Few state science standards comprehensively address engineering

By Melissa Ballard - November 2015


Moore, T. J., Tank, K. M., Glancy, A. W., & Kersten, J. A. (2015). NGSS and the landscape of engineering in K–12 state science standards. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(3), 296–318. doi:10.1002/tea.21199


The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013) represent a dramatic shift in expectations for K–12 science education. One key change from previous state standards is that engineering design is explicitly elevated to the same level of importance as science inquiry. To understand the shifts that schools may need to make, Moore, Tank, Glancy, and Kersten examined the ways in which state standards, prior to the adoption of NGSS, included engineering education.

Research Design

Moore and colleagues analyzed the content of science standards from all 50 states and compared them to NGSS. For coding purposes, the authors defined standards as what the documents said that students should know or understand. NGSS includes what students are expected to know in two components: “performance expectations,” which are most analogous to existing standards, and “learning goals,” which expand on each performance expectation. Both were taken as units for coding.

The authors had previously developed a rubric, the Framework for a Quality K–12 Engineering Education (Moore et al., 2014), to assess state standards on their inclusion of engineering concepts and on the quality of those standards. The framework describes a set of 12 indicators of quality engineering education, including engineering ethics, connections to current issues, teamwork skills, and communication in the engineering context.

The authors analyzed three aspects of the states’ science standards:

  1. Extent of engineering present: To what degree standards included engineering content, either explicitly or implicitly
  2. Distribution across grades: To what degree engineering content was prescribed across the grade bands K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12
  3. Quality: The degree to which the standards met the quality indicators in the authors’ Framework for a Quality K–12 Engineering Education

The authors then made a final judgment as to whether a state’s standards provided a comprehensive approach to engineering. This assessment was based on the grade-band distribution of the quality indicators representing the core aspects of engineering, along with the consistency and frequency with which these core aspects were addressed.

Research Findings

Twelve of the 50 states (24%) explicitly included engineering in their science standards, 24 (48%) implicitly included it, and 14 (28%) had no evidence of engineering in their standards. Across all 36 states that included engineering, the authors identified 1,437 engineering-related standards. The lowest proportion of engineering-related standards was found in grades K–2 (11.3%) and the highest proportion in grades 9–12 (34.9%).

Seventeen states were missing only one or two of the 12 quality indicators. However, only four states—Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Oregon—were considered to have truly comprehensive engineering standards. Three (New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington) were deemed to have almost comprehensive coverage.

NGSS contains a high number of engineering-based standards—49 of the total 208 performance expectations and 76 of the learning goals. These standards are fairly evenly distributed across the grade bands, with only an 8.8% difference between the most heavily weighted grade band (6–8) and the least (3–5). NGSS addresses 11 of the 12 key quality indicators of the authors’ framework.

Implications for Practice

This study suggests that integrating high-quality engineering into science education reform efforts, particularly in states or districts that haven’t included engineering in their science standards, may be challenging. NGSS contains a much higher percentage of standards that integrate engineering than do most state standards. NGSS also addresses core indicators more substantively and in better balance throughout grades K–12.

The authors note that schools and teachers will need to overcome several barriers to implementation. There is a high need for teacher and administrator professional development, curriculum development, and classroom support, especially in grades K–5. Informal science educators who work with K–12 schools should be aware of their schools’ needs and find ways to be resource partners.

As of September 2015, 14 states and the District of Columbia have officially adopted NGSS. Additional states will consider adoption in the future. However, adoption and alignment also happen at the district level, apart from state plans. Additionally, individual teachers have an interest in NGSS regardless of their state or district plans. Informal science institutions can play a significant role in supporting formal educators in their efforts to integrate high-quality engineering into K–12 science education.