Mismatch Seen Between New Science Tests and State Requirements

Questions may be unfamiliar to some
By Catherine Gewertz — April 16, 2019 6 min read
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New science tests are rolling out across the country, but some teachers are worried that they will include a lot of questions on subjects their students haven’t studied.

With schools in spring-testing mode, high school science teachers are watching intently to see how their students will do on the new exams. In some schools and districts, they’re noticing a mismatch between state or local science requirements and what’s on the tests.

“In California, kids only have to take two years of science, but now they’re taking one test that encompasses four years’ worth of science standards at the end of their junior year,” said a high school chemistry teacher in a Southern California district. She asked for anonymity because she didn’t have administrators’ permission to discuss the issue.

“If I’m a student who only takes biology and chemistry, I won’t have [covered] the physics or earth science” material on the test, she said. Many of her students follow the biology-chemistry-physics sequence that strengthens college applications, she said, but others take just a 9th grade “natural science” course and biology.

The schisms between the science students take—by choice or requirement—and what they face on the new tests are becoming uncomfortably clear as more than 40 states phase in new science tests. Federal law requires schools to test students in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

Forty-plus states have shifted to new tests to reflect standards they’ve adopted in the last six years. About half of those states are using the Next Generation Science Standards, which debuted in 2013. The other half crafted standards that are similar. New tests designed for those standards draw on a wide range of topics: engineering and technology; earth and space sciences such as geology; life sciences such as biology, and physical sciences, including astronomy or chemistry.

Early Glimpses Stir Concern

The new tests don’t have much of a track record yet, as many states are just introducing them, or are still field-testing. But as they get closer, teachers have gotten glimpses through practice tests. And they’re seeing that the assessments—like the underlying standards—include more science topics than many high school students take.

The difference takes on additional freight in financially strapped districts. David Upegui, an award-winning biology teacher at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, said his school can’t afford enough teachers to adequately cover earth and space science, even though those topics account for a good chunk of the test in his state. He tries to meet the test’s engineering expectations by weaving them into his anatomy instruction.

“In a high-poverty school like mine, those courses don’t exist, but the students are still getting testing on it,” he said.

The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize a blend of “knowing” and “doing” science. They envision students memorizing less, and doing more of what scientists actually do: developing a hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data, coming up with solutions.

Student learning is supposed to be “three dimensional,” including the “core ideas” of each science domain, science “practices” such as developing models or engaging in argument, and “cross-cutting concepts” like patterns or cause and effect.

Science requirements vary widely from state to state. As of last summer, 37 states and the District of Columbia required students to take three or more years of science in high school. Thirteen states required only two years or leave such decisions to the districts, according to a forthcoming survey report by Achieve, an organization that helped states write the Next Generation Science Standards.

Most state science requirements “are not likely to ensure all students have access to the learning necessary to meet the [new] high school science standards,” Achieve’s report says.

Only half the states offer any specificity about which courses students must take. Those policies afford districts—and students—important flexibility, said Aneesha Badrinarayan, Achieve’s director of special projects. But that flexibility, combined with the variety of course choices students make, can translate into an uneven landscape of test readiness.

“The degree to which individual students are prepared for the assessments will be incredibly different, even building to building in the same district,” said Matt Krehbiel, Achieve’s science director.

Integrated or Traditional Model?

How districts transform the standards into curriculum can shape students’ readiness for the tests, too.

Some districts are moving to an integrated model that blends science topics such as biology, physics, astronomy, and earth science, building in complexity as students move from 9th to 12th grade, while others retain the more traditional single-subject focus in each science course.

In the Golden State, where this spring’s new California Science Test includes a range of science topics, students would probably be “less likely” to have been “exposed to the standards” on the test if their district uses a more traditional topic-by-topic course sequence, and they fulfill the state’s two-year requirement by taking entry-level science in 9th grade and biology in 10th, skipping chemistry and physics, said Scott Roark, a spokesman for the California Department of Education.

While teachers have noticed the potential for a mismatch between students’ classroom work and the test content, few in California are seriously worried, because schools there aren’t yet under pressure to reach certain levels of science proficiency for their federal accountability reports.

“In the first year or two of testing, we know there will be significant gaps,” said Shawna Metcalf, the president-elect of the California Science Teachers Association.

“But the state was expecting that,” she added. “We knew full well that there will be a learning curve” as districts “embrace the pedagogical shifts” in the standards and rework courses to better reflect them.

Most states’ federal accountability plans for 2018-19 do include science results, though, according to Achieve. That could add some pressure as states examine how well classroom teaching lines up with the new tests.

Peter J. McLaren, a science teacher who helped write the Next Generation Science Standards and now consults with schools about putting them into practice, said mismatches between what students study in school and what they face on the test won’t be as much of a problem as most teachers think.

Questions are designed less to plumb deep, detailed knowledge of a domain than to explore students’ grasp of scientific processes, McLaren said. In earth science, for instance, students might be asked to analyze strata in rock and discern patterns that might indicate their age, he said. Questions like that capitalize on the “practices” and “cross-cutting content” of science, McLaren said.

But those are the areas where many teachers still need to get stronger, McLaren said. When he travels around to districts, teachers “go all Zen” on the standards’ science content, but they are less confident and “their pulses quicken when I start moving them into the practices and cross-cutting concepts.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Mismatch Seen Between Science Tests and Coursetaking


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