The state of Illinois said this week its public schools won’t administer the mandated science tests they have given in the past to students in fourth, seventh, and 11th grades this spring, because the tests are outdated and the state wants to try out a new set of science questions that focus on instruction of the future, Diane Rado writes in the Chicago Tribune.
Illinois, along with about a dozen other states, has already adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, and school officials say they need to move forward with those standards and ensure that enough good test questions are available when those standards are fully implemented. Giving students a test on the old science standards just doesn’t carry as much importance, because the old standards are being phased out over the next few years.
Unlike the other states, though, including Maryland, which are continuing with their old science tests during the transition, Illinois has decided to seek a waiver from the US Department of Education so that a science “field test,” to be given this spring, can count as an actual science test under federal law. Questions on the field test—and on future science tests—will be written to emphasize critical thinking and science literacy (reading, writing, and talking like a scientist).
Federal law requires schools to give a science test once to students in third through fifth grade, once to students in sixth through ninth grade, and once again to students in 10th through 12th grade.
So, the relevant question in Illinois is: Will a field test of brand new science test questions count toward complying with that federal law? That all depends on how ongoing negotiations between the state and federal government turn out.
“We haven’t been told that what we’re proposing would be illegal and that we’d be sanctioned,” the Tribune quoted State Superintendent Christopher A Koch as saying. “We’re still in discussions about it.”
A “field test” has to be given in order to certify the quality of a test before any questions actually contribute to students’ scores. Companies use data from a field test to try to determine which questions students understood, how hard those questions are for actual students, and which questions may have confused students.
Many schools in the state were cited to have already begun teaching students using the Next Generation Science Standards, but in the past, some national figures in education have expressed concern that instruction in science, or any subject, decreases if the state doesn’t give students a test on that subject every year.
That decrease, they fear, which would give teachers more time to spend on the tested subjects of reading and math, could then lead to near elimination of science from classrooms. The amount of time spent on science instruction is already dreadfully low in some elementary schools, and reducing it any further could narrow the overall curriculum.
“Shouldn’t these early grades be a time to discover, play, and explore?” asked Los Angeles art teacher Ginger Rose Fox on the website of the National Education Association, the country’s second-largest teachers’ union. “We talk all the time about making our kids ‘college and career ready,’ even at such a young age. Let’s make them ‘life ready’ first. But I guess that doesn’t fit into our testing obsession.”
This time around, however, educators from at least a few Illinois schools don’t seem to be worried about science dropping out of the curriculum just because a test isn’t given one year.
“Science is not taking a back seat in our district,” the Tribune quoted Michelle Fitzgerald, assistant superintendent for learning and teaching in Elmhurst’s School District 205, as saying.