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As Test Date Looms, Educators Renewing Emphasis on Science

By Sean Cavanagh — March 29, 2005 9 min read
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After scrambling to raise students’ skills in math and reading, state and school administrators are beginning to place renewed emphasis on science, with the approaching mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act squarely in mind.

That effort is taking shape on many fronts, from the design of new tests in science subjects to the revamping of courses to cover the material on those exams.

Over the past three years, much of that science subject matter has been pushed aside, many state and local officials acknowledge. States and schools during that time have been consumed with the federal law’s demand that they improve annual test scores in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8—or face such penalties as offering students a choice of schools to attend, or restructuring their own schools.

Melissa Jaeger, center, an 8th grade science teacher at Lakeshore Middle School in Grand Heaven, Mich., helps Emily Thomas, left, and Sara Sturgill perform a heat conduction experiment. Schools are gearing up for federal science-testing requirements.

But beginning in the 2007-08 school year, states will also have to test students in science in each of three grade spans. That deadline, some state and local officials say, is already giving science lessons more prominence in elementary and middle grades, after several years in which teachers were cutting back in that discipline because of more pressing demands.

“The attention is back on science,” declared Greg Hall, the assistant superintendent for assessment and research in the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Its importance is back with No Child Left Behind. [The law] is going to provide that clarity and a way of communicating our expectations.”

Under the federal law, states are required to have academic-content standards in place for science by the 2005-06 school year, and they must test students in science at least once in each of the 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12 grade spans in 2007-08.

At the same time, the law’s requirements give schools and districts a significant degree of leeway in science that is missing in reading and math. Science-test results are not counted as a factor in whether they make adequate yearly progress, the prime measure of success under the law, unless states voluntarily decide to impose that step. In a recent informal survey of state science supervisors, the National Science Teachers Association found that only a handful of states were considering taking on that extra burden at this time.

Instead, most schools remain consumed with immediate pressures in reading and mathematics, say state and national curriculum and testing officials, while science instruction, especially in the elementary grades, remains on the margins.

“The focus is still largely on math and language arts,” said Brett D. Moulding, the president of the Council of State Science Supervisors and Utah’s state director of curriculum. “We saw a shift away from science, and we have not seen a shift back yet.”

What Skills to Test?

When it comes to designing science tests, however, most states are “well ahead of the curve,” Mr. Moulding surmised. His state, Utah, has had content standards and tests in science in grades 4-12, which have been revised periodically over the past two decades.

For states that haven’t gotten that far, the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies, is conducting a study aimed at providing state officials advice on how to design their science tests under the No Child Left Behind Act. The report is expected to be released next month. “The challenge is to develop a test that fosters a challenging form of learning,” said Kevin Collins, Idaho’s state coordinator of science, which is conducting field tests of its science assessments over the coming weeks. “We need to be encouraging a rich, active science environment where [students are] collecting information and making decisions.”

Meanwhile, Washington state is pushing ahead with science testing. It designed assessments after convening a committee of state and national testing experts and scientists.

Washington state officials were influenced in that process by the National Science Education Standards, a widely used document drafted by the National Research Council in 1995, Mr. Hall noted. The state’s test emphasizes core science skills, such as scientific inquiry, generally defined as the way in which students develop knowledge and understanding of the natural world, through observation, questions, investigations, and predictions. Another focus is on having students understand science through “systems,” or connections between different aspects of the natural world.

The state’s test also requires students to provide written evidence that they have acquired knowledge, Mr. Hall said, rather than presenting them with only multiple-choice items. The state official says he already sees science teachers and administrators adjusting lesson plans to align them with the state’s standards and tests, which are being phased in at various grade levels. Some of those changes involve teachers’ making sure the science “kits” they use—basic classroom tools for student experiments—are covering the information on the exams.

More teachers are also asking students not only to conduct investigations, but also to put more of their observations in the form of essays, using scientific vocabulary. Testing students on those skills, Mr. Hall said, “means they’re more likely to happen in the classroom.”

Teachers’ Favorites

In states that already have well-established content standards and science tests, teachers and curriculum officials say instruction in the subject has improved, as the expectations for students have become clearer at each grade level. Other states that undergo similar reviews of their science standards and tests over the next year are likely to see a similar payoff in the classroom, some of those officials predict.

“Overall, it will be a good thing,” said Melissa Jaeger, an 8th grade science teacher at Lakeshore Middle School, in the 6,100-student Grand Haven, Mich., school system. “People shouldn’t be discouraged by low test scores. Unless your curriculum is aligned, it’s going to take a few years for test scores to rise.”

Ms. Jaeger served on a committee in her district that met over a two-year period to study Michigan’s state standards for science and then adopted benchmarks for what students should be learning in each grade. A major challenge was eliminating redundancy in lesson plans between grade levels, she said. Certain topics, such as the life cycle of butterflies, the study of dinosaurs, or earth science generally, were popular among teachers in nearly every grade, she recalled. Other concepts, such as astronomy, were receiving scant attention, the committee found.

Over time, teachers learned they could still have flexibility in designing their lessons, as long as they covered the state-mandated basics, Ms. Jaeger said. “Teachers had an emotional attachment” to certain lessons, she said. “There was a phase-in time for people to get ownership of their new objectives. Once you [were finished] with your objective, you could teach your sacred cow.”

The Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests students in elementary, middle, and high school. The questions on those tests blend multiple-choice with written-response items. They are built around basic “strands” of content that students are expected to master, including an ability to reflect on scientific knowledge and to use physical, earth, and life-science knowledge.

More Than Just Facts

Michigan’s content and testing requirements seek to promote science “literacy,” meaning not only a familiarity with facts but also an overall understanding of the subject, said Robby Cramer, a curriculum specialist with the Grand Haven school system who is also the president of the Michigan Science Teachers Association.

To meet those goals, her district actively encourages extensive writing during science lessons. Some Grand Haven elementary teachers, for instance, use digital cameras to have pupils take pictures of wildlife habitats and ask the students to collect field samples. Students are then expected to write about those processes, using specific descriptions and terminology.

The practice also reinforces skills in other areas, Ms. Cramer noted, such as language arts. “Writing is your window into students’ minds,” she said. “You’re able to see exactly what they understand, and where you need to focus your instruction.”

Gerald Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, hopes to see a surge in the attention paid to science instruction as the federally mandated tests grow closer. Still, he said, there is a persistent “level of anxiety” among teachers around the country that state tests will emphasize rote memorization and recitation, rather than broader understanding of scientific concepts.

“They’re scared that the factoid level of science will drive teaching in a way that deteriorates it,” said Mr. Wheeler, whose Arlington, Va., organization represents 55,000 teachers.

A number of district and state officials speculate that schools are likely to encourage elementary and middle school teachers over the next few years to carve out more time for science lessons that also require students to show reading comprehension and use mathematics. That strategy would allow more time for the teaching of science, they say, while also honing students’ core skills in reading, and possibly math, where federal consequences are the toughest.

But Utah’s Mr. Moulding warned that young students need to be given a proper introduction to the core principles of science, such as conducting investigations, analyzing data, and making connections between different aspects of the natural world. And, he says, they have to understand what separates the subject from other disciplines. That focus—“why it is science”—could be lost, Mr. Moulding argues, if a teacher’s more pressing objective is to bolster students’ reading or math skills.

“That aspect really needs its own time to develop,” he said.

By some estimates, science instruction is squeezed enough as it is. Teachers in grades 4-6 devote an average of only 31 minutes a day to the subject, roughly half the time they give to math and less than one-third the time they spend on reading and language arts, according to a study by Horizon Research Associates of Chapel Hill, N.C. The National Science Foundation-supported study was conducted in 2000, before passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which many educators say has led to an even greater imbalance between science and more dominant subjects.

Mr. Moulding said he was torn about the effect of giving states the freedom to exclude science-test results in measuring adequate yearly progress. On the one hand, the pressure to make progress obviously focuses public attention on improving instruction and academic achievement in the discipline—as it has in reading and math. But the Utah official also worries about making the stakes for science too high, particularly when core knowledge of the subject is “very difficult to assess.”

Although the upcoming wave of science testing does not carry the threat of federal penalties, others suggest that schools and districts would be motivated to perform well regardless because their scores will be made public.

“It might not have the grab-you-by-your-shirt-collar impact of the reading and math testing,” said Jack Jennings, the president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and policy group that tracks the implemention of the No Child Left Behind law. “But it will bring new attention to the teaching of science.”

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