Elementary students work through a science activity. (Photo by Carolyn Jones/EdSource)

At a time when California is placing a greater emphasis on science education, most students did not score at a proficient level on the state’s new science test, with scores especially low among several student groups.

The results of the test were released this week. They represent the first scores on the California Science Test, a new test developed by the California Department of Education, to measure progress on the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by California in 2013.

Statewide, 32 percent of fifth-graders, 31 percent of eighth-graders and 28 percent of high school students met or exceeded standards on the California science test aligned to the new standards.

The scores also show a wide gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers: Across all grades, 14 percent of black students and 19 percent of Latino students met or exceeded standards, compared with 44 percent of white students and 59 percent of Asian students.

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The portion of students who met or exceeded standards was also strikingly low among English learners (3 percent), special education students (8 percent) and low-income students (19 percent).

“Getting it right takes time and funding,” said Shawna Metcalf, president of the California Science Teachers Association. “The California Next Generation Science Standards were adopted six years ago without being properly funded by the state,” referring to how state officials have not dedicated any dollars to specifically fund new science standards implementation.

California is undergoing a major transformation in the way it teaches science in order to prepare more students for college and careers in science, technology, mathematics and engineering, or STEM, as well as to broaden all students’ scientific understanding. In 2013, the state adopted the Next Generation Science Standards to replace the old standards put in place in 1998. In 2016, the State Board of Education released a curriculum framework to help guide teachers with implementation.

“What really stood out to me as I dove more deeply into the scores was just continuing to see the distressing gaps between student groups,” said Jessica Sawko, associate director of the California STEM Network, a Project of Children Now, an advocacy organization based in Oakland. “There are so many efforts underway to diversity our STEM workforce; the pipeline really begins at K-12 and we need to improve these opportunities.” Sawko was previously executive director of the California Science Teachers Association.

“These scores confirm trends we see in other data and the other state tests,” said Christopher Nellum, deputy director of research and policy at the Education Trust-West, a civil rights and education equity research and advocacy organization. “For us, it underscores that the education systems are failing African American, Latinx, English learners and low-income students. And because of that we aren’t meeting the state science standards.”

The new standards require a significant shift in the way science is taught. Instead of memorizing facts and terms, the Next Generation Science Standards emphasize hands-on science projects that require students to investigate, collect and use data, and give evidence-based explanations for what they discover.

The new standards also integrate several scientific disciplines and encourage teachers to base lessons on students’ questions and scientific experiences they might encounter in their everyday lives, such as local wildlife or nearby energy resources.

Likewise, the new computer-based science test differs dramatically from the previous science test. In addition to new content in areas such as climate change, students are asked on the new test to analyze data and explain their reasoning.

“A lot of the performance tasks on the test rely heavily on literacy skills,” said Brenda Tuohy, STEM director for Oakland Unified. “Students have to be able to obtain information and construct an argument, so the new test is much more demanding in terms of language.”

The first year of scores for the new science test are comparable to first-year scores for the Smarter Balanced math test. In 2015, the first year students took Smarter Balanced tests that are aligned to the Common Core math standards, 33 percent of California students met or exceeded standards. Those tests also show a wide disparity among ethnic and racial groups, often referred to as the achievement gap.

Because this is the first year the new test was administered, it is impossible to know how student performance compares with previous years.

But experts are still concerned with what they view as a troubling trend line. “Sure this is the first year of these scores but we are seeing wide achievement gaps for quite some time, and the science scores confirm what we have been seeing,” said Nellum.

The science test is administered to fifth- and eighth-grade students and once in high school beginning in 10th grade. The test focuses on three science areas: Earth and Space Sciences, Life Sciences and Physical Sciences.

The test consists of multiple choice questions and performance tasks that require students to solve a series of related questions and explain how they arrived at their answers.

A number of hurdles, such as some districts’ delay in adopting textbooks and a shortage of qualified science teachers across the state, have caused many schools to struggle as they implement the new standards. Nearly five years after adopting the standards, state officials approved a list of science materials in the fall of 2018, giving districts little time to vet and choose textbooks before the testing period started in spring of 2019.

Some districts have started or even completed the textbook adoption process. But many have not and are still struggling to teach science with materials aligned to the previous standards. As a result, some teachers have held off on implementing the new standards and their students continue to learn the old science standards from outdated textbooks.

The challenge is particularly difficult at the high school level because few textbooks that align to the new standards are on the market yet. Many high schools are also navigating how to best change their course sequences and graduation requirements to better meet the standards.

“Unfortunately, without the proper funding for new instructional materials and resources, the implementation of CA NGSS has been inconsistent throughout the state,” Metcalf said.

Persistent gaps in access to science courses and materials can lead to large differences to science learning opportunities and outcomes. “We are not surprised that scores on the science assessment show similar gaps between student populations to the (English language arts) and math assessments,” she said, referring the Smarter Balanced assessments students must also take each spring.

Adding to the list of challenges is a shortage of highly qualified teachers in California, especially in science. Across all scientific disciplines, the number of teaching credentials issued decreased by nearly 9 percent between 2013-14 and 2017-18, according to data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Fremont High School in Oakland Unified did not have a physics teacher for three years, Tuohy said, until a math teacher stepped up to get an additional credential to teach the subject this year. “A lot of our students don’t have access to (physics),” she said. “There are a number of factors why, and finding qualified teachers is a big one.”

The shortage of science teachers is especially acute in rural schools, as well as schools that serve high proportions of low-income students and schools where the majority of students are black or Latino, according to a 2018 report from the Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based education research organization.

“I went to a school that didn’t have the best-credentialed teachers or availability of classes and it matters because it’s hard to catch up later,” Nellum said. “We want parents to think about how their kids have access to courses so they have the foundation to be eligible for higher education.”

This year Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing to allocate nearly $1 billion to recruit, train and retain teachers in critically understaffed areas, including science, math and special education.

The scores are intended to measure how well a school is implementing the new standards, and education officials warn against comparing scores against the previous exam, which was aligned to the old standards.

The scores will matter to parents, too. Many schools and districts won’t use the scores for placement into science courses, but they are able to. State officials advise “schools should not use these results as the sole measure to place students in any advanced science courses or pathways,” said Scott Roark, a spokesman for the California Department of Education.

Parents can find tips for interpreting and understanding their child’s scores, as well as sample test questions, here.

“Innovation is in this state’s DNA,” Nellum said. “There has to be a path forward, and it needs to happen faster than it’s happening now.”

Story originally published by EdSource.