Quality Science Teaching

The No Child Left Behind Act is linked to the data that shows schools in California are teaching less science because teachers are pressured to prepare students for the required math and English high-stakes tests.

Valerie Strauss writes that Virginia is moving to require that students would only be required to take tests in math and English.  Students would not take tests in science and social studies.  On the one hand, this is a great idea because I believe high-stakes tests should be banned.  But on the other hand, there will be collateral effects on science and social studies because Virginia will put its emphasis on teaching math and English.  That is a bad idea.

Now, back to California.

High Hopes – Few Opportunities

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In a recent research study entitled High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California the authors reveal that intense pressure to meet accountability goals in mathematics and English has limited time for science, and teachers and schools do not have the infrastructure support needed to consistently provide students with quality science learning opportunities.

The research was conducted by administering 451 surveys to a sample randomly stratified  districts across the state of California.  One administrator from each district was asked to complete the survey.  Then from the 451 districts, 300 schools were randomly selected and their principals, and 3 teachers (selected randomly) from each school were asked to complete the survey.  The response rate was 62%, 56% and 70% respectively. Nine schools out the 300 were selected by a nomination project for in-depth case studies.

Among the findings:

  • 40 percent of elementary teachers say they spend 60 minutes or less teaching science each week.
  • Only One-third of elementary teachers say they feel prepared to teach science.
  • 85 percent of teachers say they have not received any professional development in science during the last three years.
  • Nine in ten principals say science education is very important and should start early.
  • Less than half of principals (44%) believe it is likely that a student would receive high-quality science instruction in his or her school.

According to the researchers, children rarely encounter high-quality science learning opportunities in California elementary schools because the conditions that would support them are rarely in place.  There is evidence in the study that the narrowing of the school curriculum to meet NCLB guidelines has created a curriculum that focuses primarily on math and English to the peril of other subjects.

Why is Quality Science Education Crucial?

In Taking Science to School, a report published by the National Research Council, the science education researchers concluded that all students have the intellectual ability and curiosity to learn science (and social studies).  The research base in science education supports the idea that young students are quite capable of becoming involved in science inquiry and can sort through various forms of knowledge to determine what is reliable and what is not, and indeed, engage in the practice of science.   Furthermore, when students are engaged in hands-on activities that are related to their lived experiences, students become more motivated to learn, and this of course will have positive effects on learning math and English.

When we de-emphasize science in the elementary school curriculum we loose opportunities for students to collaborate, to discuss and talk, and to explore their curiosities and interests—all of which under-gird our reasons for teaching science. Science inquiry should be fostered early in a child’s life, yet the California study showed that very few students are receiving a quality science education, and if Virginia commits schools to testing in math and English only, then schools will find it in their best interest to overexpose students to math and English at the expense of other subjects, especially science and social studies.

What is quality science education?

The researchers identified a number of conditions that influence the quality of science education in K-6 schools and these included teachers, instructional materials and resources, and assessing student progress.  Researchers found that schools with high poverty rates were likely to report a lack of facilities and also that limited help was provided to help them assess student progress.

Quality science education in the elementary classroom is dependent on the school district encouraging science in the curriculum, and providing the professional training for teachers to implement such a program.  According to recommendations from the National Research Council, students should be engaged actively in science activities to find how science works.  They need to collaborate with other students, and in so doing use the language of science to explore questions of interest to themselves and their peers.

Although hands-on science is an important mantra for science teaching, students need to have opportunities to build on their prior knowledge and interest by engaging in the practice of science—or as teachers would say, science inquiry.  Students need to learn science concepts, yes, but they should do this within a context that has meaning to them.

The amount of time devoted to science teaching in California elementary schools is about 90 minutes per week, and the amount of funds available to improving science education has diminished from about $10 million to about $1.3 million.  Lower numbers of teachers are involved in staff development and little support for new science.

Although the present economic state of the country, and California had led to diminished resources in science education, the NCLB Act probably has contributed more to the amount of time spent teaching science, and in some instances the pedagogy implemented to teach science.

Will Banning Science and Social Studies Tests Result in High Scores in Math and Reading?

NAEP test results are the only accurate performance measure that we have.  The tests are low-stakes.  The samples are large enough to produce reliable national and state results, but can not be used to rank schools, districts or students (please see Richard Rothstein’s article on this).  Even in a state like California where researchers indicated that schools were not teaching science because they had to spend more time on math and reading, NAEP reading scores did not change relative to the national scores, and increased very little.  With all of the effort since the passage of NCLB on math and reading, the overall change is very little, nationally or by state.

Average scale scores in Reading comparing California to the Nation, 1998 - 2011 (NAEP)

Average Scale scores in Reading comparing California to the Nation, Grade 8, 1999 - 2011 (NAEP)

High-stakes testing has created a conundrum in American education. Whether Virginia changes which subjects are tested, the evidence does not support the legislators who came up with this idea in the first place. It simply reinforces that NCLB has created a teach-to-the-test teaching style, and until legislators, and corporate leaders move to the side and listen to educators, we’ll see very little change in test scores.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University