Research-Council Studies to Explore Teaching and Testing of Science

By Sean Cavanagh — November 09, 2004 4 min read
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As schools across the country brace for a new wave of federal mandates in science, the National Research Council is undertaking three studies aimed at exploring how students learn most effectively in that subject, and how it is best taught and tested.

The NRC, an arm of the congressionally chartered National Academies, has convened three separate committees of experts to work on the projects, two of which are expected to be finished next year.

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One of those studies is addressing a topic of increasing urgency to states: helping them devise tests that will comply with the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. The nearly 3-year-old law requires them to assess students in science for the first time during the 2007-08 school year.

The goal of that project is to provide states with “practical advice” about how to design tests that will ask students to demonstrate a broad range of skills in science, without encouraging states or districts to scale back their curricula in the subject, said Meryl Bertenthal, a senior program officer in the NRC’s Center for Education and the study’s director.

The hope is to help states generate tests that are not only aligned with their academic standards, but also encourage students to develop crucial, broader science skills, such as using evidence to make decisions, she said.

‘What Students Really Know’

The committee convened by the National Research Council to focus on the testing issue includes state testing officials, researchers, and experts in science and psychometrics, the study of mental processes and functions, among other experts.

“[We] pulled together a group of people who have their finger on the pulse of schools,” said Ms. Bertenthal. A key mission of the project, she said, is to address the question, “How do you design an assessment that will tap into what students really know?”

Like other NRC officials, Ms. Bertenthal described the overall scope and goals of the project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2005, but declined to speculate on what the committee might find. In general, she said, the committee is interested in how state tests can be designed to gauge both subject-specific knowledge in science and students’ overall understanding of scientific concepts and procedures.

A second project under way at the NRC is focused on increasing understanding of how students learn science, with a particular emphasis on kindergarten through 8th grade. The committee working on that project will examine existing research, identify areas in which new research is needed, and determine what that body of work suggests about how science subjects should be taught, according to a summary of the project provided by the NRC.

Work on the K-8 learning project was expected to begin this month, with a project duration of 2½ years, according to a summary provided by the NRC.

Keen State Interest

The third study will look at the role that science laboratories should play in the high school classroom. That question has drawn renewed interest among teachers, administrators, and researchers recently, partly because of speculation that the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing requirements may compel some districts to scale back classroom experimentation in favor of more direct forms of instruction.

Martin Orland

Martin Orland, who directs the NRC’s Center for Education, a division that is overseeing the three projects, said the pending requirements of the federal law were clearly sparking interest in the projects. Ultimately, he said he hoped the reports would have broad influence, in the same way that NRC’s work in reading and mathematics have.

“We hope that the knowledge that’s generated from the work is more than just academic knowledge,” Mr. Orland said. “We see as central to our mission the goal of providing information that’s relevant to the field” of K-12 teachers and administrators, he said.

In the past few years, the most urgent priority for many states in meeting the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act has been the requirement that all students be tested in reading and math in grades 3-8 and then once in grades 10-12. Yet that federal law covers science, too, and beginning in 2007-08, states will be required to test students’ progress in that subject at least once each year in three different grade spans: grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12.

According to Quality Counts 2004, published by Education Week, 20 states currently have science tests in all three grade spans. The study on high school laboratories is expected to cost $600,000, with funding from the National Science Foundation; and the project on K-8 science learning, sponsored by the NSF and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, will cost $1.4 million, according to the National Research Council. The third study, on science testing, is budgeted at $1.8 million and financed by the NSF, Mr. Orland said.

Janice Earle, a senior program director in the division of elementary, secondary, and informal education at the NSF, said the challenge facing states in crafting science tests is a familiar one: how to evaluate not only students’ knowledge across a wide range of classroom science subjects, but also their overall scientific-reasoning abilities.

“It’s easy to devolve into factoids, and that’s not enough,” Ms. Earle said. “In teaching science, you’ve got to go beyond the textbook, in teaching the phenomena.”


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