Feds may set back science education in California

The Modesto Bee

The latest spat over student testing boils down to this: California wants fourth-graders to understand how using different energy sources affects the environment. The federal government wants to know how many can screw in a light bulb.

If federal officials have their way, science students who spend their school year learning one thing (i.e., how pollution from fossil fuels creates smog) would take a year-end test based on something entirely different (like the basics of electrical circuits).

Welcome to Washington, D.C.’s through-the-looking-glass approach to student testing, where the priority is giving a test – any test – even if the exam bears little resemblance to what’s being taught in classrooms.

How did we get here? Like many other states, California recently adopted new learning goals for science, replacing standards that were nearly 20 years old. Known as the Next Generation Science Standards, they call for students to learn to think and work like scientists and engineers – asking lots of questions, and learning through hands-on investigation and discovery.

Working with science teachers, California is developing a new test to match the new standards, which place a new emphasis on scientific thinking and reasoning. A statewide pilot of the test will be given this spring to all students in grades 5 and 8, and in one grade at every high school.

But creating a new test takes time, and the new exam will not be ready for full-scale use until the spring of 2019. In the meantime, California is seeking a waiver of federal regulations so that students will not have to take both the old science test and the new pilot.

So far, federal officials have turned them down. That’s the wrong call, one that threatens to let the testing tail wag the learning dog.

Statewide tests don’t just measure student performance – they also serve as a powerful signal of the state’s learning goals to teachers and schools. The way we measure what students know and can do has a profound effect on what happens in the classroom. By putting its focus on the new pilot test, California is encouraging every school to embrace and implement the new science standards.

California’s science teachers are deeply involved in developing these new tests, from writing and reviewing potential test questions to ensuring the assessment reliably measures student performance. Their input helps ensure the quality of the new test and also helps them incorporate the new science standards into their daily classroom teaching.

Taking the old science tests off the shelf at this point would only serve as a distraction from that work, while telling us little if anything about student achievement.

We’ve been through this before. California ran into the same kind of opposition from the federal government over its new mathematics and reading tests several years ago. The state stood its ground, and eventually the federal government dropped its threat to withhold education funding as punishment.

Since then, the state has built a proven track record of bringing new tests on line. With more students and more schools than any other state, implementing new assessments in California is a complex process. By taking a deliberate approach to expanding and improving its testing system, California avoided the mishaps faced by other states.

It only makes sense to do the same when it comes to science. Statewide assessments are valuable because they represent a common yardstick – a way to measure the progress of all students at the same time in the same way.

But even the most useful tools need to be replaced when they stop working. There’s still time for the federal Department of Education to see the light and grant California’s request. Let’s hope they do.

After all, a burned-out bulb won’t light up a room, no matter how long we require students to go on flipping the switch.

Paul Hefner is a communications and education consultant based in Sacramento. Contact him at