A push to expand MCAS may dumb down science education

It was hardly a surprise when the state Board of Education voted in June to require high school students to pass one of several new MCAS tests in science in order to graduate. Pressure had been building for such a move, not only within the state but also in Washington, DC.

In January, Gov. Mitt Romney called on the board to add science to the current mandatory exit exams (in English language arts and mathematics) sooner rather than later. And the federal No Child Left Behind law requires states to test students in science at least once during the third to fifth grades, sixth to ninth grades, and 10th to 12th grades, respectively, by 2007-08. In addition is the growing recognition that science has become, along with math, a critical educational challenge for the Commonwealth’s, as well as the nation’s, economic future. So, beginning with the Class of 2010, this year’s eighth-graders, students will have to pass any one of four end-of-course exams offered in biology, chemistry, introductory physics, or technology/engineering in order to receive their diplomas.

For science educators in any school district where time and resources have been shifted to the MCAS-priority areas, the new exam may be a blessing. Finally, science is going to be a priority rather than an afterthought. But after three years as a graduation requirement, MCAS remains controversial. Extending it to a third subject area —one that, at lower grade levels and in high school pilot tests, has yielded mediocre scores—has revived many of the old objections to high-stakes testing.

Inclusion in the graduation-test requirement is not the only reason that science education is at a crossroads in Massachusetts. In November, the state Board of Education is expected to vote on proposed revisions to curriculum content standards for each of the high school science disciplines. Thus, not only are these science courses to take on high-stakes significance, but what is to be taught in those courses is in flux as well.

The proposed revisions to the high school science standards, posted online for public comment this past summer, are not radical. But certain changes raise questions about what kind of science education the Commonwealth is prescribing. Taken together with preliminary versions of the science tests, it seems that the state may be departing from its own stated desire to have students do science the way scientists do it. What’s at stake is whether the science that’s taught, under the new pressure of MCAS, will help Massachusetts, with its knowledge-and-innovation-based economy, grow its own high-quality technicians, scientists, and engineers—otherwise known as today’s schoolchildren.

LEARNING BY INQUIRY

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the emphasis in elementary and secondary science education has shifted toward the belief that science is important for every student, not just those who plan careers in science or engineering. Thus, the goal of pre-K–12 science education today is science literacy for all.

To be science literate, according to the National Science Education Standards issued in 1996 by the National Research Council, students must have content knowledge in all of the traditional science domains as well as understand science as a specific way of knowing. This way of knowing is called scientific inquiry. The idea is for students not only to understand inquiry as a concept but also to acquire the set of skills associated with doing it. The inquiry process and science subject matter go together inextricably. To teach one without the other is simply not teaching science.

Students must do more than simply parrot facts.

Cognitive research says students won’t fully comprehend the science content—won’t be able to do more than simply parrot facts—unless they come to it the way scientists do, through inquiry. (Not every scientific topic can be arrived at through investigation, but many fundamental principles should be.) And students can’t or won’t use the critical thinking skills of scientists unless they practice them. As one of my colleagues put it recently, “This requires doing science instead of just hearing about it.”

Among other things, scientific inquiry involves asking questions, making predictions, designing and carrying out investigations (often working with other students), making sense of data, and communicating findings. Doing inquiry in school need not involve elaborate materials. Tops and yo-yos allow middle schoolers, for example, to explore the concepts of force, motion, and momentum; at the high school level, students can use commonly available dialysis tubing to investigate the passage of nutrients and waste to and from cells through their membranes.

Inquiry-based science experiences can help not only with skills needed in other subject areas—such as writing —but with workplace skills, as well. The communication and collaboration skills that students use in the process of scientific investigation are the very skills employers say they don’t see enough of. And the higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills involved in inquiry lessons are also the ones that, in adult life, matter more than keeping straight a list of scientific vocabulary words.

MCAS pilot tests are disappointingly basic.

If students are science literate, the hope is that they’ll be less intimidated by science and more able to use the habits of mind they developed in science class in their everyday lives. They should find it easier, for example, to talk about health issues with their doctors or decide how to vote on an environmental policy issue.

Science through inquiry can be challenging and engaging, but doing it right depends on strong teacher preparation and professional development. Teachers need to understand inquiry-based teaching methods as well as science content. In addition, they (and their administrators) need to believe that teaching science concepts by means of inquiry complies with state curriculum standards. It is just that belief that may be undermined by the proposed revisions to the state science standards, which seem to back away from the Board of Education’s past commitment to inquiry.

On the current list of scientific inquiry skills for students in high school biology, chemistry, and introductory physics, approved in 2001, the first item calls for students to “pose questions and state hypotheses based on prior scientific observations, experiments, and knowledge.” In the proposed revised list, the first skill is “follow procedures to replicate an experiment”—in other words, carry out a cookbook-style lab protocol. The “pose questions” item is still there, but it has been demoted to No. 4 on the 10-item list.

Preliminary versions of the end-of-course tests also seem to be out of step with the Commonwealth’s own goals for science assessment, as currently stated. My colleagues and I studied the released items from pilot tests in biology and introductory physics, which represent two of the four tested disciplines. The material covered is disappointingly basic. More important, the questions are not trying to get at much more than the ability to regurgitate facts.

On the 2005 pilot test in biology, the science subject most high school students take, some of the multiple-choice items attempt to measure conceptual understanding, but others require only memorization of facts or vocabulary. A typical example: “Many animals have internal or external skeletons that provide support and structure. Which of the following parts of plant cells play a similar role? A) cell membranes, B) cell walls, C) chloroplasts, D) cytoplasm.” (The answer is B.)

The state plans a 60-40 mix of multiple-choice and open-response questions, respectively, on the science tests for 10th-graders. The open-response questions are where one might expect to see scientific inquiry tested. But none of the open-response questions released from the 2004 and 2005 pilot tests in biology (four items total) attempted to measure the problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills inherent in scientific inquiry.

One of the open-response questions from the 2005 test could have done so had it been tweaked just a bit. The item presents students with four stoppered flasks, each filled with the same amount of water containing a chemical indicator that turns from blue to yellow as the level of carbon dioxide in the solution increases. One of the flasks contains a water plant, another contains two fish, the third contains two fish and a plant, and the last one has only the water/indicator solution. The question asks the student to predict the color of the water after a few hours and to explain how the processes that have occurred in each flask cause the observed color.

Formulated this way, the test item is asking only for content knowledge about respiration and photosynthesis. It ignores the scientific process of inquiry. Using the same list of materials, it could have, for example, asked students how they would try to find out where the levels of carbon dioxide would be the greatest in a few hours.

Probably no paper-and-pencil test can adequately measure students’ understanding of scientific inquiry. But some states, including New York and Michigan, have tests that are more ambitious about measuring this vital aspect of science education. In Connecticut, for instance, 10th-graders perform a state-issued science investigation in their classrooms up to a month before their state test (which is not a graduation test). The task asks students to design and conduct an experiment around a certain problem, then write about the results. In 2004, for example, they were asked to test the effectiveness of a model fire extinguisher. Connecticut students are not graded on the activity at the state level, but the state exam includes open-ended questions about that particular investigation.

As currently written, Massachusetts’s science framework seems to call for something along the same lines. The curriculum framework says, in part, that scientific inquiry and experimentation “should be assessed…so that it is clear to students that in science, what is known does not stand separate from how it is known” (emphasis in original).

Tests can be endlessly quibbled with, but as end-of-course exams, the science MCAS tests have particular power to influence what goes on in the classroom. The state Department of Education already plans to help high schools use the MCAS tests as the final exams in their science courses if they want to. That would result in an unprecedented level of influence by state testing directly on classroom curriculum and instruction.

Why would the state water down its demands for inquiry skills? It could be that Board of Education members think that following procedures or replicating the work of others is more important for science students than being able to pose questions or design an investigation. If so, that’s a major and deeply unfortunate shift in educational philosophy.

But there may be a more prosaic, though no less disturbing, reason for that change. In giving priority to the skill of being able to copy an existing experiment, the state may be trying to give schools that don’t do a lot of inquiry teaching an “out”—a way to feel their current classroom practice, however limited, is good enough to get their kids to pass the MCAS in science.

In a similar way, putting all the MCAS pressure on these end-of-course exams places the onus of accountability squarely on the shoulders of high school teachers. Off the hook are elementary and middle grades teachers, who are often less familiar with science content and pedagogy. That is unfortunate, because science, like reading and math, is learned cumulatively, building on prior knowledge and skills. One of the dangers of poor science teaching in the lower grades lies in the development of misconceptions (for example, that summer occurs because Earth is closer to the sun), which can be difficult for students to unlearn in the upper grades.

A TRUE SCIENCE EXPERIMENT

There is no question that, by adding science to the roster of MCAS exit exams, Massachusetts is raising the profile of science education. The question now is: How can the state ensure that students experience high quality teaching and learning in science? Here are some suggestions:

Remove the replication of experiments from the revised high school standards. Students are bored when they follow experiments like recipes. It’s not acceptable to separate science content from the habits of mind involved in the scientific process, especially when these tests are likely to drive classroom practice.

Improve the items on the MCAS tests. One way to do that is to formulate groups of questions around a science concept and let students choose to answer two out of three or three out of five of them. That way, students are less bound by their ability to recall certain facts and more by their ability to understand a concept. Better yet would be to add questions that ask students to describe how and why they would devise an investigation.

Tighten the science requirements for teacher licensure. Under No Child Left Behind, states must ensure by the end of this school year that teachers are “highly qualified” in the subjects they teach. Beyond content knowledge, Massachusetts should ask teachers at all levels to demonstrate an understanding of science-specific pedagogy and assessment, as well as how to help students with scientific misconceptions, collaboration, and communication.

Include administrators in professional development in science. Principals and district leaders don’t need to be science experts, but they do need to understand the national standards’ emphasis on inquiry and be familiar with current ways of teaching. That would help them make decisions about curriculum, judge the quality of professional development and the need to release teachers for it, and become familiar with the existing networks of teacher leaders across the Bay State who could train and mentor their teachers.

Meet the Author
Urge parents to think about and advocate for their kids’ science education. Business leaders, scientists, and those in higher education are making their voices heard, but parents need to see science as a subject that’s important for their children and speak up about how much and how well it’s taught.

As Massachusetts begins to hold high schools and their students accountable for their performance in science, state officials should not surrender to the limitations of the existing educational system. Right now, each of the more than 350 local districts does science education differently—and some do it not very well at all. What the state must do is lead teachers, principals, superintendents, and parents in a process that will help them give students a thorough grounding in the concepts, skills, and habits of mind of science.

Millicent Lawton, a former associate editor of CommonWealth, is a senior associate in the Center for Science Education at Education Development Center, Inc., in Newton.