Adults who took high school biology might remember a lecture on cell structure, then a test asking to identify its parts, plus an assignment to build a cell, perhaps with papier mâché and dry macaroni.
Today, California students are supposed to learn about science in a whole new way.
A teacher might start the lesson by posing a question: How does a wound heal? Well, that involves cell reproduction. So to understand how a wound heals, the teacher might say, we must first learn how a cell works. The instructor might ask: What elements do you think a cell must have to help heal the wound? How about making a model and discussing your hypotheses with each other?
This approach is aimed at leading students, ideally, to the right answer, with the teacher as a guide. The method is embedded in the “Next Generation Science Standards,” which California adopted in 2013. Students were tested for the first time on the new standards last spring, even though some districts have yet to introduce the new curricula.
The scores are in for public school students in grades 5, 8, and 10-12 — and California students got far more answers wrong than right.
Less than a third of students met standards
Across the state, 29.9% of students met or exceeded the new science standards on this first test, with fluctuations according to grade level. High school students must take the test once between 10th and 12th grade.
There was a spike in 11th grade scores, with about 30% proficiency, but overall high school students did worse than younger students.
Low-income students and black students had especially low scores, a pattern also seen in the state’s math and English assessments. On the science test, only about 3% of English learners and 8% of students with disabilities demonstrated proficiency.
“The scores show that we’re continuing to fail students and we’re failing the same students who historically we always have,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the Oakland-based research and advocacy nonprofit Education Trust-West. “What actually makes it more egregious is that we’re in a state that is this bastion of technological advancement. … We’re not connecting the dots between the tech world and what we see in classrooms.”
So why the low scores?
It’s the first year of the test
Typically, the first year of a new standardized test does not yield stellar results. In 2015, the first year of new English and math tests in California, scores showed an overall proficiency of 44% in English and 34% in math in grades 3 through 8 and 11. Scores improved by three to four percentage points the following year and have continued to go up, though by a smaller margin.
But five years into those same tests, only half of students met state English standards and 40% met math standards. The so-called Smarter Balance Summative Assessments, based on Common Core English and math standards, are designed to measure how well students have met learning goals set by the state and create statistical snapshots of learning at their schools, their district and California.
Students took the science tests on computer programs that they may not have used before. The test requires students to read, comprehend and analyze questions, some of which build on each other or require written explanations.
“I think these test results should be taken with a grain of salt,” said Bill Sandoval, a UCLA education professor who studies how children learn science and observed teachers who used the “healing a wound” approach to teaching students about cells.
Instead of “summative” assessments like this, Sandoval said, it would be more productive to give students assessments throughout the school year that are more closely aligned to what they are learning in each classroom, and enable teachers to figure out what students need. “It’s not that clear” what these test results say about how to improve or what to improve on, Sandoval said.
Although the standards are challenging, when implemented well, research suggests that the new approach can help students learn and retain concepts better than they would through rote memorization, he said.
Yet the real-world challenge lies in the ability of educators to actually teach to the standards.
There aren’t enough teachers
There is a shortage of teachers in California, especially in math, science and special education.
New teachers may be long-term substitutes or working with emergency teaching permits, and many veteran teachers are not well-trained in the new standards, explained State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond.
Convincing college students in STEM majors to teach science can be a hard sell because they can pursue much higher-paying careers. Also, earning a full teaching credential in a single subject can be expensive, and many aspiring teachers must complete classroom hours without pay.
“About half of the folks coming into science teaching are not fully prepared,” Darling-Hammond said. What California students need most when learning science, she said, are “well prepared teachers who have the materials.”
But the new standards call on even experienced science teachers to change their approach, relying less on their own authority and more on scientific method and classroom engagement.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget includes $900 million for teacher training and retention, including a large chunk for STEM teacher professional development.
“When you bring the standards out you also have to develop teachers’ capacity to teach the standards,” Darling-Hammond said. “The standards do not teach themselves.”
Memorization alone wouldn’t be enough to pass the test, which requires students to engage in tasks that include — on a fifth-grade practice exam, for example — ordering the stages of a plant’s life cycle on a diagram, and explaining how a hare’s changing fur color protects it in the winter.
Many schools don’t even offer lab experiments
After the last recession, from around 2009 until 2014, “a lot of science programs got really decimated,” Darling-Hammond said. That’s especially true in elementary schools and in high-poverty schools.
“The idea is to learn the core scientific concepts through doing scientific work — so doing versions of modeling and experimentation,” Sandoval explained. “If you don’t really have the capacity in the classroom to do legitimate versions of scientific work, then you’re not going to meet those goals. It’s not going to happen.”
In one L.A. County high school where Sandoval and colleagues were helping a group of teachers implement the new science standards from 2015 to 2018, about 40 students crowded into a science class, and the tight space and lack of materials prevented them from conducting experiments. There were not enough computers for the students, so virtual labs were out too.
Sandoval was able to help secure a grant for some materials, “but it doesn’t go that far,” he said.
He could not name the school to maintain its privacy in his research, but it was in a majority low-income and Latino school district, he said.
Schools could look to the booming technology industry in California for assistance, student advocates say.
Smith Arrillaga said such classroom scenarios “should just not be possible in a state this diverse and with this much science.... We as a state should be able to come together across sectors and figure out some solutions.”
But school involvement shouldn’t end with a one-time donation of a 3-D printer, she said. Tech industry leaders need to engage with educators and classrooms to better understand what students need to succeed in the workforce, remain invested in schools and help fund teacher preparation programs, Smith-Arrillaga said.
Teachers need to better connect with black and Latino students
Another problem that may contribute to achievement gaps is that teachers do not fully understand the communities in which they’re teaching, said A.Dee Williams, associate chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Cal State L.A. Williams directs a teacher residency program for math, special education and science teachers in Los Angeles.
The Cal State L.A. program requires teachers-in-training to learn about and acknowledge their biases, and provides paid classroom residencies where they are paired with mentor teachers in L.A. and Pasadena schools. Aspiring teachers are encouraged to ground their lessons in what’s happening in the community — connecting climate change principles not just to polar ice caps but to the students’ own water quality, for instance.
Ideally, Williams said, teachers would return to the communities where they grew up. He believes teachers with roots in the place they work may have a stronger understanding of its history and be able to connect with students and relate lesson plans to the community. This would also help give students teachers who look like them — research suggests that children benefit from having a teacher of the same ethnicity.
Yet in California, white students are much more likely to have that experience than black or Latino students. In 2018-19, 21% of California teachers were Latino compared with 55% of students, while 61% of teachers were white compared with 23% of students.
“Most of these people who are teaching, most of them have been raised in an environment of subject matter isolation and a lack of grounding in the communities,” Williams said. “They’re doing these experiments in their labs.... They’ve never been given the resources to go out and do that in their communities.”
A lot of schools haven’t started teaching science this way
The State Board of Education released its framework only a few years ago. Experts say this kind of change takes time, and many schools have not even adopted the new curriculum yet.
Officials at L.A. Unified, which educates almost 1 in 10 of the state’s public school students, won’t roll theirs out completely until next school year.
“Much of the state is just beginning to implement their new science curriculum,” Darling-Hammond said.
School districts and teachers looking at this year’s test scores should ask themselves: “What does this tell us about the kinds of resources we need to help teachers do this better and to help kids?” Sandoval said.
School leaders say they need more information from the state to answer that question.
“We’re looking closer now to the results with our colleagues from the local districts to try to make some sense of the data and develop an action plan,” said Ayham Dahi, the secondary science coordinator for the L.A. Unified instruction division. Dahi hopes the state will share more granular breakdowns of the test results, so the district can see what areas students faltered in.
“I think the more disaggregated the data are, the better we could provide better and more targeted supports for teachers.”
Times staff reporter Iris Lee contributed to this report.