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No change in science testing climate this year

This year, the city is rolling out new science materials for grades 5, 7, and 8, building on the curriculum introduced last year in grades 3, 4, and 6. Yet new tests based on the curriculum have been delayed for the second straight year, the Post reported yesterday.

A 2004 report by the City Council Committee on Education stated, “The most striking aspect of science in elementary schools is how rarely it is taught. Students are fortunate to get 45 minutes of science once a week for half the year.” The report made a number of recommendations for recruiting highly-qualified science teachers, increasing the profile of science education, and holding schools accountable for science.

In response to this and other reports that accountability in reading and math was pushing aside science and social studies instruction, the city introduced its new scope and sequence for science, based on state standards. Schools across the city select from a kit-based approach, a textbook-based approach, or a “blended” model which combines the textbooks and kits, or they may use approved alternatives. Yearly testing based on the curriculum was supposed to push school administrators to increase time spent on science and support teachers’ implementation of the new curriculum.

The delay in introducing the new tests poses a catch-22 for teachers fighting for attention, time, and resources for science education, but hoping to avoid the pressures and pitfalls of yearly standardized testing. Although many educators and students are undoubtedly relieved to avoid adding another exam to the already-full assessment calendar, others see the test as necessary to raise the profile of science education. At an August 2007 professional development workshop related to the new curriculum, some science teachers reported that their principals said they’d increase time for science once science tests started to matter for school accountability.

Many teachers are also waiting to see what the tests emphasize. Will they focus more on content, reasoning skills, or laboratory skills? The state science exams currently given in 4th and 8th grade include multiple choice, constructed response (short answer), and performance (lab-based) sections. What will the new tests look like?

The DOE provides pacing calendars to guide teachers implementing the new curriculum, but a few teachers I spoke to were struggling to keep up with the suggested sequence of lessons, finding their students needed additional work on basic math and science skills necessary to understand the material. Many teachers would like to know more about the format and content of the tests as they make choices about how fast to move, which skills to emphasize, and how to balance depth and breadth in the curriculum.

If the delay in testing allows elementary schools to continue to neglect science, upper grades teachers will continue to have to make up for lost time. But as the City Council report pointed out in 2004, science educators shouldn’t have to rely on testing to get their subject into the school day:

Science test scores are one important means of judging a school’s science performance, but they should not be the only way. Schools should also be evaluated on the adequacy of science facilities, the share of instructional time devoted to hands-on science, the level of student interest in science clubs and fairs, faculty satisfaction, parental involvement, and use of volunteers from the scientific community.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit those recommendations.

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