Creating a next generation learning environment with appropriate challenge is what leads to student learning. Questions you need to ask yourself include: Is the classroom experience something that's going to challenge the student appropriately? Is it going to appropriately nurture them? Will it lead to learning? This isn't just a qualitative question; we need to see quantitative evidence of learning within the evidence statements themselves, which are evidence that students are performing to the standard.
The evidence statement is not only a handy feature of what NGSS performance expectations expect students to be able to understand by the end of the work on that standard, it specifically spells out the observable skills teachers must see in students to ensure they are building mastery over the subject material.
To return to the performance expectations again, students must show in three dimensions that they can meet the standard in order to meet it. The evidence statement helps show their thinking on the subject, and how they link up the concepts with their experiments and their conclusions in all three.
The standard you see above is a grade 5 life science standard. The first thing that probably comes to mind is food chains, food webs, and so forth. But if the experience planned for students involves reading from a textbook and that's it, then students haven't engaged in any of the practices or the processes. They haven't been challenged to actually solve a problem (let alone set it themselves) or answer a question (let alone ask one). When this happens, they also won't be challenged to demonstrate their understanding. After a lesson such as this, without any sort of real experience, it's unlikely that they've learned what they need to from a skills perspective or even from a content perspective to be able to produce evidence.
So just what do we need to see when it comes to evidence? Let's take a sample scenario. Say we put a picture of a forest in front of a student, depicting plants, animals, trees, and other organisms that belong there. We tell the students that they must develop a model to describe the phenomenon of movement of matter within the ecosystem depicted by the picture—relating the performance expectation directly to the standard. Questions to put to students as they work to guide their thinking include: What are the plants? What are the animals? What are the decomposers? What is matter? How are they connected? What is this environment? Is it a marine ecosystem? Is it a deciduous forest or so on and so forth? What are the main components of the model?
If you look at the evidence statement below, you can see that this is just Step 1 of the evidence statement, however. Students identifying components of the model—which is as far as students who were reading a textbook would ever progress—is merely the first stage in building this model to the level of NGSS expectations.
The evidence statement includes identifying components of the model, determining relationships within it, and then using this model to describe dynamic, high-level movement within the model.
The next step, as dictated by the evidence statement above, is to examine relationships among the components in the depicted environment. So students must be able to pull from these components the relationships that are relevant to describing the phenomenon as a whole. This includes the idea that matter is transferred: that energy flows from the sun to the producer (the plant), on to the consumer (the animal), to other consumers (animals higher in the food chain that eat other animals) and through to the decomposer that eats dead material (fungi, bacteria, etc.). While the teacher can work as a guide, helping students understand where they still need to flesh out relationships or examine under-examined parts of the chain, they are not simply setting students a single task, but allowing them to have an experience.
This is the crucial point here. An evidence statement is not spelling out a task; it's spelling out the minimum characteristics of mastery. A student who has reached a mastery level is going to be able to fluidly draw out the components of the food web, as well as identify relationships and connections simply by looking even in an unfamiliar context. By virtue of somebody asking the student—prompting them in a series of questions that they might have on a standardized assessment, for instance—we should be able to tease out different aspects of this mastery. In that way, we can hone in on any of the aspects described here in these statements to show evidence that students can perform to the expectations of the standards.
A note of caution, however: that's not to say that we begin to teach the elements of these evidence statements one by one. For example, "Today, you need to know that animals consume plants as well as other animals, herbivores consuming plants and carnivores consuming animals." Do so, and we've lost the systems element, the crosscutting concepts, the emphasis on immersive, self-directed experiences, and on using the science and engineering practices.
Somebody who is very literal might assume that's how they ought to proceed from standard to evidence of learning, but it doesn't work that way. This is neither developmentally nor cognitively beneficial as an approach, but it contains a greater problem as well: while students may be able to remember the disjointed facts they've just learned, they haven't built any type of framework of understanding in which to lodge those facts, and that is a problem.
The framework of understanding is critical. When students are engaging as scientists and engineers in the classroom, the real role of curriculum is to translate the standards into a framework of understanding and supports for effective STEM instruction and mastery-level student experiences, such that it produces mastery-level student learning outcomes. For their part, the students become well-equipped through such experiences to produce evidence of their learning, whether that's in standardized testing, a job interview, a college application, or just talking with somebody on the street. These really are life skills students are learning when they have true, rich experiences in context.
The science happens after the question and hypothesis, but before the CER model.
This framework of understanding then allows them to carry out real scientific experiments and engineering design experiments. When we come back to this claim-evidence-reasoning model, this is where the science goes: in that process after the question and hypothesis and before using the CER model to explain what's happened during the experience. This is what the scientific process and the engineering design process look like.
Then our hypothesis, the hypothetical answer to the question, gives us the point where we begin to summarize our experiments and how we're going to approach that hypothesis through a planned investigation. That's where we would then decide on the materials we need and the procedures we would carry out. Then we might diagram that, carry out the plan, gather the data and then form that evidence-based conclusion as to whether our hypothesis is true or false or inclusive using the claim-evidence-reasoning model that we talked about earlier. That's how it all comes together.
If you think about students as scientists, this is what they're engaging in—the logic of pursuing a question to an evidence-based conclusion. When they're engaging as engineers, they are engaging in identifying problems and pursuing those problems to evidence-based conclusions as to whether or not the solution that they identified and the specific solution that they diagrammed, built, and tested yielded data that justifies refining or replicating.
Through this, the key takeaway is the way Next Generation Science Standards really work and how the claim-evidence-reasoning model fits into standards by giving objective, scientific structure to the conclusion process. This represents high-quality instruction that's focused on higher-order thinking in creating, evaluating, and analyzing. Through this, we are integrating English Language Arts and math, particularly Common Core technical subjects, communication standards, nonfiction reading, writing, and so on. On the math side, we weave in data collection, graphing, and other math practices that are so central to the disciplines, and that in and of themselves are creative, evaluative and analytical, useful in all disciplines.
The only parts of the process that are unique to science and engineering, in fact, are the experimenting and prototyping processes themselves. But it is very difficult to engage as scientists and engineers without language skills, whether they're verbal or written, as well as math. The good news is that this means ELL students and Special Education students won't have a problem engaging fully with the NGSS standards, and with science and engineering practices in general, so long as the strategies are in place to remove the barriers that are on the student's IEP. Eventually developmentally or cognitively delayed students can succeed in these environments, so long as they are given appropriate support.
Of course, we cannot expect students to come to the classroom ready to perform to the standards and meet the expectations of the evidence statement right off the bat. Instead, we must introduce the new scientific and engineering processes intelligently, in ways they can understand and build upon throughout the year, and year after year.