NGSS Biology Curriculum

Aligned Curriculum Woes 

How do you go about designing properly aligned NGSS biology curriculum? It isn't easy but in this article we'll go into our approach to this sticky problem. First we'll guide you through the NGSS so you'll have a basic understanding of the scope and vision of the standards. Then we'll go into how to practically apply the overarching ideas and concepts into your classroom.

Let's start off with some historical information on the NGSS and science standards in general. It's not thrilling stuff but it's always good to know the history of something you're working with.

Background on the NGSS

Understanding the NGSS takes dedication and a serious time investment. Simply glancing through the standards will get you nothing but confused. DCIs? SEP? CCCs? Who ordered the acronym soup? Not to mention the obscure, code like titling system for the standards themselves; HS-LS1-1, HS-ETS1-2? What does it all mean? Well, fear not reader, we're here to help you make sense of the soup and find your way through the code!

Foundational Standards

A little background on the NGSS for those of you new to science teaching standards or those who just enjoy reading the history of educational standards development. We're not 100% sure that anyone out there actually enjoys reading the history of the NGSS but just in case someone does we're covered! The foundations of the NGSS were laid when early education standards for science were developed, such as the NSES, which were developed in 1996 by the National Research Council. The goal of the early standards was to reduce the rote memorization of facts. The focus shifted to the constructivism approach, which is rather philosophical so we'll say no more on that! Some of the goals -adapted from Wikipedia- of the NSES were:

  • An outline of what students need to know, understand and be able to do.
  • Targets for scientific literacy at different grade levels.
  • Demonstration of high levels of performance.
  • Empower teachers to make decisions essential for learning.
  • Communities of teachers and students focused on learning science.
  • Programs and systems which nurture achievement.

The purpose of the standards and goals was to develop teaching methods which would apply to a broader set of students. The hope was that by adjusting the teaching methodologies more students would find science interesting and accessible.


In the early 2000's it was apparent that new standards were needed to further expand the accessibility of science education. The Carnegie Corporation spurred the academic world on with their 2009 report.

Two years later, the National Research Council published their analysis of the opportunities (the pdf is free) in science education. Concurrently, the NRC also formed a committee of 18 individuals to develop what became the Framework for K-12 Science Education. The Framework was the built on the best research in science education and attempted to identify what K-12 science students should know. This became the foundation for the NGSS.

Development of the NGSS began shortly after completion of the Framework. Achieve coordinated the efforts of 20 states to build the first drafts of the NGSS with the final version appearing in 2013. The standards can be explored here if you happen to be so inclined. Interestingly, only 19 states have adopted the NGSS standards as of November 2017. This, in spite of the fact that 26 states helped create the standards and over 40 states have expressed interest in them. Dare we say that the complexity of the standards is slowing their adoption? Let's take a look at that complexity and begin to make sense of the NGSS.

Structure of the Standards

The structure of the NGSS appears complex at first, but in fact is quite orderly and logical. Each standard is composed of four parts; Performance Expectations, Disciplinary Core ideas, Science and Engineering Practices and CrossCutting Concepts. Now you know where the acronym soup comes from! This is all illustrated graphically below:

This comes from the High School Life Sciences Structure and Function topic, HS-LS1. The first three sections are the performance expectations. These summarize what students should be able to demonstrate after having been taught the material covered by the standard. They are not a task list nor a curriculum outline. Rather, they give guidance as to what a student should be able to do to express understanding. The design of the PEs allows multiple forms of assessment; tests, quizzes, papers, lab practicals, projects, presentations, almost anything can be utilized to assess a student's understanding.

The PEs build upon the Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas and the Crosscutting Concepts. These are the three foundational areas defined in the K-12 Framework. Each box provides information about the details of the areas which were used to assemble the PE.

This is the general structure of the NGSS, performance expectations are the high level overview of the end result of instruction. The other areas provide details about what's covered by a particular PE. If you'd like to read more about each of the sections you may do so here.

Understanding the Vision of the Standards

Digging into the detailed structure of the NGSS can make you lose track of the forest for the trees. It's important to take in the entire vision of the standards to have some appreciation for what they're trying to accomplish.

The term typically encountered at this point is 'unpacking' the standards - your author dislikes that term and will stick with good old fashioned 'understanding'. To understand the NGSS you have to get a bird's-eye-view of the vision behind the standards. Yes, there really is a vision and chain of thought behind and throughout the NGSS. It's not obvious from looking at the standards, but spend enough time reading the introductory material and you'll start to see where the creators were coming from.

The first step is stepping back, back from asking: how does this apply to my class and my students? The NGSS is a comprehensive system, designed to make the learning experience cohesive from Kindergarten to College. The aim is to weave content from all the science disciplines together with increasing complexity as students move through the grade levels. This is why there are three categories under each standard, as well as references to the CCSS and connections across grade-bands. It may help to think of these categories and connections as the material you use to do the weaving. Every lesson needs to contain multiple threads so students have repeated exposure to concepts and the connections to other areas of science, or bits of knowledge from prior courses.

An Intertwined Example

As an example, take the structure of living organisms. The first introduction to the concepts of organisms occurs in kindergarten under K-LS1-1. At this level students are learning the simplest differentiations between plants and animals. They learn what types of food different animals need, that plants need light instead of food, that every living thing needs water. They start to form connections by seeing that the food animals need to live and grow comes from plants or other animals, the plants in turn, need light to make their food. Simple ideas which kindergarteners are able to truly understand, but also an early lesson in observation skills and collecting information to form ideas. They also lay an early groundwork for the concepts of energy and matter flow in organisms, allowing them to naturally advance their understanding as they move through the grades. You can see this by tracing the thread into 5-LS1-1, where students take a closer look at plants and learn about their different sources of nutrients. They advance their understanding by examining a plants dependence on soil, air and water. By experimentation they can learn that plants are able to obtain most of their nutrients from air and water. This is a layer of complexity built on their early understanding of ‘plants need water and light’. It’s also yet another foundation upon which to build as they move into the middle school and high school grade bands.

This is a simplified example to show how comprehensive the NGSS are. They’re not simply a set of concepts and facts broken down by grade level. They’re a mesh of ideas and understanding that build on each other and support student growth throughout their educational path.


As with any set of standards intended to cover every student there are limitations to the NGSS. One difficulty stems from the fact that a team of experts and thought leaders created the foundations of the NGSS. Naturally these are highly intelligent people, there's no doubt about that. But there is a distinct gap between these individuals and the realities of teaching students. The grand scheme of the NGSS is admirable but really tough to condense into a form that fits in the classroom. A large percentage of the knowledge students need will come from memorization of basic facts. There's simply no way around the need to memorize things such as cell structure, the ATP cycle, the names of organs and many more. It's almost impossible to teach these fundamental facts in a class focused on intuitive understanding.

This leads to a second problem; the coordination of teachers across grade bands. To fully implement the NGSS all the teachers in a school need to coordinate their teaching and communicate progress. To successfully guide students through their science education as the NGSS frames it, teachers in High School need to understand what teachers in early grades are doing. Conversely, teachers in early grades need to understand where their students are headed to properly prepare them for future classes. That's a lot of note comparing and organization!

Another issue that really stands out is the time it takes to understand the NGSS. What normal teacher will have time to study such a massive compilation of documents?! Most teachers have more than enough on their plates taking care of the day to day tasks required to be a teacher. On top of that they have meetings, class preparation, grading, class clean up and the list goes on! There's simply not time to study and implement the NGSS in its full scope.

A Step in the NGSS Direction

While it may not be possible to fully implement the NGSS for many years to come, it is possible to take an early step in the right direction. One step is getting NGSS aligned curriculum into your classroom. Our goal is to help you do that by taking the time to dig into the standards and align our lessons with the performance expectations for High School students. We'll be continuously updating and improving our curriculum with an eye on the NGSS as we go.

Happy Teaching!

The Penguin Bay Team

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