Monday, November 21, 2011

Science: The Forgotten MCAS Subject Test

A recently released study completed in California found that the state is failing to provide high quality science instruction to its elementary school students.

After surveying teachers, principals and district administrators in 300 public schools, the study found that only 10% of elementary students regularly experienced hands-on science practices. Additionally, it found that elementary school teachers in California spent 60 minutes or less each week (compared to the recommended 90 to 135 minutes) teaching science. Reasons cited for the poor quality of elementary science programs included a lack of funds for supplies, inadequate teacher training in this particular subject area, and the intense focus on improving math and English Language Arts (ELA) scores.

California is not the only state in which public schools seem to be focusing on math and English language almost to the exclusion of other subjects like science and social studies. There are some elementary schools in Lynn, MA where students only engage in social studies related activities for approximately 100 minutes per week and science for 180 minutes but math for 425 minutes and ELA for 450 minutes. Some may blame teachers while others focus on the testing mandates put in place by the No Child Left Behind legislation. Either way, there are whole subject areas in which our youngest students are not receiving adequate instruction time. 

In Massachusetts, in addition to taking math and ELA MCAS tests in grades 3 - 8 and 10, students also take a science subject test in grades 5, 8 and 10. Making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), however, is solely dependent on a school or district's math and ELA scores. As a result, there seems to be less focus on the science MCAS when test results are released in September. In fact, increases or decreases in test scores are almost exclusively discussed in terms of how schools performed on the two "major" subject areas. This article about the Lynn Public Schools' performance on the 2011 MCAS tests only briefly mentions the science tests that students are required to take:

So how are elementary students in Lynn faring on the science MCAS test? Overall, 27% of 5th graders in Lynn scored proficient or better on the science MCAS while 47% scored in the "Needs Improvement" range and 26% in the "Warning/Failing" range. For a comparison, these numbers for Massachusetts as a whole were: 50% proficient or advanced, 36% "Needs Improvement," and 14% "Warning/Failing." Below is the percentage of students who scored proficient or better on the 2011 science exam by individual elementary school.

Lynn Woods
Sewell Anderson

Here we see that proficiency rates vary across the Lynn school district. Some schools like Connery and Lynn Woods seem to be struggling in science education while others like Lincoln-Thomson, which uses a very specific science curriculum, are performing much better. Science-related test scores at the middle school and secondary levels are not much better as only 18% of 8th graders scored proficient of better on the 2011 MCAS while less than half (47%) of 10th graders were proficient in science in 2011.

While math and ELA are important subjects, students also need to learn social studies and science, among other subjects, as well. It is also important to note that literacy, writing, and math can and should be incorporated into all subject areas such that students learn to utilize certain skills in a variety of ways. For example, math could be taught as an individual subject but could also be taught in science class in terms of using calculations for experiments. Writing and reading comprehension skills can be taught and/or reinforced during a history lesson. So, while ELA and math are important, coming up with creative ways to incorporate skills and lessons taught in these subjects into other areas may be important to ensure that Lynn (and other) students are receiving a well-rounded education.

[Editor's Note 11/22]: Lynn Woods teacher Mrs. Kennedy noted that when looking at these scores one should consider the schools demographics in terms of general education and special education classes. She explained that Lynn Woods has one special ed and one general ed class in the 4th and 5th grades while Lincoln-Thomson has all general ed classes in both grades. So while both schools (LW and L-T) use the same science curriculum, Lincoln-Thomson seems more apt to perform better overall on these standardized tests. While I still assert that Lynn students need a well-rounded education that includes science, children in the city may not be receiving "inadequate" science instruction as indicated by the test scores above. In addition to quality instruction time, there are certainly other factors at play (learning disabilities, psychological factors, motivation, etc.) which ultimately affect students' test scores.

*All Data Taken From:


  1. Just a note to let you know that Lynn Woods and Lincoln Thompson have the very same science curriculum. The difference is that LT has two regular education classrooms in grades 4 and 5 and LW has one regular ed and one special education classroom in grades 4 and 5. If you would like to see science at work in my fifth grade classroom check out my school blog: If you look under pictures you can see much evidence of all of the science lessons we did.

  2. Thanks for the note - it's important to take into consideration factors like the combination of gen ed and special ed classes when looking at things like test scores which doesn't always happen; Ill make an edit to include this information. I'll also check out your blog, thanks again!