May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Is the NGSS Going to Ruin High School Chemistry?

Posted: Monday, October 19th, 2015

By Pete A’Hearn and Wanda Battaglia

Pete: Most science teachers I work with are excited about the shift to NGSS and exploring new possibilities for student learning. But, I have heard some grumbling from high school chemistry teachers that NGSS is gutting chemistry. “Why there are no standards for subjects like the Gas Laws, acids and bases, naming of compounds, and solutions that are an important part of chemistry?”

I know that you are a high school chemistry teacher who is working hard on NGSS. How would you respond to these teachers?

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Wanda: NGSS is asking for a change in the thinking…the NGSS Performance Expectations don’t describe “subjects,” but long-term transfer skills. NGSS is “science for all students.” It represents the basic framework for teachers to design their curriculum. Teachers can add as much as content as they want–but it’s important to change the process by which the students are learning it.

Even though certain content is not explicitly mentioned, that does not mean that it can’t be taught. Gas laws, for example, could be covered within HS-PS1-3, HS-PS1-5, HS-PS1-6, or HS-PS2-6…basically anywhere that molecular interactions would be discussed. Performance expectations can be bundled– teachers must not think in terms of “those chapters from the book” anymore, but apply more of their own creativity and integrate content to explore phenomena.

An example is a unit I’ve taught on Atomic Structure that bundles Chemistry standards on the structure of the atom, the physics of waves, and their uses in astronomy and medical technology. Resources for the unit can be found at:

Many teachers I know are still covering their “old & comprehensive” content in Honors Chemistry, but redesigning their classes to be more investigative and/or problem-based. In “regular” Chemistry, the focus is more on the practices and crosscutting concepts.

Pete: Yes, it’s important to remember that NGSS is the floor, not the ceiling. It’s focused on the learnings that students will need to solve problems or understand science ideas in the real world, it’s not about marching through the subjects in the book.

But many teachers feel that without doing lots of Chemistry math problems, students will not be prepared for college level work in Chemistry. They feel that to best prepare kids for college, their classes need to look like college. That means lots of lecture, lots of problem sets. One of the things we hear about science and engineering pathways is that many kids who go to college intending to study science and engineering are unprepared for the amount of math and drop out. Won’t downplaying the math make this problem worse?

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Wanda: Teachers can put as much math into it as they want. The NGSS should not be viewed as restrictive, but flexible. From my perspective, the NGSS has a focus on students understanding relationships between variables, not just learning how to “plug & chug,” which is the traditional way.

For example, I have had Honors Chemistry students who could plug in numbers using the ideal gas equation, but could not explain if their answer made sense. They understood where the numbers go, and how to solve the equation, but could not demonstrate any understanding of how the variables affected each other. Students must investigate to uncover those relationships, so that the math then makes sense.

It is more important that the average student has the necessary thinking skills to tackle problems in general. Students who are college bound, and contemplating a career in a science or technical field, should be taking AP Chemistry to prepare them for college chemistry.

Pete: What is your vision for how a student who goes through high school with NGSS will be prepared for college and career? How will that be different than a student’s experience now?

Wanda: With a cohesive and passionate K-12 implementation of NGSS, I believe that students will exit high school with the ability to be more independent in their thinking and problem solving, while also sustaining more of an inquisitive mindset. This will foster more innovative thinking on the part of our students, which will contribute to success beyond high school in any area of study.

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

4 Responses

  1. It seems that we are still talking about two sides of the same coin. I understand that the tendency to “plug and chug” has been prevalent in the past because of the need to march through the material/textbook. However, to seemingly ignore that and only focus on the relationships is also incomplete. It is disingenuous to imply that just understanding the relationships between variables will create complete understanding. Furthermore, I know of very few chemistry teachers who completely forgo the practice of relating variables within a concept. Lastly, Wanda is making a sweeping judgement that I think is pervasive among the NGSS crowd:
    “It is more important that the average student has the necessary thinking skills to tackle problems in general.”
    How is this not gutting high school chemistry? How will the future college science student that Wanda describes be successful in AP Chemistry if they have not at encountered something similar before? The college science student will benefit from having taken AP chemistry, but the general high school chem student cannot as they progress to AP chem? And are you really suggesting that only students with AP science backgrounds will seek out science education and careers? What does that mean for students at my site where our AP Chem and AP Bio programs are offered every other year?
    You may not have intended those connections to be made, but this is largely due to the ambiguousness of your answer, which are so similarly made by so many regarding the impact of NGSS on science learning and programs.

  2. Wanda’s glib reply that teachers are perfectly free to include all of the chemistry that was left out of the NGSS, and to use as much math practice as they think necessary, ignores the fact that time is not infinite. The gutting of chemistry is very real, and is partially acknowledged in the proposed implementation (“course mapping”) document published by the NGSS team. It acknowledges that in many states, there are three science courses: biology, chemistry, and physics. Biology and NGSS Life Science map very well. NGSS Earth Science should indeed be taught, but does not map onto those other courses at all. And NGSS Physical Science is 75% physics and 25% chemistry. In places like California, where the state university has declared that only biology, chemistry, and physics count as science courses for admission to college, but where the organizationally separate state department of education has declared that public schools will adopt the NGSS, districts end up forced into what NGSS calls the “Modified Science Domains Model,” which means that four pounds of content are stuffed into a three-pound bag. Schools will teach courses called biology, chemistry, and physics, to satisfy UC, but will actually be cutting much of that content, especially in chemistry, in order to replace it with the earth science that students will be tested on statewide.

    The intellectually honest solution, and the pedagogically best one, is for high schools to offer four years of college prep science: earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics, as some states have been doing for years. It’s an outrageous cop-out to say, as Wanda does, that students who want to consider majoring in a technical field in college should take AP Chemistry. Apparently she is unaware that not everyone in the United States has that option. Furthermore, that’s an unreasonable declaration. If we properly serve our students, they should be prepared to major in whatever they might want to, based purely on the college prep high school courses they take. To say “Let them take AP Chemistry” is really showing a “let them eat cake” level of detachment from the actual situations of real students.

    As a former research scientist, I know that you can’t solve a problem until you first admit that it exists and then define it. The comments in the article attempt to deny that a problem exists.

  3. I hope this article is way off the mark. I agree with Erik Cross 100%. It is the baby with the bathwater issue all over again. The content standards were lacking so rather than add the expectations of NGSS, we toss the content standards all out? “Teachers can put as much math into it as they want. The NGSS should not be viewed as restrictive, but flexible.” I’m not sure my parent stakeholders would be comfortable knowing that there is not a clear understanding of what their child will learn or that a child in another teacher’s class may leave better prepared for AP or college chem. It looks like again we are going to lower the chem bar so low that the kids are going to trip on it when they walk in the door. I WILL make sure my students know how to do the math required to prepare them for AP and college chem while implementing NGSS. I am vertically planning with my AP chem teacher to ensure that we do just that. But how can a teacher who teaches a class called “chemistry” not prepare them for a STEM major or career? Apparently the California Science Teachers Association calls it NGSS.

  4. Interesting article.

    I agree with Pete. I am not convinced that NGSS for Chem is a good idea.

    I have not heard any input from college professors on how it affects their incoming students.

    I found this article while looking for chemistry phenomena to use for NGSS. I live in California and this is the direction education is going here. I am just trying to get prepared for what I have to do. I need a paycheck. California is an expensive state to live. Aka: the welfare state. Someone has to pay for all of those entitlements.

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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 2017)

Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.