not stand-alone representations that are used to help reinforce vocabulary or definitions.  We’ll say it again: models should always be used to help explain and show the relationships with a real-world phenomenon, not simply define a concept.

Shifts in Thinking

Just as the NGSS as a whole requires a change in thinking about science standards and implementation, the use and teaching of models in the style of the NGSS will also require a shift.

The modeling process should be emphasized, rather than the model itself.  Students should be able to develop the model, evaluate the effectiveness of their model in explaining the phenomenon, use the model to help explain relationships and develop further questions, then go back to revise their model after further investigation.  The concept that models are dynamic—they change depending on the variables and parts with the system, in addition to being revised as a result of further observation and investigation—is critical.  Models are not static, isolated diagrams!

Data and evidence should be used consistently to support the development of student models and the claims students make as a result of their analysis.  The social nature of models should also be emphasized.  Discussion, sharing, presenting, and argumentation should all be included in the modeling process.  Not only should students examine how their model works, but it’s important to also ask students to consider the limitations of their model.

Next Steps

Having students construct models to explain phenomena, revise those models, and develop claims regarding these models in respect to the limitations and evidence they see, pushes them to move beyond rote memorization and “jello-mold models” of the past.  The NGSS hopes to move students—and their teachers—past shallow, matter-of-fact content knowledge and into thinking about science as a lens and process through which to view the world.  By incorporating models in your class, you can help your learners advance and articulate their ideas and prepare them to think critically about models of all sorts, both in and out of the science realm.  We’ll continue to report on implementing the NGSS the more we learn, so, until next time…

…stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

Core Talk: Counting Down Top 5 NSTA Take-Aways

Goooooood mornin’, Core Talkers!  When the Core Talk Team was just over halfway through the annual National Science Teachers Association Annual (NSTA) Conference,  we thought it would be nice to begin reflecting on our major take-aways thus far.  Counting down from #5…

5) It’s okay: NGSS is hard!

Throughout all of the sessions, presenters have reiterated that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are tough–and hefty.  These standards take a lot of brainpower to digest and discuss….let alone teach!  NGSS necessitates major instructional shifts as well as sweeping changes in both the science classroom and potentially large-scale assessment. Conference presenters want teachers to own the fact that this is challenging material while—at the same time—not shying from that challenge.

4) All kids deserve all science.

‘Nuff said.

But in all seriousness, students should graduate high school with skills and knowledge in all science domains, regardless of gender, academic track, learning challenges, and geography.  The fact of the matter is that there are students who miss-out on science topics, which means they miss-out on learning and career opportunities.  If nothing else, these students miss the opportunity to learn how to think like a scientist.  The NGSS aim to provide every student with access to all the scientific domains.

3) Phenomena, phenomena, phenomena

Phenomena just may be the buzzword of the conference. Phenomena, unlike activities, are “puzzling events” in which students must explain “how” and the “why” things happen.   Phenomena are often based on real-world situations or events, although relating something to the “real world” does not automatically make it a “phenomenon” in the NGSS sense.  Students must grapple with a question or concept throughout a unit, and this “phenomenal” concept or question should encompass several science ideas. Distinguishing between activities and phenomena and planning compelling phenomena for the classroom have been hot topics so far, and we certainly will continue to see educators implementing this shift.

2) You’ve got a friend in me: Collaboration is key

One trend that struck the Core Talk Team was the amount of collaboration and communication among conference attendees…not just between teachers and districts, but even on the state level!  There is a definite focus on working together to help teachers succeed in the name of students.

1) Know your 3Ds!

What do modeling course maps, developing units, analyzing units and lessons, and creating assessments all have in common?  All of these (and other NGSS planning activities) require solid knowledge of the NGSS three dimensions: disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-curricular concepts.  These three foundational boxes in the NGSS have been discussed at length in all of our sessions.  Working with the 3Ds—being able to bundle them, create a narrative regarding their curricular placement, and identify them within phenomena—is imperative to understanding the NGSS.

Like any good scientists, we’ll be sure to revisit our list of take-aways and see if we’d like to make any modifications or re-emphasize any emerging concepts.  Until then…

…stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

Core Talk: NSTA 2015 and the EQuIP Rubric

It was a beautiful few days in the Windy City as the Core Talk Team attended the 2015 National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Conference.  This Core Talk reporter has a lot to share about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), but Joe Krajcik and Emily Miller, (who are, incidentally, both authors and experts in the NGSS) hosted a session that resonated with the Core Talk Team in particular.  Their session, The EQuIP Rubric: Evaluating Middle School Resources for NGSS, addressed challenges that teachers face in determining whether or not their lessons and units align to NGSS.  Joe and Emily argued that teachers should make sure to first develop a deep understanding of the shifts inherent in the NGSS, be able to tell the difference between phenomena and activities, and can identify coherence in your units before using the EQuIP Rubric.

EQuIP (Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products) is an initiative designed to help educators identify high-quality materials aligned to NGSS.  EQuIP developed a rubric that allows educators to evaluate instructional material efficacy within the context of the STEM/NGSS classroom.  The Rubric allows teachers to take existing units and evaluate how their unit can better-incorporate key shifts in NGSS-aligned curriculum, especially when incorporating the NGSS “Three Dimensions” into curriculum.  Firstly, it helps to review the NGSS shifts…

Shifts in the NGSS

Joe and Emily began the session by reiterating the shifts that NGSS presents within science standards and education:

-          A focus on explaining phenomena or designing solutions to problems….not simply understanding content

-          Three dimensions that work together to help students make sense of phenomena (or problems where they are designing solutions)

-          Focus on coherence: the ideas in the NGSS build across time in a systematic fashion

-          Science is for all students

-          Engineering is built in as both standalone expectations as well as embedded throughout

After familiarizing themselves with the shifts, Joe and Emily advised that teachers study the three dimensions (3Ds) of the NGSS: the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs), and Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) before digging in to instructional materials with the Rubric.

The 3Ds are significant because they drive and focus instruction.  Joe and Emily spotlighted the first column of the rubric, which explicitly indicates that quality instructional materials  “work together to support students…to make sense of phenomena and/or to design solutions to problems.

Phenomena vs. Activities in the Rubric

The term “phenomena” has cropped up quite frequently in conjunction with NGSS, and while it may initially seem like another word for “activity”, don’t be fooled!  Phenomena are puzzling situations where students must answer “how” and “why” real-life events occurs.  One example of a solid phenomenon question that students can investigate is “Why does a plunger stick to the table?”   This is a question that is rich enough to span multiple lessons, and fairly contextualized as the actual phenomenon is narrowed down to a specific event and set of conditions.  Finally, phenomena are student-centric in the sense that students do most of the legwork and thinking rather than following a provided thought-process. Activities are more passive, not requiring students to delve deeply into the “how” and the “why”, and are usually one-offs, not taking more than a class period or two.  The Rubric encourages teachers to select materials based on a phenomena-rich classroom.


Finally, the last area our presenters asked teachers to emphasize when using the rubrics was coherence. Coherence with in the NGSS means that lessons and units are expected to link to previous lessons and units, allowing students to draw upon prior knowledge to explain phenomena.

As educators go through units to evaluate their alignment to NGSS, it is important to consider the question: do the lessons fit together sequentially as they target a set of performance expectations?

So, before we sign off and explore more of what NSTA has to offer, here are two specific questions provided by Emily and Joe you can use to guide the evaluation of your unit and lesson plans, specifically in relation to the three dimensions:

-          Is the element of the practice/cross-cutting concept/core idea explicitly stated and/or cited?

-          Do the materials clearly point out how the students use the element of the practice/cross-cutting concept/core idea to make sense of phenomena or design solutions?

More NSTA reporting to come and as always…

…stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

Core Talk: CTE Standards- Bridging the Secondary to Post-Secondary Gap

As we wrap up winter, we say goodbye to February’s National CTE Month (and hopefully the cold!).  To celebrate, we thought we’d spend some time reflecting on the political and educational environment of Career and Technical Education (CTE).  If you aren’t familiar with CTE, never fear: we’re going to bring you up to speed on this growing component of our educational landscape.

Career and Technical Education encompasses the programs of study that prepare students directly for vocations such as construction, business management, cosmetology, informational technology, and other hands-on and high-demand fields.  In the past, most CTE programs involved high-school courses that would prepare a student directly for the job market without attending college.  However, with the Obama Administration’s emphasis on occupational post-secondary education, there is a new focus on bridging students’ high-school and college CTE journey.

Recent federal legislation pushes for quality CTE, ideally across secondary, post-secondary, and workforce implementation.  Here are a few of the policies geared toward smoothing the transition between high school, college, and career for students embarking on the CTE-track:

  • First signed in 1984 under a different name, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act aims to strengthen Career and Technical through federal funding. Under the Perkins Act, consortia form within states apply for federal funds; a consortium must include a Local Education Agency or “LEA” (e.g. Board of Ed) and a higher ed institution offering (at minimum) 2-year degrees/certificationsBy requiring secondary and post-secondary participation in each consortium, Perkins emphasizes a strong link between secondary and post-secondary CTE.
  • America’s College Promise, a proposal put forth in January of 2015, reduces the cost of two-year, post-secondary education to zero.  This proposals specifically addresses community colleges, which teach toward several CTE-track credentials. Students must maintain at least a 3.5 GPA to maintain funding.
  • The American Technical Training Fund, a grant program in place to strengthen the quality of Career and Technical Education, will reward programs that partner with real-world workplaces to facilitate hands-on training for CTE students.

As the line between a CTE “high-school senior” and “college freshman” becomes more fluid with increasing vocational training, the need to standardize CTE course content becomes more pressing.   The National Association of Directors of Career and Technical Education (NASDCTE) took the initiative and commissioned a 2013 study comparing each state’s secondary and post-secondary CTE standards, not only to each other, but against NASDCTE’s own common set of benchmarks, the Common Career Technical Core (CCTC).  According to the study, “only two states…have CTE standards that are fully aligned between secondary and postsecondary systems,” meaning most states’ secondary CTE programs lack rapport with post-secondary CTE training.

The CCTC sprung from a collaboration between 42 states, Washington D.C., and Palau, and directly addresses CTE educational needs from the secondary through post-secondary levels. Within the CCTC, there are “Career Cluster” content standards and “Career Pathway” content standards that guide an entire “program of study rather than a single course.  For this reason, NASDCTE recommends the CCTC as a tool for states to align secondary and post-secondary vocational education: they will guide a student’s curriculum across high-school and college, and even into practical application studies like apprenticeships and internships.  The CCTC’s holistic “program of study” approach therefore addresses students’ entire educational journey in their field.

The CCTC is by no means mandatory. States choose whether or not, and to what degree to align to the CCTC. However, with the availability of Perkins funding and the recent policy emphasis on cohesive secondary-to-post-secondary transitions, the Core Talk Team will stay tuned to individual states’ efforts to align their CTE programs and standardize the college and career readiness process. It will be interesting to see which standards states choose. Keep an eye out, and…

… stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

Core Talk: C3 Trending and Beyond at NCSS

NCSS 2014- Council of State Social Studies Specialists panel on C3 implemention

NCSS 2014- Council of State Social Studies Specialists panel on C3 implemention

During the 2014 National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) Conference, the  Core Talk team was hot on the standards trail.  Our team is excited to keep the updates coming regarding standards, inquiry arcs, and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies Standards!

One of our first stops was the Council of State Social Studies Specialists panel on C3 Framework implementation stages in Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. Here are further updates:

  • As we reported, Connecticut and Hawaii have initiated C3 integration processes into their state-level social studies standards
  •  North Carolina will revise their state social studies standards to incorporate the C3 inquiry arc; in the meantime, the Public Schools of North Carolina  worked with teachers to create C3 Framework curriculum resources found  here on their website.
  • With the political controversies engulfing Common Core, several states–including Oklahoma and Florida–chose not to integrate C3 into their state standards out of caution about backlash toward multi-state standards initiatives (even though use of C3 does not involve membership in a consortium)
  • For similar reasons to Oklahoma and Florida, Kansas recently paused its state-level C3 adaptation efforts
  • Even in states that choose not to revise or rewrite their state standards to incorporate C3, individual schools and districts have begun using C3 to shape their classroom-level curriculum; for example, the Miami-Dade and Pinellas (Florida) districts include elements of the C3 in their curriculum.

In addition to C3 hubbub, we got to tap-in to updates and wisdom regarding social studies and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the classroom.  We attended Balancing Act: A District-wide Approach for Integrating the Common Core, wherein Boston Public Schools (BPS) shared their approach to CCSS roll-out in the social studies, especially as regards CCSS-aligned assessment. BPS shared that accurate word choice was integral in communicating with teachers about CCSS to create local buy-in.  For instance, BPS views their CCSS efforts more as integration rather than implementation and BPS educators curate rather than aggregate their CCSS resources and PD opportunities.  Overall, BPS cultivated the following steps for CCSS roll-out education efforts in the social studies:

  • Develop a comprehensive approach to assessments
  • Engage teacher leaders
  • Create and demonstrate value for Social Studies

One of the co-authors of the Common Core and PARCC assessments present as the session reiterated that these “Next Generation-style” standards and assessments focus on text complexity, teaching students how to ask the right questions.  CCSS integration should make students and teachers feel more comfortable in reading and writing.

With varying C3, CCSS, and social studies standards perspectives aired throughout the conference, educators all seemed to concur that ultimately, all Social Studies should provide students with learning that is meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active. With that thought in mind, we will keep our ears perked for more C3 and standards happenings, and until then…

…stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

Core Talk: Your finger in the wind for C3 implementation stories at NCSS!


(Your NCSS 2014 Core Talk Team presenting their Friday Poster Session)


Greetings from Boston, home of this year’s National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference!

We want to kick-off our first report-out from NCSS 2014 with a hearty thanks to everyone who joined us for our  Poster Session, Core Talk: News and Insights into Standards-Based Learning on Friday morning of the conference!  We had a standards-enthusiastic time swapping policy stories, discussing PD models and meeting everyone who was able to visit.  We look forward to catching up with anyone who could not attend throughout the rest of the conference and the rest of the year as we travel to conferences throughout the country!

As we attended our first slew of NCSS sessions, we’ve put out our “feelers” to amass implementation stories, best practices, “misfires” and resources after the first full year of instruction with the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies.  To refresh your memories: the C3 Framework outlines an approach to social studies structured as an arc of student-driven inquiry.  This framework is not a substitute for content standards, but rather guides the progression of content by helping students form questions, apply discipline-specific lenses (history, geography, economics, and civics), analyze their resources, and draw conclusions before acting upon those conclusions.  Thus far, our primary take-aways from C3 in the states and classrooms are (* drum roll, please*)…

  • Several states have or are amidst the process of re-writing their content standards based on the C3, these states include: Kentucky, Connecticut, Illinois, and Hawaii.
  • New York State is almost a “pilot” example of a state  fusing its content standards with the C3 framework to form C3 and CCSS-aligned Social Studies blueprints. In partnership with C3 authors, EngageNY and its cohorts created the NY Social Studies Framework featuring blueprints that will include…
    • A one-page lay-out for the full arc of inquiry that contains compelling questions, relevant content standards, scaffolded supporting questions, and guidance for integrating “informed civic action” into the inquiry arc
    • 6 of these blueprints per grade level for every grade level K-12 with anticipated completion next summer
    • A library of fully open-source C3-aligned resources in PDF and MS Word formats (this element got a round of applause…)
  • Implementing the full C3 inquiry arc does whittle down the amount of shear content a teacher can cover.  For teachers whose jobs/accountability models do depend on covering a certain quantity of content, full C3 implementation has proven tricky so far
  • There are ways to differentiate and scaffold inquiry. Sometimes asking students to simply “explore” a question proved overwhelming. For instance, one psychology session demoed a system wherein students choose among potential answers to a compelling question and research the available answers separately, which helped mitigate the completely open-ended nature of the inquiry

We can’t wait to keep the C3 and standards revelations coming from NCSS 2014!  Until then…

…stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

CoreTalk: Six “fun-sized” updates about Common Core Assessment

It’s October! The month of fall leaves, “fun-sized” Halloween candy, and Common Core Assessment updates!  On October 6th, the K-12 Center and the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted a webinar featuring the two “mainstream” comprehensive Common Core assessment consortia.   Representing the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) was Laura Slover, and Jacqueline E. King represented the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (“Smarter Balanced” or SBAC).  In partnership with a rep from Educational Testing Service (ETS), the consortia delivered updates and answered questions about the past four years of assessment development.  Here are 6 fun-sized bits that refreshed and informed our knowledge:

 1. The Two Consortia: PARCC and Smarter Balance received federal funding to develop assessments for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  After four years of design, development, and pilot testing, they will be officially implemented in member states in the spring of 2015.

2. State Participation Changes: State consortium membership is in flux. At present, PARCC has 11 member-states and the District of Columbia (nearly 5 million students) moving forward to administer assessments (see list here); SBAC has 17 member-states and 1 territory (see list here). Independent, private and parochial schools who wish to participate in the consortia have the following options:

  • SBAC says that non-public schools should make arrangements with their home state’s State Education Agency (SEA)
  • PARCC will provide options for non-public schools that do not require affiliation with an SEA

3. Assessment Packages and Cost: Both consortia representatives expounded on the assessments and resources included in the cost of their testing packages. PARCC originally quoted $29.50 per student for their testing package, though they recently reduced the cost to $24.50 per student.  PARCC said that state consortia participation allowed their team to find economies of scale that helped lower the price.  PARCC is also amidst field-testing for diagnostic assessments that could impact pricing choices. SBAC’s packages include two pricing options: for the summative assessment only, schools pay $22.50 per student; the full package (summative, interim assessments, and access to their digital library) runs $27.30 per student.

4. Field Test Findings: After four years of pilot and field testing, both consortia revealed their findings.  PARCC reported minimal glitches though updates and streamlining to the administration manual were necessary.  Ms. Slover also noted that PARCC had overestimated testing time and can allot fewer hours for the “live” assessments next spring (much to the enjoyment of students and teachers). Ms. King said that Smarter Balance also needs to refine its administration manual but experienced few technical problems; she added that testing in the era of smartphones poses new challenges to security, though.

5. Assessment Score Setting: Each consortium discussed how they will establish “cut scores” and proficiency levels (a process called “standards-setting”). PARCC plans on building out teams of higher education leaders within participating states who will determine five performance levels; the governing board will use these recommended performance levels to determine cut scores.  SBAC has opened standards-setting to all. Starting on the very day of this webinar, 10,000 people who registered with SBAC via open online enrollment will review the testing items in conjunction with the five SBAC proficiency levels (previously determined by a team of 500 educators from SBAC states). A state-led SBAC panel will channel the results into cut-scores/final standards-setting.

6. What’s Next: King and Slover closed the webinar with some updates on the future.  For both consortia, the federal funding period ends in August 2015 (after one extension). The consortia have different plans for life beyond the federal grant. SBAC will become part of the teaching graduate program at UCLA while PARCC will morph into a non-profit called PARCC, Inc. For more background on these plans, see our Core Talk piece, “Core Talk: How Sustainable are Federally Funded Large-Scale Assessments when the Federal Funds End?”  King also underscored the imminent release of the SBAC Digital Library resource and encouraged participants to begin their work in the online standards-setting review.  Slover updated viewers on PARCC’s sample roll-out in December, their standards-setting work next summer, and the diagnostic and mid-year tests coming soon.  Both consortia representatives concluded that their goal is to have strong comparability between PARCC and SBAC assessments so colleges and universities can use these tests to gauge readiness for credit-bearing coursework.

We hope you enjoyed these fun-sized updates (perhaps with a side of fun-sized chocolates)…we will definitely be keeping an eye on developments in this new world of common assessments!  Until then…

… stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

Core Talk: A Little ELPA from our friends (in Oregon) at NCSA

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(Panel of ELPA21 Leaders at NCSA)


Greetings from stormin’ New Orleans, Standards Enthusiasts!

The Core Talk Team is excited to report to you from the 2014 National Conference on Student Assessment (NCSA) put on by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) here in New Orleans, Louisiana (where the formidable thunder and lightening storms have combined with local jazz bands for quite the serenade).

This is certainly a big year in the world of large-scale assessment with Common Core assessment timelines proceeding quickly.  Accommodation and assessment for students requiring special support has certainly been a hot topic, which is why we found the session hosted by the English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century or “ELPA21″ so fascinating!  ELPA21 is a consortium of 11 states (much like Smarter Balanced or PARCC) developing standards and assessment for English Language Learners (ELLs), and the Oregon Department of Education (Core Talk’s geographical “home base” state) just so happens to be the ELPA21 lead state agency.

At the session, representatives from ELPA21, their partners from Stanford University/CCSSO, and the Oregon DOE shared some insight into their English Language Proficiency Standards (ELP Standards).  Developed with WestEd, these standards use proficiency-level descriptors to benchmark progression through K-12 English language acquisition  in the college-and-career-readiness classroom.  Perhaps the most show-stopping tidbit about these standards is:

They align to both the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards!

For teachers of ELLs who struggle to crosswalk or modify their language standards to correspond to these newer sets of college-and-career-readiness standards, these ELP Standards were clearly a welcome addition to the ELL resource arsenal.  ELPA21′s accompanying assessment is currently in development.  Professional Development for these standards and upcoming pilot testing is underway throughout Oregon school districts.  Come October 2014, this PD will open-up to the entire country in the form of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Presenters informed our group that the MOOCs are available to anyone, though participating states (especially in Oregon) will have more on-site support as they engage in the MOOC curricula.  We can’t wait to hear more from the folks at ELPA21 as assessment development continues, and until then…

…stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!


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