Photo: Carolyn Jones/EdSource
Elementary students work through a science activity.

At a time when California is placing a greater emphasis on science education, most students did not score at a proficient level on the state’s new science test, with scores especially low among several student groups.

The results of the test were released this week. They represent the first scores on the California Science Test, a new test developed by the California Department of Education, to measure progress on the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by California in 2013.

Statewide, 32 percent of 5th-graders, 31 percent of 8th-graders and 28 percent of high school students met or exceeded standards on the California science test aligned to the new standards.

The scores also show a wide gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers: Across all grades, 14 percent of black students and 19 percent of Latino students met or exceeded standards, compared with 44 percent of white students and 59 percent of Asian students.

Numbers on smaller percentages will display on hover or click:

The portion of students who met or exceeded standards was also strikingly low among English learners (3 percent), special education students (8 percent) and low-income students (19 percent).

“Getting it right takes time and funding,” said Shawna Metcalf, president of the California Science Teachers Association. “The California Next Generation Science Standards were adopted six years ago without being properly funded by the state,” referring to how state officials have not dedicated any dollars to specifically fund new science standards implementation.

California is undergoing a major transformation in the way it teaches science in order to prepare more students for college and careers in science, technology, mathematics and engineering, or STEM, as well as to broaden all students’ scientific understanding. In 2013, the state adopted the Next Generation Science Standards to replace the old standards put in place in 1998. In 2016, the State Board of Education released a curriculum framework to help guide teachers with implementation.

“What really stood out to me as I dove more deeply into the scores was just continuing to see the distressing gaps between student groups,” said Jessica Sawko, associate director of the California STEM Network, a Project of Children Now, an advocacy organization based in Oakland. “There are so many efforts underway to diversify our STEM workforce; the pipeline really begins at K-12 and we need to improve these opportunities.” Sawko was previously executive director of the California Science Teachers Association.

“These scores confirm trends we see in other data and the other state tests,” said Christopher Nellum, deputy director of research and policy at the Education Trust-West, a civil rights and education equity research and advocacy organization. “For us, it underscores that the education systems are failing African American, Latinx, English learners and low-income students. And because of that we aren’t meeting the state science standards.”

The new standards require a significant shift in the way science is taught. Instead of memorizing facts and terms, the Next Generation Science Standards emphasize hands-on science projects that require students to investigate, collect and use data, and give evidence-based explanations for what they discover.

The new standards also integrate several scientific disciplines and encourage teachers to base lessons on students’ questions and scientific experiences they might encounter in their everyday lives, such as local wildlife or nearby energy resources.

Likewise, the new computer-based science test differs dramatically from the previous science test. In addition to new content in areas such as climate change, students are asked on the new test to analyze data and explain their reasoning.

“A lot of the performance tasks on the test rely heavily on literacy skills,” said Brenda Tuohy, STEM director for Oakland Unified. “Students have to be able to obtain information and construct an argument, so the new test is much more demanding in terms of language.”

The first year of scores for the new science test are comparable to first-year scores for the Smarter Balanced math test. In 2015, the first year students took Smarter Balanced tests that are aligned to the Common Core math standards, 33 percent of California students met or exceeded standards. Those tests also show a wide disparity among ethnic and racial groups, often referred to as the achievement gap.

Because this is the first year the new test was administered, it is impossible to know how student performance compares with previous years.

But experts are still concerned with what they view as a troubling trend line. “Sure this is the first year of these scores but we are seeing wide achievement gaps for quite some time, and the science scores confirm what we have been seeing,” said Nellum.

The science test is administered to 5th- and 8th-grade students and once in high school beginning in 10th grade. The test focuses on three science areas: Earth and Space Sciences, Life Sciences and Physical Sciences.

The test consists of multiple choice questions and performance tasks that require students to solve a series of related questions and explain how they arrived at their answers.

A number of hurdles, such as some districts’ delay in adopting textbooks and a shortage of qualified science teachers across the state, have caused many schools to struggle as they implement the new standards. Nearly five years after adopting the standards, state officials approved a list of science materials in the fall of 2018, giving districts little time to vet and choose textbooks before the testing period started in spring of 2019.

Some districts have started or even completed the textbook adoption process. But many have not and are still struggling to teach science with materials aligned to the previous standards. As a result, some teachers have held off on implementing the new standards and their students continue to learn the old science standards from outdated textbooks.

The challenge is particularly difficult at the high school level because few textbooks that align to the new standards are on the market yet. Many high schools are also navigating how to best change their course sequences and graduation requirements to better meet the standards.

“Unfortunately, without the proper funding for new instructional materials and resources, the implementation of CA NGSS has been inconsistent throughout the state,” Metcalf said.

Persistent gaps in access to science courses and materials can lead to large differences to science learning opportunities and outcomes. “We are not surprised that scores on the science assessment show similar gaps between student populations to the (English language arts) and math assessments,” she said, referring the Smarter Balanced assessments students must also take each spring.

Adding to the list of challenges is a shortage of highly qualified teachers in California, especially in science. Across all scientific disciplines, the number of teaching credentials issued decreased by nearly 9 percent between 2013-14 and 2017-18, according to data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Fremont High School in Oakland Unified did not have a physics teacher for three years, Tuohy said, until a math teacher stepped up to get an additional credential to teach the subject this year. “A lot of our students don’t have access to (physics),” she said. “There are a number of factors why, and finding qualified teachers is a big one.”

The shortage of science teachers is especially acute in rural schools, as well as schools that serve high proportions of low-income students and schools where the majority of students are black or Latino, according to a 2018 report from the Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based education research organization.

“I went to a school that didn’t have the best-credentialed teachers or availability of classes and it matters because it’s hard to catch up later,” Nellum said. “We want parents to think about how their kids have access to courses so they have the foundation to be eligible for higher education.”

This year Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing to allocate nearly $1 billion to recruit, train and retain teachers in critically understaffed areas, including science, math and special education.

The scores are intended to measure how well a school is implementing the new standards, and education officials warn against comparing scores against the previous exam, which was aligned to the old standards.

The scores will matter to parents, too. Many schools and districts won’t use the scores for placement into science courses, but they are able to. State officials advise “schools should not use these results as the sole measure to place students in any advanced science courses or pathways,” said Scott Roark, a spokesman for the California Department of Education.

Parents can find tips for interpreting and understanding their child’s scores, as well as sample test questions, here.

“Innovation is in this state’s DNA,” Nellum said. “There has to be a path forward, and it needs to happen faster than it’s happening now.”

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  1. Rick B. 1 month ago1 month ago

    Another Common Core academic beat down on novice learners being treated as if they should be professional adults. Stop the bogus excuses for disrupting science education with the latest Common Core version of teaching that flies in the face of all we know about cognitive learning theory and brain development. Stop trying to impose the debunked and failed methodologies of constructivist/discovery learning. Stop painting science instruction as the "memorization of disconnected facts". Stop suggesting … Read More

    Another Common Core academic beat down on novice learners being treated as if they should be professional adults. Stop the bogus excuses for disrupting science education with the latest Common Core version of teaching that flies in the face of all we know about cognitive learning theory and brain development. Stop trying to impose the debunked and failed methodologies of constructivist/discovery learning. Stop painting science instruction as the “memorization of disconnected facts”. Stop suggesting that we teach about atoms (or any other topic) by reciting textbook definitions. Stop suggesting that children with extremely limited, if any, background knowledge can solve problems, construct solutions, or create valid experiments. And above all stop conflating the way that professionally trained adult scientists do real science with the very different school experiences that children need to learn science. NGGS will frustrate and confuse children and adolescents rather than enlighten them; a really bad idea that will cost school districts untold time, money, and energy.

  2. ZOE J DANIELSON 1 month ago1 month ago

    I am a credentialed science teacher. I taught in public school for one year. I (and everyone I knew) received a layoff notice and then, three days before school was to start, I was "rehired." I spoke with other teachers. My mentor teacher had been "fired" every year for 11 years straight. That wasn't a life I was willing to have. I teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade privately to … Read More

    I am a credentialed science teacher. I taught in public school for one year. I (and everyone I knew) received a layoff notice and then, three days before school was to start, I was “rehired.” I spoke with other teachers. My mentor teacher had been “fired” every year for 11 years straight. That wasn’t a life I was willing to have.

    I teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade privately to children educated at home. I make more money and I never get fired. If conditions weren’t so crappy in the public schools, you would have many more science teachers. Remember, unlike Social Studies teachers or English teachers, we can just go back to industry because we actually know how to do something.

  3. Zach Carousso 4 months ago4 months ago

    It would be nice to have a curriculum to help teachers teach the new standards. If you are a new teacher and you are given a bunch of standards without any insight into how the questions on the test will be asked, it is extremely difficult. When teaching AP chemistry at least the board gave us a significant amount of practice questions and test. So we could help our students see how they will ask the questions.

  4. Allison Nofzinger 8 months ago8 months ago

    The problem teachers who still don’t teach NGSS still believe in direct instruction. Kids don’t learn this way. Teachers are not willing to change. They don’t know how. Coming from East Coast, it’s a sad spot California is in. And textbooks are not the answer.

  5. Lisa Disbrow 8 months ago8 months ago

    I’m a 30 plus year veteran CA teacher. For 30 years, this California education tragedy has been used to empower and protect politicians while our schools have deteriorated.

    It’s time to reject the unions, administrators and those who’ve played taxpayers and parents. It’s time to enact school choice and let parents decide how to flee failing schools and find educational options they approve of.

  6. Trish Williams 8 months ago8 months ago

    The overall lackluster performance on the 2019 NGSS test reflects a couple of realities: 1) The K12 NGSS standards reflected major pedagogical shifts away from how science was previously taught in CA, eg NGSS is more hands-on science, experimentation, exploration, problem-solving of disciplinary core ideas and cross-cutting concepts using practices of scientists and engineers. This is instead of having student memorize isolated facts. A welcome change for students; a big challenge for … Read More

    The overall lackluster performance on the 2019 NGSS test reflects a couple of realities:

    1) The K12 NGSS standards reflected major pedagogical shifts away from how science was previously taught in CA, eg NGSS is more hands-on science, experimentation, exploration, problem-solving of disciplinary core ideas and cross-cutting concepts using practices of scientists and engineers. This is instead of having student memorize isolated facts. A welcome change for students; a big challenge for teachers of science.

    2) Although the state adopted a 1,000 page curriculum framework to support teacher lessons, the state didn’t adopt actual curriculum materials until 2018 (just one year before this 2019 operational NGSS state test);

    3) the state has not given any targeted funding for science teacher PD or the purchase of NGSS instructional materials.

    I hope the CDE and State Board will encourage the Governor and Legislature to remedy this unacceptable situation. And the data is showing, no surprise, that the low-income students who need good science in school the most are having the least access to it – it’s a major equity issue. But in addition, CA is actually a national leader – and should be – in science educator state leadership and in the quality of the NGSS policies and materials CDE and SBE adopted. The State just needs to follow through and signal clearly to teachers that a strong K12 science education is important by funding NGSS implementation.

    Replies

    • Dr. Bill Conrad 8 months ago8 months ago

      You make excellent points Trish. I would argue though that the idea of hands-on and minds-on science has been around since the 1960s when there was a resurgence of science education reform in response to Russia's advances in space exploration. The state abrogates its responsibility to provide quality science curricula as it leaves this important work to the science textbook vendors to carry out. This is a big mistake as the vendors tend to … Read More

      You make excellent points Trish. I would argue though that the idea of hands-on and minds-on science has been around since the 1960s when there was a resurgence of science education reform in response to Russia’s advances in space exploration.

      The state abrogates its responsibility to provide quality science curricula as it leaves this important work to the science textbook vendors to carry out. This is a big mistake as the vendors tend to try and satisfy the needs of a nation resulting in diluted and non-controversial content and pedagogy.

      The real problem of course is the the fact that teachers themselves do not have good science content knowledge nor an understanding of quality science education pedagogy. This is because the woeful colleges of education recruit the least qualified candidates and train them very poorly. Most teacher preparation curricula do not even include mandatory courses on how to teach science at the elementary level. Without an initially well-trained teaching force, no amount of district-level science content and pedagogy PD triage will overcome massive teacher science content and pedagogy deficiencies. That is our reality and the student results confirm it.

  7. Bruce William Smith 8 months ago8 months ago

    While the Next Generation Science Standards have some value, I suggest Californians and other Americans look into the separate science tests in physics, chemistry, and biology of Cambridge Assessment International Education if they want to assure themselves that their children are achieving at levels that will leave them internationally competitive in the STEM fields to which so many families aspire, and yet so few qualify.

  8. Jennifer Bestor 8 months ago8 months ago

    Cutting this data by district socio-economic class is enlightening — and reinforces Brenda Tuohy’s comment about language skills. CAASPP science scores track the curve of CAASPP English Language Arts scores across the spectrum of districts. They run a consistent 20 points below, from the poorest to the richest districts. CAASPP Math scores, in comparison, while 10 points below ELA at the socio-economic status midpoint, rise to meet ELA scores at the highest-income … Read More

    Cutting this data by district socio-economic class is enlightening — and reinforces Brenda Tuohy’s comment about language skills. CAASPP science scores track the curve of CAASPP English Language Arts scores across the spectrum of districts. They run a consistent 20 points below, from the poorest to the richest districts. CAASPP Math scores, in comparison, while 10 points below ELA at the socio-economic status midpoint, rise to meet ELA scores at the highest-income end. The correlation one might expect between math and science doesn’t hold — at least within this set of tests. Language skills matter here.

    Using Socio-Economic class is useful in evaluating school versus home inputs and moving beyond a race-only discussion. Furthermore, it’s quite predictive. I use Stanford CEPA’s Socio-Economic Status index (cit below).

    On the science test, mid-point (working class) California districts score just at the state average (30% of children meet or exceed the standard). Wealthy districts average 75% of children meeting or exceeding the standard, while impoverished districts average 13%.

    And, for those aware of my frustration with the lack of a regional cost supplement in LCFF, once again the scores of students in working poor, poor and impoverished districts in the high-cost counties pull the averages down across the board. Refusing to make $900 million in school-allocated property tax available to fund low-income districts, handing it off to local governments instead, hurts large numbers of real kids. It deepens any measure of inequality and drags any comparison of California vs. national performance down.

    OK, the trendline (polynomial order 2 fit) data from high-income districts down (labels my own):

    Highest-income/education – 75% meet or exceed in science, 88% in math, 90% in ELA.
    (SES=3; e.g., Del Mar (San Diego), Palo Alto, Manhattan Beach (LA), Piedmont (Alameda), Orinda (Contra Costa))

    Upper-middle income/education – 57% science, 69% math, 75% ELA.
    (SES=2, e.g., San Mateo-Foster City, Irvine, Walnut Creek, South Pasadena, Fremont (Alameda), Poway)

    Middle class – 43% science, 53% math, 62% ELA.
    (SES=1, e.g., Davis, San Jose, Simi Valley, Natomas, Tustin, San Francisco )

    Working class – 31% science, 40% math, 50% ELA.
    (SES=0, e.g., Paso Robles, Oakland, West Covina, West Contra Costa, Gilroy )

    Working poor – 22% science, 30% math, 42% ELA.
    (SES=-1, e.g., Chular (Monterey), Santa Ana, Barstow, Redding (Shasta), Ukiah, Montebello (LA), Twin Rivers (Sac’to))

    Poor – 15% science, 25% math, 35% ELA.
    (SES=-2, e.g. Stockton, Porterville (Tulare), Konocti (Lake), Lennox (LA) )

    Impoverished – 12% science, 20% math, 30% ELA.
    (SES=-3, e.g. Mendota (Fresno), San Pasqual (Imperial), Corcoran (Kings))

    As I’ve said before, the leveling off of the trendlines at the low end of the SES scale suggests that LCFF is having its desired effect — at least when high regional costs don’t negate the supplementary and concentration grants.

    Stanford CEPA’s publicly available district classification is available on Stanford’s cepa seda-data archive — I’ll try to link or you can just put those words into search.

  9. Charles Hoff 8 months ago8 months ago

    As long as you can “Graduate” without passing these kinds of tests I don’t see how you can get much better results!

  10. Matt 8 months ago8 months ago

    Christopher Nellum, deputy director of research and policy at the Education Trust-West, a civil rights and education equity research and advocacy organization. “For us, it underscores that the education systems are failing African American, Latinx, English learners and low-income students. And because of that we aren’t meeting the state science standards.”

    Precisely which “education systems” are failing these students, Dr. Nellum? These results indicate few students across the board are getting a solid science education.

  11. Dr. Bill Conrad 8 months ago8 months ago

    Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same result. I am afraid to say that the K-12 education continues to reside within a fog that can be characterized as insane! The abysmal performance of students on the state science test is just another artifact of a failed K-12 Education system. Additional artifacts have been recently highlighted in EdSource include articles about how … Read More

    Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same result. I am afraid to say that the K-12 education continues to reside within a fog that can be characterized as insane!

    The abysmal performance of students on the state science test is just another artifact of a failed K-12 Education system. Additional artifacts have been recently highlighted in EdSource include articles about how educational leaders are now combing their cafeterias and bus lots for teacher candidates. They have also highlighted how we are in a mood to end teacher certification tests like the RICA because too many prospective teachers fail the test.

    Maybe we should consider eliminating the new science test as well as just too many students are failing it!

    We blame the poor results on all manner of reasons like the test is computer-based or it is the first time the kids have been exposed to the test. Please! We have tried those fallacious reasons on the state Reading and Math tests for years. We continue to get the same poor results.

    Nobody really wants to address the root cause problem. Teaching is not cool in California! Prospective teachers go into teaching as a second or third choice. Teaching is considered a trade! Organizations give their education scholarships not with the real professions but with the trades like plumbing and cosmetology. High quality students especially those oriented toward science would prefer to enter real professions like physics, medicine, or computer science rather than teaching. Can you blame them?

    The woeful colleges of education accept the least qualified and then train them poorly. The state tests reflect this inconvenient truth. Until we fix this problem, we will continue to reap the same poor student results. We need to transform the colleges of education totally so that we begin to professionalize and produce teachers who know their content well and can teach it well. We need to attract the most qualified and not the least! We need to combine transformation of the colleges of education and professionalization of teaching with career ladders and much higher salaries. It does not require innovation, it requires hard-nosed transformation. Something the milquetoast leadership in California is unwilling and unable to do at this time.

    We need for the students to become more agitated, rise up. and revolt in ways that bring their legitimate concerns about their education to the forefront of our moribund leaders!

    Replies

    • Bo Loney 8 months ago8 months ago

      We lost a portion of our passionate gifted teachers through the need for certificates.

  12. Bo Loney 8 months ago8 months ago

    “schools should not use these results as the sole measure to place students in any advanced science courses or pathways.” State testing should definitely, by all means, be used to help identify gifted students. I believe it is any score in the 97 percentile and up. It maybe 95th percentile and up. If there does not seem to be anyway to help these students there are programs like Johns Hopkins CTY, Stanford EPGY, and … Read More

    “schools should not use these results as the sole measure to place students in any advanced science courses or pathways.”
    State testing should definitely, by all means, be used to help identify gifted students. I believe it is any score in the 97 percentile and up. It maybe 95th percentile and up. If there does not seem to be anyway to help these students there are programs like Johns Hopkins CTY, Stanford EPGY, and SIG that offer further testing that will help to identify academically talented students and offer community and resources.