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Gearing up for Science Assessments

NCLB testing mandates offer opportunities to energize the curriculum

After several years adjusting to NCLB mandates, K12 districts have become familiar with what's required to make Adequate Yearly Progress in math and language arts, and now science is getting thrown into the mix as well. By the 2007-2008 school year, all states must administer science assessments to students in three different grade ranges: third to fifth, sixth to ninth, and tenth to twelfth.

While district administrators may feel overburdened by the added time, resource and funding requirements, the renewed attention also presents unique opportunities to revamp and energize the science curriculum. While districts in most states overhauled their math and reading programs to comply with NCLB directives, at the same time those decisions took the focus away from science. "There will now be a huge new awareness about how science is taught," says Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), "and pressure on doing things better."

Fortunately, there are science guidelines and standards in most states, so if districts can align their curricula with those resources and beef up professional development, they won't be blindsided by the new requirements. But the stakes are high, and schools that fail to do well two years in a row are labeled "schools in need of improvement," causing them to lose federal funding.

State Testing Challenges

As states scramble to create effective assessments, the challenge is to see the larger picture of how science should be taught, notes Cindy Moss, K12 science curriculum specialist for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina and a member of a federal commission convened by the National Science Foundation (NSF). "States are trying to create sophistication around science education, where a seventh, grader, for instance, can talk about life science in a way that conveys an understanding of big ideas," she says. "But sometimes K5 can be disjointed, because you'll have a fifth grader learn about the solar system, and then cells, and then rocks, and there's no natural connection between the different fields."

In the first wave of assessments, therefore, testing differences among states will be clear. "We're going to see not just what's being assessed, but the depth that each state wants," says Moss. For example, in answering a common question such as "How do muscles move?" some students might be expected to write several paragraphs, draw diagrams, or work with a model, whereas others could simply record a sentence or two.

"People don't understand how difficult it is to come up with an assessment at the state level," Moss says.

States may also choose tests that emphasize factual recall over explanation, and avoid assessing process-centered skills entirely-including observing, measuring, inferring and predicting-but that approach is problematic, says Betty Young, professor of education at the University of Rhode Island, lead investigator on an NSF study that explored the skills teachers need to prepare students for lab work. Direct involvement with materials is essential in teaching and learning science, and those competencies cannot be measured with paper and pencil tests. Furthermore, "If one district teaches students about electrical circuits in fourth grade, and another tackles the subject in fifth, the latter school's students could stumble on a test given to fourth graders," which could lead to "teaching to the test" rather than assessing student strength and understanding in science, Young says. The development of appropriate tests to assess science competence presents prodigious challenges for states that will have to evolve, and according to Young, "What's important now is to develop tests that guide instruction."

Assessing Lab Proficiency

One aspect of state assessments that will vary widely among states is lab work proficiency, and science educators fear that in revising the curriculum, the crucial emphasis on experimentation could fade in the effort to measure factual acquisition.

"Traditionally, science instruction and lab work in high school are fairly separate experiences, and that has implications for assessment," says Dr. Jean Moon, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Academies, part of the task force on lab work in schools. The group's recommendation is that there should be an integrated instructional model that brings together lab work with classroom-based instruction, but it's likely that it will take time for lab mastery to become part of state assessments.

Educators fear that in revising the curriculum, the crucial emphasis on experimentation could fade.

Another reason that lab work may not be part of tests is that it's difficult to assess students one on one, but a more significant issue is that not all districts are equal when it comes to equipment. "Not all students have access to labs," says Moon. "Kids in urban locations have less exposure to quality labs than those in affluent, suburban districts. That's a challenge for assessment," Moon says.

Enhancing the District Curriculum

Many districts will have to do considerable work to enhance their science curriculum, but in many cases, state education frameworks are in place to provide guidelines and direction. For example, the Danbury Public Schools in Connecticut aligned their science curriculum to the State of Connecticut Science Frameworks revised in 2005, said Helga Jensen-Ruopp, the K12 Science Program coordinator. To keep abreast of changing requirements, the district created common lesson plans and templates for lab experiences, and secured funding to purchase science materials, such as Science and Technology for Children kits from the Carolina Biological Supply Company.

Other districts have chosen to bring in outside assistance to create a curriculum that matches up with a state model. At Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia, the district engaged the services of the Kaplan testing firm to create lesson plans to meet state performance standards that could easily be replicated across multiple schools. The content is linked directly to Georgia's end-of-course testing, says superintendent Dr. Barbara Pulliam. "It can take years for teachers to catch hold of differences compared to how they used to teach the lessons," Pulliam says. "It's still a work in process, but we believe it will increase student mastery."

Similarly, at the Lynwood Unified School District in California, which also brought in Kaplan for lesson planning, the schools are making an additional effort toward mastery by going beyond NCLB and state guidelines, particularly at the elementary level. "We'd put so much emphasis on math and language arts that our science education had fallen apart," says Dr. Dhyan Lal, Lynwood superintendent. "With the new NCLB mandate, we saw it as a chance to put a more managed curriculum in place," he says. To achieve that goal, the district invested in science kits, supplementary teaching materials and coaches, and recently implemented a Saturday science class for students, teachers and parents to promote family literacy in science. "Putting aside all the NCLB requirements, what we all want is for our kids to be better educated in science." Lal says.

Staff Development

In addition to developing extensive science programs, states must also ensure that every core subject classroom teacher is "highly qualified." According to the NSTA, this means that a teacher must be certified or licensed, hold a bachelor's degree, and have demonstrated competencies in his or her teaching area. But professional development could be one of the largest challenges in meeting NCLB Public School requirements, and in Danbury, Jensen-Ruopp notes that the obstacles are numerous, from revamping university requirements for teachers to finding funds for teachers to learn how to use science materials effectively. "In the past, districts that adopted new science materials might have had a person come in from the outside and do a quick general session before leaving teachers to figure out the rest for themselves," Young says. "But now we're entering the era of "no teacher left behind" when it comes to science. If you want high quality teachers, you have to put equal resources into that as you do into curriculum."

State assessments also put more pressure on individual teachers, prompting more professional development. Chris Comer, director of science for the Texas Education Agency, notes that the state used to assess high school science students as part of an overall graduation test but is now going to end-of-course testing instead. "At the high school level, we'll be able to get scores for students taking subjects like chemistry and physics, which will give us a better idea of their mastery of those areas," says Comer. "Another result is that for the first time, we'll have a score of a particular teacher. So we can see where progress is being made, and where it's not."

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.