California students may not be ready for new science test

February 18, 2019

Senior Tyty Ung, left, and Cameron Robinson, right, try to catch wax on fire in their science class at Sheldon High School recently.

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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