Low science FCAT scores (see previous post) were mentioned in many news stories yesterday and today, and a few even made that element the story’s hook. (“But scientists they are not.”) There is no in-depth analysis of the problem, though, that I have found. Mainly, it’s all about reading, writing and math taking the focus away from science. But that will change, they say. I think that’s a flippant response at best. There are challenges unique to teaching and testing science that need to be examined.
A previous story talks about how doing poorly on the science FCAT carries no consequence for the students. Some schools apparently resort to bribery just to get enough kids to sit in their seats to take the test. Another story points out that college professors see kids coming to them from high school who seem to think science is all about memorizing facts. There are reports of poor science lab conditions, such as here and here.
So, is this all about just tearing a little time away from other subjects so as to give science more attention? I don’t think so.
As I thought about the problem and read through the previous stories, I considered a few obstacles to performing well on science FCATs beyond even what the stories reported. I’m just writing out loud here, so to speak. Feel free to point out any errors in my thinking.
Keep in mind that reading and writing FCATs evaluate reading and writing. A no-brainer, right? But the science test involves a lot of reading and writing, too. If a student is not good at reading or writing, then that can spill over into standardized science testing. Making things even more complicated, science has its own vocabulary that needs to be absorbed and recognized on the printed page. A child might comprehend the ideas behind photosynthesis, but might struggle on a test when they don’t recognize the word itself. The word “theory” has one meaning in common usage, a guess or hunch, but has a different meaning in scientific use.
I know that some science subjects rely heavily on solving equations, so a poor math student might do that much worse on a science test. I can speak from experience on that matter. When I was a high school student in advanced physical science, chemistry and physics, I did fine on the overall concepts, but sweated through all the actual calculating.
Reading, writing and math skills build gradually throughout a student’s school career. For example, you start with the ABCs and steadily add more knowledge and experience until you can read and understand a novel. Can the same be said for science? There are many fields all shoved under the broad science heading. There are some elements common to science overall, but the individual concepts and vocabulary diverge quite a bit from field to field. Does astronomy build on a previous biology course? For the most part, no. Couple this problem with the fact that the science FCAT is only given in three grades. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this means a student faces one test covering a couple of different science fields of study. I’ve heard some science teachers complain that they have to spend valuable classroom time reviewing an unrelated field with their students right before FCAT time. For instance, a biology teacher might have to go over earth science material that was taught a few grades ago.
My final thought relates back to the earlier mention of poor science labs and kids thinking science is about memorizing facts. Science is about curiosity and exploration. It’s about methodical experimentation, which takes time and substantial effort to do right. It’s about getting out of the chair and poking and prodding things. I’m definitely not disparaging the other school subjects, but reading and writing and even math is typically done at a desk in silence. Schools need to understand that science is not like that. It should also be recognized that science knowledge might not be best measured with a pencil and little bubbles in a test booklet.
Simply devoting a few more minutes in the day to the science textbook isn’t going to raise science FCAT scores. To see science properly taught and learned, we have to link hands with the other subjects (mixing in some science with the reading, writing and math instruction and vice versa) while at the same time stepping outside of the commonly accepted bounds of the traditional classroom. Devoting more time to science education is good, but we also need to devote more thought to what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Only then will we see a significant change for the better.
Please feel free to leave your comments on why you think our science FCAT scores are so low. I’m interested in hearing what you have to say.