How States Can Boost Science Learning, Thanks to ESSA

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 19, 2017 4 min read
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Science education advocates are among those cheering the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act: It’s an opportunity to get science on the radar screen in a way they couldn’t under ESSA’s predecessor.

The former law didn’t count science tests towards anything, thereby relegating the subject, in many advocates’ eyes, to second-tier status. But under ESSA, states have a lot more flexibility to emphasize science in particular, and more generally, content in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

I know you’re probably thinking: Groan, do I have to read all those hundreds of pages of ESSA plans?

But fortunately for you (and your grateful blogger), there are plenty of folks who’ve been combing these and pulling out the good stuff. Both Achieve, a key partner helping states improve the rigor of their courses, and Education First, a consulting group, released briefs recently that outline what states plan to do—and where the opportunities lie for them to improve their plans.

The Achieve report looks at the 16 states and the District of Columbia that have already submitted their ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education. Education First also looked at those states, plus eight draft plans that haven’t yet been finalized.

Here’s a summary of some of the top opportunities in the new federal law that the two organizations identify.

1. Count Science Testing in Accountability

As the saying goes, what gets tested gets taught. Ten states plan to include science test results in their determinations of student success in 2017-18, with another five states planning to do so at some point in the future, according to Achieve. The group notes, though, that only two of those states—Michigan and Tennessee—have set tangible achievement goals in science.

It’s worth noting, as the Achieve report does, that the science-testing landscape is pretty variable already. ESSA requires states to test in three grade bands, but some states do it much more frequently. Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Nebraska test annually in grades 3-8, while South Carolina and Utah test annually in grades 4-8.

And in high school, 24 states use end-of-course science assessments, rather than a generic science exam. Most of those states test only biology, though there are exceptions. (Massachusetts also tests chemistry, technology, engineering, and physics.)

Is science the only subject worth including? No. The Education First analysis notes that 17 of the states have also proposed, or are considering creating, an indicator for career and technical education, or CTE, in their accountability plans. This would include access to CTE coursework, completing coursework, or getting an industry credential, though the details remain somewhat sketchy for now.

2. Target Federal Funds Appropriately

Federal funding makes up about 10 cents on the dollar of education spending, and many of the federal funding streams can be tapped, the two reports suggest.

Title I of the law, the largest single funding stream, can support STEM coursework, the acquisition of tablets and laptops for STEM programs, and additional learning time, Achieve notes. States could use the small competitive grant program in Title I for state assessments to update their science tests, too.

Title II of the law, which funds teacher professional development, can be used to help teach STEM concepts to educators, provide stipends to recruit STEM teachers, and support generalists (like elementary teachers) who integrate more STEM into their classrooms.

What might this look like? Well, Nevada will use its cut of Title II funds to help recruit STEM teachers and provide equitable access to STEM coursework; North Carolina will help train educators on the state’s digital learning competencies; and Maine will use its funds to train teachers on formative assessment in science.

Achieve says that states might also think about using Title II to open up alternative certification programs for STEM teachers.

Title III, which supports English-language learners, can be used specifically to help upgrade STEM programs for those students.

Title IV houses the academic enrichment grants, which can be used to expand STEM courses and STEM specialty schools, and to expand access to underserved students.

It’s also home to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an after-school program that can expand children’s access to informal STEM education, Education First notes. (Read all about informal science in this great EdWeek series from a few years back.) Ten states plan to require or encourage STEM activities in their CCLC grants, the group notes. For example, Louisiana will give a competitive preference to program applications with a STEM focus.

3. Coordinate STEM Efforts.

It is really, really easy to get “siloed” with federal funds. After all, most states (and many districts) have different coordinators tracking these funding streams, and they aren’t necessarily talking to each other. Though this isn’t a main focus of the report, there’s a clear thread that states’ ESSA plans need to be thought of in combination with their other efforts.

Iowa has a STEM advisory council that helps identify good professional development, which is a promising beginning; likewise, Washington state wants to create computer science standards to get all of its teachers on the same page.

If you’ve got a sense of what else states could do to use ESSA for STEM, why not leave a comment (or email me at

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.