State to boost importance of science standardized tests, though critics say not enough

Susan Brown, a science teacher in New Haven: 'I want to see the spotlight also shine on science.'

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The Connecticut Mirror

Susan Brown, a science teacher in New Haven: 'I want to see the spotlight also shine on science.'

New Haven — Sixth-grader Miguel Marrero loves science. It’s no accident that he attends the Mauro-Sheridan Science, Technology and Communications Interdistrict Magnet School.

But most of Miguel’s school day is devoted to English and math classes, in large part because they are the subjects that the state’s standardized tests focus on, and because they are the main focus of the federal law No Child Left Behind.

“It’s sad. It’s really, really sad,” Susan Brown, Miguel’s teacher, said of the lack of attention science gets.

And this is typical of Connecticut public schools.

Department of Education numbers show that fifth graders, for example, spend four times more time in English classes than they do receiving science instruction, and twice the time in math classes as science class.

At Miguel’s school over the school year, students are in English classes nearly seven times longer than in science classes.

Meanwhile, just 35 percent of Connecticut eighth graders who even took the national science exam in 2009 passed it.

In an attempt to increase the importance of science instruction, the state education department plans to begin using the state science tests that most students take in fifth, eighth and 10th grades and, for the first time, hold schools accountable when students fail to show improvement.

The addition of a more rigorous science curriculum — and a standardized state science test that includes repercussions if students don’t improve — is one aspect of the state’s bid for a waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“What is measured is what matters,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told the state school board last month in discussing the state’s application for the waiver.

No Child Left Behind requires the state to intervene and/or replace teachers and administrators in schools whose students fail to improve on their English and math standardized tests. It will require every student to pass these tests beginning in the 2013-14 school year.

While many teachers routinely oppose the current high-stakes state tests for math and English, the plan to expand them to science has drawn some unlikely allies: science teachers.

Standardized tests: a love/hate relationship

Because the possibility for a waiver has been pitched as a way to give school districts some reprieve from the requirement that every student pass English and math two years, many teachers were baffled when they saw the state propose the same repercussions for students’ failure to pass science exams.

“I thought [No Child Left Behind] was bad, but the proposal for the waiver sounds worse. There are already far too many assessments… Please stop this insanity,” Ann Anderson, a teacher in Middletown wrote in an email to the state’s education department, referring to the inclusion of science to the testing requirments.

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But the science teachers who reviewed the application had a different response: Thank you.

“I want to be counted among those who are very much in favor” of including science, Delores Holmes, a longtime science teacher in Milford, wrote the state.

Between classes in New Haven last week, Brown, the science magnet school teacher, said, “If testing is going to be the way the world goes when determining what gets attention and resources, then expand it to include science.”

Brown also said, however, that she would prefer that several measures be used to determine how well students are learning science — lab work, for example, in addition to standardized tests.

Preparing future scientists

Economists worry that the nation is graduating generations of students without a solid background in science.

“Projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historic pre-eminance in science and technology,” according to a February report to President Obama by the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

In Connecticut, the labor department estimates that in order to meet job needs, the state will have to increase the number of people going into science careers by a double-digit percentage by 2018.

Nicholas Balisciano, education manager at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, a nonprofit that helps schools build science programs, said the state will have a hard time getting there if schools aren’t inspiring students in science.

“Our businesses and economy need them to succeed in high-tech jobs — and their interest and preparedness starts in elementary school,” he said. “When you’re in this high-stakes testing environment, almost all the attention turns to those subjects that are tested.”

Six of the 11 states that have received a waiver to No Child Left Behind have promised to expand their accountability measures to new subjects, some of which include science.

“It’s a very healthy trend. What is tested is what tends to be a focal point. Education is so much more than just English and math,” said Diane Rentner, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a national education advocacy group.

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Districts with the lowest test scores are more likely to focus their time and resources on raising those scores, according to Rentner and Balisciano.

“It seems that the increasing imbalance in instructional time seems to affect schools where [No Child Left Behind] pressure is the greatest — those in the lowest” achieving districts, Balisciano said.

Connecticut’s lowest-performing districts are divided in terms of science education, according to the state education department. Norwich has cut the time spent on science instruction for fifth graders by 40 percent over the past decade, while New London has doubled the amount of instruction. Hartford and several other districts have remained level. However, all the state’s major cities spend at least half the amount of time on science than they do on English, and their science instruction is half that devoted to math.

Will this fix the disparity?

The state’s waiver request — which is awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Education — says it will more heavily weigh test scores in math and reading, with science only counting for 10 percent. The state will also continue testing science less frequently than math and English, though their application states that an annual science test will begin in the 2015-16 school year.

Balisciano says the state’s strategy doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s good that the state is broadening what it counts. But I don’t think it will incentivize districts to change their ways and start focusing on science,” he said.

And the testing may not end with science, math and English. Pryor, the education commissioner, told the state board that social studies and career and tecnhical education are also on his radar.

“Our thought process was that we would inform the feds we intend to include [those] measures down the line,” Pryor said.

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