The Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations

What are the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): Performance Expectations

In my previous post, I gave a general Overview of The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The series continues as I break down the three dimensions of the NGSS. This post will explore The NGSS Performance Expectations. 

What are Performance Expectations?

The NGSS Performance Expectations outline what students should be able to do by the end of the unit, grade band, or year. Many of us write our lesson objectives in “students will be able to (SWBAT)” format. Conveniently, we can think about The NGSS performance expectation through this lense. However, instead of focusing on what students will know or understand, The NGSS Performance Expectations focus on what students should be able to do. Above all, The NGSS aim to shift from learning, memorizing, and regurgitating science concepts to actively engaging in the science. I’m not suggesting we never focus on the lower order thinking tasks listed below. However, when considering assessments, The NGSS Performance Expectations focus on higher order thinking. In addition to this, the performance expectations also exist to align the curriculum to assessments.

Higher Order Thinking Vs. Lower Order Thinking NGSS performance expectations
The NGSS Performance Expectations focus on the higher-order thinking tasks that students should be able to do.

NGSS Performance Expectations and Backwards Planning 

Another key point to consider is how to plan using The NGSS performance expectations. To illustrate how not to plan, I’ll share my personal experience. Previously, much of my unit and lesson planning followed this format; Look at the content standards, plan a series of lessons aligned to those standards, and create an assessment. Consequently, my assessments didn’t always reflect what I taught throughout the unit. Or, as I created the assessment, I went back to the lessons to force the assessment to work and make sense. 

Instead, backward design is a much more effective way to plan. 

According to, backward design includes three steps.

  1. Identify what students should know and be able to do by the end of the learning cycle. 
  2. Create an assessment to measure their learning. 
  3. Plan a sequence of lessons that will prepare students to successfully complete the assessment. 

Correspondingly, states,

“The NGSS is not a set of daily standards, but a set of expectations for what students should be able to do by the end of instruction (years or grade bands). The performance expectations set the learning goals for students, but do not describe how students get there.”

Additionally, in their document How to Read NGSS, states that The NGSS performance expectations allow for “multiple means of assessment.”

Sample Performance Expectations

In general, this all makes sense. To clarify and specify, let’s look at performance expectations from the standards. 

MS-LS1-2. Develop and use a model to describe the function of a cell as a whole and ways the parts of cells contribute to the function. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the cell functioning as a whole system and the primary role of identified parts of the cell, specifically the nucleus, chloroplasts, mitochondria, cell membrane, and cell wall.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment of organelle structure/function relationships is limited to the cell wall and cell membrane. Assessment of the function of the other organelles is limited to their relationship to the whole cell. Assessment does not include the biochemical function of cells or cell parts.]

Overall, the standard clearly states what students are expected to do: Develop and use a model to describe the function of a cell as a whole and the ways the parts of cells contribute to the function. Notice the emphasis here on developing and using a model (a higher order thinking task) to describe (a lower order thinking task). To repeat, The NGSS wants kids to be active participants in their learning. Think DO THE SCIENCE

The clarification statement is incredibly helpful (for me anyway), as it specifies the boundaries of the content and assessment. For example, at the 6-8th grade level, we do not cover the biochemical function of the cells or their organelles (sorry biochem majors). In a future post, we’ll explore content related standards in the disciplinary core ideas post. 

If your school purchased an NGSS-aligned curriculum, there are likely examples of activities aligned with the performance expectations. If you’re looking for lessons that support Multilingual Learners in this performance expectation, check out my Animal and Plant Cell Projects on TPT.  

Performance Expectations and MLL Students

How do The NGSS Performance Expectations apply to Multilingual Learners? Better yet, how can I ensure that my NGSS-aligned lessons are accessible to ALL students? 

First, view your MLL students from an asset-based perspective, rather than a deficit-based perspective. What I mean by this is focusing on what your MLL students CAN do (learn engaging, rigorous science content), rather than what they can’t do (speak perfect English – do any of us speak perfect English? I know I don’t. Anyway. Back on track). 

Low expectations for students of historically marginalized groups (MLLs, students of color, students with special needs, and/or students from lower socioeconomic statuses), is a form of bigotry. And chances are, if you’re reading this, that’s the EXACT OPPOSITE of the type of teacher you are and/or aspire to be. However, we understand our classrooms are heterogeneous. Therfore, different students need different things in the way of our teaching and support. In other words, we can both keep expectations high and give students the support they need for grade-level mastery. 

In equitable classrooms high expectations exist for all students.

Luckily for us, the research shows that project-based learning (which aligns quite nicely with the performance expectations of the NGSS) is incredibly beneficial for MLLs. One of the research-based core beliefs of the English Language Success Forum states:

“All students should develop a deep understanding of content through activities that require complex thinking. Students need to be engaged in rigorous and grade-level content from day one, regardless of their proficiency level in English. This is most effectively achieved through extended units—where depth is prioritized over breadth—that culminate in tasks that require students to synthesize and apply their learning to topics that are meaningful and relevant to them.”

That last piece sounds a lot like the NGSS performance expectations. 


In conclusion, the Performance Expectations outline what students should be able to do by the end of the unit/grade band/year. So what does this mean for MLLs? Research shows that units that culminate in higher-order thinking tasks allow multilingual learners to develop a deep understanding of the science content. Even if you agree, you’re likely wondering a few things. 1. Where to find the time to planning and scaffolding that’s necessary to set your students up for success in achieving the performance expectations.

I truly believe you can be a great teacher AND value your free time and mental health (isn’t it sad that even has to be said?) Here are Lit Science, it’s our mission to support teachers in providing quality middle school science instruction, resources, and material to their Multilingual Learners. Check out the Lit Science TPT store for student-facing NGSS-aligned lessons that have been scaffolded with Multilingual Learners in mind. As Lit Science continues to grow, we’d love to hear from you. What do you need more support with? Chime in in the comments below. 


  1. Read the middle school science standards @
  2. Read Next Gen Science’s 1 pager about understanding the NGSS here
  3. Understanding by Design: Buy the Book Here
  4. Backward Design: The Basics by Cult of Pedagogy
  5. The English Language Success Forum
  6. Lexia Learning Blog Post on High Expectations for English Language Learners

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Hey, I'm Jessica

I create differentiated, literacy-based science lessons for middle school teachers of diverse learners. 

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