Next month California students will start to be tested on the state’s new science standards for the first time, but with little instruction in the subject in elementary school and few aligned textbooks they aren’t likely to be ready.

The state had to develop the new test aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, adopted in 2013, to replace the old standards put in place in 1998. The new standards, which begin in kindergarten, emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization, more hands-on science projects and require students to investigate, collect and use data, and give evidence-based explanations for what they discover.

As mandated by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, California is required to give the science test to 5th- and 8th-grade students, and once to each student in high school beginning in 10th grade.

It was offered to a sampling of California students as a pilot test in 2017 and as a field test to students in 5th, 8th and 10th grades last year. This is the first year that the online science tests will be fully operational.

Although students will begin taking the California Science Test in March, most school districts have yet to approve textbooks or materials aligned to the new standards adopted six years ago by the State Board of Education. Still, federal law is requiring California to begin testing this year.

Arlene Laurison demonstrates that wax will burn without a wick during a science class at Sheldon High School in Sacramento recently.

“Transitioning to new learning expectations and new assessments takes time and determination,” said Ilene Straus, vice president of the State Board of Education. “Getting it right is important. The good news is California is headed in the right direction and is making real progress.”

A handful of the state’s school districts have adopted textbooks or materials aligned to the new science standards, but many have not, said Jessica Sawko, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association. The California Department of Education and State Board of Education do not track those numbers, according to state officials.

While waiting for formal approval of textbooks, many districts have begun teaching to meet the standards, developing their own materials or making use of resources from reliable sources, Sawko said.

State education officials have invested thousands of hours since the Next Generation Science Standards were adopted, developing a state implementation plan, building a science curriculum framework and preparing for the California Science Test, among other things.

California’s science test will be one of the most robust tests aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards in the country, said Trish Williams, who served on the State Board of Education from 2011 to 2018 and took a lead role in the development and implementation of the new standards. “A great deal of work has gone into it.”

The test is likely to be a struggle for many 5th-grade students, who often have had little exposure to science while in elementary school. Science has taken a backseat to math and reading in elementary school, with few students having access to quality science education in early grades, according to a 2018 report from the Public Policy Institute of California. The lack of emphasis on science was exacerbated under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, as schools worked diligently to improve test scores in math and English Language Arts to avoid federal sanctions.

Generally, elementary school teachers spent three times as much time teaching math and English language arts in 2018 as they did science, according to the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education.

“Exposure is hit and miss in elementary school,” Sawko said.

While math was taught in almost all kindergarten through 6th-grade classes in the United States on almost every school day in 2018, science was taught daily in only 17 percent of kindergarten through 3rd-grade classes and 35 percent of 4th- through 6th-grade classes, according to the national survey, which did not calculate those numbers on a state-by-state basis.

Some elementary school teachers are migrating toward a more integrated approach to instruction in order to teach all the required subjects in the class time available. That could mean integrating science into an English language arts lesson or social studies lesson, for example.

The number of minutes California students are taught science in each grade level isn’t being tracked statewide, Sawko said. “There has been a hesitation to count science minutes, especially since we see the integration of science and other standards,” she said.

The California Education Code requires that students learn science beginning in 1st grade and briefly outlines what they should be taught in elementary school and then in secondary school, but it does not specify how much time should be spent on the topic. An online example of test questions for 5th-graders show that most questions are multiple choice and ask students to understand concepts like erosion, velocity and the life cycle of a plant.

The State Board of Education approved a list of recommended textbooks and materials aligned to the new state standards for kindergarten through 8th grade in November. It doesn’t have the authority to approve instructional materials for high school, said Janet Weeks, director of communications for the board. District officials aren’t required to use the state’s list and have the flexibility to use state funds to purchase the instructional materials they believe will best address their students’ and teachers’ needs, Straus said.

District officials shouldn’t rush textbook adoption, Straus said. “I think it is a good process to give teachers time to learn and understand the new standards and work with them before they select aligned materials,” she said.

Not much is available from publishers yet anyway, said Arlene Laurison, a high school science teacher at Sheldon High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District.

Elk Grove Unified has not yet adopted textbooks and materials aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. The district plans to review materials and to implement pilot programs to try them out beginning next school year, said Xanthi Pinkerton, district spokeswoman. The district will start the pilot programs with 6th through 12th grade next school year and kindergarten through 5th grade the year after.

During a recent general chemistry class at Sheldon High School in Sacramento, Elijah Victor, a junior, and 32 classmates broke into groups of four and gathered matches, candles and beakers filed with bromothymol blue at lab stations. They were to determine if a lit candle held at the mouth of the beaker produces carbon dioxide. Students watched the blue chemical turn green then almost clear, indicating that carbon dioxide is present.

During that experiment and two others performed that afternoon, the room was filled with discussion and laughter as students debated their observations, sometimes drifting off to other lab stations to ask for advice from their classmates.

“I think it’s better than just doing it just on paper, because when you actually are doing the experiment you are actually like really learning about it,” Victor said. When students only take notes from lectures they don’t retain the information as well, he said.

The new science standards are a big change and a big improvement, Laurison said. “The approach is different, it’s not lecture based,” she said. “Instead, the teacher develops experiences for the student so the student discovers on their own. You offer a little pathway that you want students to go on.”

Under the new standards every high school student will learn biology, physics, life science and chemistry, she said.

Teachers are enthusiastic about teaching the new standards because they have changed the way science is taught, making it more stimulating for students, said Shawna Metcalf, a science specialist from Glendale Unified School District who also was a member of the state’s Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee.

“Before it was a textbook and worksheets, and the kids weren’t excited about it,” she said. “Now, they (teachers) are seeing their students getting excited about it and they are getting excited about it.”

The Next Generation Science Standards have been adopted by 19 states.

Teachers at the California Science Teachers Association conference in Pasadena in November said they are encouraged to see that the state plans to include science in the California School Dashboard. The dashboard uses a color-coded display that rates the achievement of student subgroups and school districts on indicators like academic performance, graduation rates and suspensions and expulsions.

How well students do on the new science test this year may depend on the level of exposure they have to the Next Generation Science Standards or how much professional learning and support their teachers have received, Sawko said.

Students with no exposure to the new standards could still do well on the test if they have been introduced to basic science concepts in school or at home, she said.

Parents can obtain their child’s test scores from their school district when they become available in November or December, according to officials at the California Department of Education.

“Because we have softened our accountability system it isn’t like any school will get in trouble for low scores,” Williams said. “Hopefully, it will motivate them.”

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  1. Susie 6 months ago6 months ago

    "The new science standards are a big change and a big improvement, Laurison said. “The approach is different, it’s not lecture based,” she said. “Instead, the teacher develops experiences for the student so the student discovers on their own. You offer a little pathway that you want students to go on.”" Oh great. Wonderful. The fiasco that is Discovery Math (where kids just happen upon the Pythagorean Theorem and efficient algorithms all by … Read More

    “The new science standards are a big change and a big improvement, Laurison said. “The approach is different, it’s not lecture based,” she said. “Instead, the teacher develops experiences for the student so the student discovers on their own. You offer a little pathway that you want students to go on.””

    Oh great. Wonderful. The fiasco that is Discovery Math (where kids just happen upon the Pythagorean Theorem and efficient algorithms all by themselves) now has invaded Science classrooms. Here’s a fact: Experiments have always been a part of the Science classrooms with labs in Physics, Biology and Chemistry. You need teachers to teach and outline information augmenting both the lab process and textbook information through the lecture process. We avoid teachers who do not lecture (i.e. not actually teach). Knowledge is power and imparting that knowledge should be the role of the teacher. They are not “facilitators” in the classroom.
    Why do teaching professionals swallow this Constructivist clap-trap? There is no evidence we learn more or learn better by omitting the task of reading a good text or through listening to a well-presented lecture. Unfortunately for California students, most of these kids will not adequately learn Science until college.

  2. mike maloney 6 months ago6 months ago

    There are so many conversations that could be had about this topic. A few observations from a soldier on the ground. 1. NGSS is relevant science that would be helpful if more of society had exposure to, but it is not vastly different in the concepts presented than previous standards required. 2. Despite how some may feel, the truth is that it is far more difficult for a beginning teacher to teach an enitre year's worth … Read More

    There are so many conversations that could be had about this topic. A few observations from a soldier on the ground.
    1. NGSS is relevant science that would be helpful if more of society had exposure to, but it is not vastly different in the concepts presented than previous standards required.
    2. Despite how some may feel, the truth is that it is far more difficult for a beginning teacher to teach an enitre year’s worth of science if they have to make up the curriculum on their own (especially elementary school teachers who most likely do not have a science degree). The fact that 6 years later there are no major textbooks out that have been widely adopted demonstrates the complexity of the standards and how even if every day your only job was to write lesson plans with no students or parents bugging you, it would take a long time to do it. Telling beginning teachers to figure it out seems like a recipe for failure.
    3. I have administered this robust test that the creators are so happy about. It is way too long and complex. To administer takes 3 to 4 class periods. The program lags. The questions are extremely robust and many require multiple steps to complete. So it is certainly a test geared towards the higher achieving students. So when you ask a student who biologically cannot think abstractly due to low levels of mylenation and frontal lobe development (5th grade and some 8th grade) to do complicated tasks it sets up students who are at the appropriate developmental level at a disadvantage when the test continually asks them questions beyond the developmental level. The time it requires them to quietly focus and work is also too long. Especially when most of education is focusing on collaboration and academic discussions. They aren’t spending as much time working quietly and they quit trying much earlier into the testing period.
    4. The cost to implement the standards is much higher than traditional methods. Schools are already on a very tight budget and can’t afford some of the expensive equipment needed to run this program successfully. Advantage schools who have parents with large pockets to donate the items.
    5. As with nutrition, education should be balanced. The NGSS does do a better job at emphasizing problem solving, modeling and collaboration over pure wrote memorization. Yet, that does not mean there isn’t a place for memorizing information. Many graduate schools still require you to memorize information (med school, law school). If students don’t practice memorizing then they won’t get better at it. There needs to be a balance between memorizing information and applying it. This gets back to low level versus high level cognitive taxonomy. meorize some information (low level) then try to apply it (higher level) then review and reflect and address points of confusion.
    5. NGSS is great because it goes deeper, but this takes more time so less material can be covered; especially if you desire a majority of students to understand and not just the smartest one in the group and everyone else just copies.
    6. The problem isn’t really education as much as it is people. Those who love learning will learn, many students don’t like school (so we need to entertain them), and some lack basic needs such as food and shelter and safety so it is difficult for them to even care about school when they have much greater problems in their own limited scope of view. We have been testing differently for many years and we continue to find similar distributions. Certainly if we had more time and money for resources we could change more lives, but it is difficult to find enough to meet all the diverse needs. It is sad that often the state testing is used to (even though test makers admit the test cannot possibly measure this) to judge schools and their teachers more than the students that are taking them.

    And for all those who have all the answers for everything please feel free to go down to your nearest low scoring school and start teaching there. They sure could use more of your experts like you.

  3. Kathleen Simmons 7 months ago7 months ago

    15+ years ago I worked for LA Unified and we had a program called Praxis, this program in conjunction with NSF grant and USC trained elementary teachers in hands-on science. It’s sad to see that all that was for naught because so little science is taught in elementary school.

  4. Allison Nofzinger 7 months ago7 months ago

    I don’t know why you keep talking about textbooks. These are obsolete and you don’t need them to teach anything, let alone NGSS. The basis of the NGSS is not textbook but more hands on. Please do more research before writing about something that is very doable by all teachers if they are just will to change their ways and assist kids in learning instead of teaching. The NGSS is really nothing new … just a new title.

  5. David McAdams 7 months ago7 months ago

    The first thing California has to do is quit making excuses for every failure and delay. The Education Cabal is the most powerful in the solar system and will never be accountable to anything but its own “thriveall.”

  6. Bo Loney 7 months ago7 months ago

    Well, I don’t see how they are going to be doing all this science when the numbers show most schools aren’t having over 30% of their kids proficient in math. Just sayin.

  7. Science4ALL 7 months ago7 months ago

    You write: “Under the new standards every high school student will learn biology, physics, life science and chemistry, she said.” I believe one of those (biology or life science) should be Earth Science.

  8. SD Parent 7 months ago7 months ago

    I absolutely believe that the best science instruction is through hands-on experimentation, not worksheets and rote memorization, so I support the changes to the science standards--in theory. I'm just not convinced that it will work in practice, at least for the next several years. I understand that the SBE and school districts take the long view. However, children have just one chance to get a quality K-12 education, so when I see information … Read More

    I absolutely believe that the best science instruction is through hands-on experimentation, not worksheets and rote memorization, so I support the changes to the science standards–in theory. I’m just not convinced that it will work in practice, at least for the next several years.
    I understand that the SBE and school districts take the long view. However, children have just one chance to get a quality K-12 education, so when I see information like this from “education leaders,” it makes me so disappointed and frustrated. It seems that Trish Williams and the other former SBE members used hope rather than meaningful accountability as a strategy to “encourage”–rather than ensure–quality science instruction. When Ilene Straus, VP of the SBE said “I think it is a good process to give teachers time to learn and understand the new standards and work with them before they select aligned materials,” was she thinking about the students who are in these classrooms for the years while these teachers try to figure it out? Sure, there will be great teachers who will go the extra mile to find outside resources in the absence of textbooks or district-developed resources, but there will also be teachers who can’t/won’t. As Jessica Sawko, from CSTA, noted, no one is tracking the minutes taught in Science for elementary school, so instruction is “hit and miss.” I have assisted science education in a number of K-5 classrooms, and I can tell you that by-and-large elementary teachers are not comfortable with the subject, so there are likely to be more “misses” than “hits.”
    Taken together, what do the state’s education leadership think will happen for the students in classrooms for the next few years? It’s not like our state’s educational system has a great track record for implementation of standards: look at what has happened in ELA and Math under “local control.” For a state that complains that we don’t have enough STEM majors to fill the jobs in our state in these fields, why are we setting the bar for science instruction so low?
    Meanwhile, with the loss of categorical funding streams and the institution of “local control,” the CDE should start tracking textbook adoptions. As rising employee salaries and pension costs push school district budgets into deficit spending, “local control” makes it less onerous for districts to quietly suspend the adoption of new textbooks and science experiment consumables than deal with the push-back of any cost-saving items that would impact employees (e.g. reductions in FTEs, work days, or benefits).