Washington K-12 Students Have A Long Way To Go On Science Proficiency

Washington K-12 Students Have A Long Way To Go On Science Proficiency
Washington fourth and eighth-graders performed better than the U.S. average on recently released 2015 science tests by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as "the nation's report card." But most still failed to reach the level of "proficient." Lawmakers and others recommend a variety of responses. Photo: Washington STEM.

Nearly 60 percent of Washington state public school fourth-graders don’t reach the “proficient” level in science, nor do slightly more than 60 percent of the state’s eighth-graders, according to recently released 2015 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Known as “nation’s report card,” NAEP tests a representative sample of students in all 50 states on a staggered-year schedule on math, reading, science and other subjects.

Despite the obvious room for improvement, there were some bright spots in the Washington science aptitude data made public last week. Both fourth and eighth-graders scored higher in 2015 than the last time each cohort took the NAEP science test.

The national averages on the 2015 NAEP science test were 37 percent proficient or better for fourth graders, and 33 percent for eighth-graders. Compared to other states, Washington did relatively well. Its fourth-graders were tied for 12th-best among the 50 states, and eighth-graders tied for 14th best. The tests gauge student knowledge in physical, life, earth, and space sciences.

Reading, Math Aptitudes Help Shape Science Performance

“It’s good we’re above the national average, but it was so low, there is a lot of room for improvement” still in Washington state, said Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23). “We may never get to 100 percent, but surely we need to do better than 42 percent,” she said, referring to the 4th grade score. Rolfes is a member of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, and the legislature’s special Education Funding Task Force.

There is a key state focus on ensuring students have solid reading skills by fourth grade, but not the same emphasis on math, which is crucial to science aptitude, Rolfes said. She added that to understand the chances students have to succeed in science, first we must know, “can they read, do math? What’s their curriculum?”

In the case of NAEP outcomes, no states get district- or school-level data, according to the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). That is partly because the performance results are based on selective statewide samples.

However, across Washington the low 2015 NAEP science proficiency scores were matched by fairly low reading and math scores. In 2015, for fourth-graders, only 40 percent for reading and 47 percent for math scored proficient or higher. For eight-graders, just 37 percent for reading and 39 percent for math reached that level.

Need For More ‘Instant, Actionable Data’ To Guide Instruction

State Rep. Dan Griffey (R-35) is a member of the House Education Committee. He too said the NAEP science results are cause for concern. Griffey stressed the need for more timely and nimble use of classroom-level quiz and test performance results to show which students need help in science and other core subjects. “We need to be putting weekly and monthly” school-administered test results to work to create “instant, actionable data,” and related instructional responses, Griffey said.

Science education sinks in much more deeply with a hands-on approach including career-related applications of science, Griffey added. However, state mandates can make it hard to get enough relevant out-of-classroom time to bring the subject to life for students, he said.

Despite the existence of some promising Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs in Washington K-12 education, as a state “we’re lagging behind in what STEM actually looks like,” Griffey said.

Roundtable, Washington STEM Accent Science Education, Jobs

Major Washington state employers emphasize the importance of science education. A recent report from the Washington Roundtable projects that in the next five years there will 740,000 jobs to fill in the state. This is nearly triple the expected national rate of jobs growth, and many will be high-skill, high-salary “career jobs” requiring high school and post-secondary training including STEM courses and programs. These jobs will include many positions for chemical engineers, energy operator technicians, apps developers and computer programmers, cybersecurity jobs, and virtual design coordinators for the construction industry.

The pipeline needs strengthening. A November 2014 Washington STEM report found that only 9 of 100 children born in Washington will end up in a STEM job in the state, far fewer than are needed. The report identified several “chokepoints” where students and workers fail to latch onto the STEM learning continuum. These include early childhood education, and K-12 schools, where too many students fail to develop an interest or proficiency in STEM subjects. Also a trouble spot is the transition to college, where lack of STEM program capacity at in-state schools hurts.

A Good Investment

According to the report, a $650 million investment in STEM resources throughout K-20 public education in the state would return benefits seven-fold in new tax revenues and reduced social spending, adding 8,000 new STEM hires per year in-state and 16,000 indirect jobs.

Working to help school districts improve classroom instruction, student learning and achievement in science, is the public-private partnership Washington State LASER. Funded by the Battelle, Boeing and the state, it advances best practices, partnerships and resources including STEM notebooks students use to learn the scientific method, and 38 science materials centers statewide where science kits are stored, repaired and distributed to teachers.

LASER Co-Director Jeff Estes, who serves as Director of STEM Education at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said NAEP tests are an established indicator, but the larger conversation has to be about how to move teaching and learning more toward the actual practice of science.

Estes said guidance comes from the state’s Next Generation Science Standards which include emphasis on actual science and engineering practices, plus core scientific and cross-disciplinary concepts. The challenge, said Estes, is “to craft learning experiences that weave these things together” consistently.

Estes added that deeper investment in elementary school science education is necessary to build toward mastery in later grades, as is attracting a larger number of highly-qualified science teachers. He also said that beginning to resolve funding inequities between richer and poorer K-12 districts in the state, a key task of the legislature in 2017, will help.

The state will be in a better position to know how it’s doing on K-12 science education when the new 11th grade science achievement test is implemented, likely in 2019, Estes said. It will include earth, life and physical sciences, and elements of engineering design. It will replace an end-of-course state biology test.

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