When the state’s standardized test scores were released in October, there was little reporting on or discussion of students’ performance on the California Science Test. Yet, fewer than 3 in 10 of California’s children met state standards for science — both before and after the pandemic.
Is the lack of interest in the science scores due to the fact there is only a 0.48% decline from the 2018-19 school year to the latest 2021-22 results, compared with much larger drops in English and math? Is it because science education has been overlooked and underprioritized for more than two decades? Or is it because there is still no accountability for science education as a part of our state or federal school accountability systems?
The answer is likely all three.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, more commonly referred to as STEM education, play a critical role in equipping the next generation with the capacity to navigate the 21st century’s challenges and opportunities. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Education launched the You Belong in STEM initiative to promote STEM education and careers, largely to audiences who are often underrepresented, particularly women and people of color. It can also easily be argued that without the advances in science and technology over the past few decades, we would not be where we are today with Covid-19 vaccines and at-home testing kits available in every pharmacy. However, here in California, CAASPP scores show that these subjects, particularly science and math, continue to be a struggle for most students.
Across the state, science became a lower priority in most schools and districts during the pandemic, according to a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California. Lockdowns reduced teacher professional development, and lack of student engagement and other barriers during remote instruction had a big impact on science instruction. Most of the science teachers surveyed for the PPIC report said they had covered less than half of their science curriculum during the 2020-21 school year.
School districts largely delayed or suspended their science instructional materials adoption as well as their implementation of new middle school and high school science course sequences. The impact of the failure to prioritize science education is reflected in our statewide test scores.
With 70% of our kids not meeting standards in science, and just over 30% meeting or exceeding standards in math, how are we expected to fill the new demand for science and technology positions in our increasingly STEM-dependent economy? Even for careers that are not STEM-specific, these courses help students develop critical and creative thinking, problem-solving and exploratory learning skills that help fuel innovation. These benefits reach far beyond the STEM fields alone.
How can we fix this? If California is to stay globally competitive, we need STEM courses that teach evidence-based decision-making, foster collaboration skills and provide students with the tools to investigate, discover, engineer, design and otherwise make sense of the world around them. These courses require well-prepared teachers. In recent years, the California state budget included critical investments to target our state’s teacher shortage, including STEM teachers.
Unfortunately, these are one-time investments, and as a result, their impact will be limited, rather than systemic. Effective utilization of these funds depends heavily on the capacity of school districts and their teacher preparation program partners. School districts are still grappling with the impact of the pandemic, and there have been few targeted investments in our state’s teacher preparation programs. Consequently, according to data from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, there has been a decline in new credentials for teaching science in the last five years and anemic growth in new mathematics credentials. Looking ahead, the state must find ways to shore up the STEM teacher pipeline by increasing starting teacher salaries and reducing or eliminating the cost of teacher preparation, making the profession more appealing and accessible. However, preparing high-quality teachers is only one piece of the puzzle.
The second piece is acknowledging science and math test scores have remained dishearteningly low for years. One way to improve them is to make student outcomes in science more visible by including them on the California School Dashboard alongside mathematics and incorporating them into our statewide accountability system. This will help make the information more visible and therefore, actionable. Data is a pivotal tool in forming a baseline understanding of where our schools, students and educators need the most support. Once communities know where the weak points are, they can use data-driven insight to form steps forward, particularly through the local control and accountability plan (LCAP) planning process.
Finally, there are a multitude of state and federal pandemic relief funds that have been allocated to schools and districts with quite a bit of discretion on how these funds can be spent. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for those interested in advocating for increased investments in STEM education at the local level. Key investments that can support and advance STEM education locally include:
- Investing in updated science education instructional materials along with the teacher professional learning and adequate materials such as lab supplies and equipment to implement hands-on learning experience.
- Leveraging investments in school infrastructure to build or upgrade facilities to accommodate high-quality science education, including well-equipped science labs, computer science labs, STEM/Maker labs, outdoor learning spaces and more at all grade levels, TK-12.
- Infusing STEM into expanded learning opportunities such as summer and after-school programs, either through direct service or in partnership with community-based organizations.
We cannot afford to be silent about the fact that less than one-third of California students are meeting standards in science. There’s a lot we can do to bring our students up to speed. We just need the will to do it.
Jessica Sawko is the statewide director of the California STEM Network, a project of Children Now, a statewide nonprofit advocacy organization.
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