Science Education Changing as Statewide Test Looms


Results likely to count toward school ratings this year

Science savvy? Test your science knowledge by taking these science TAKS test:

Interactive 5th grade science test;
Interactive 11th grade science test

By Michelle M. Martinez
Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Last week, Jazmonique Williams and Kourtni Dean used a triple beam balance to measure the mass of a comb, while their classmates measured the volume of water using graduated cylinders.

The assignment isn’t unusual for middle and high school science students, but Williams and her classmates are in the fourth grade at Norman Elementary School. They are among a growing number of Austin students learning they don’t have to just read about science; they can do it.

“Traditionally, science has been out of a textbook,” Norman Principal Cornel Jones said. “Children read so many pages, and there are questions at the end.”

School officials say science instruction is changing with the pressure of the mandatory state achievement test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Science test results could count toward the grade each school gets from the state — the so-called accountability rating — as early as this spring. Students in grades five, 10 and 11 will take the test this year. State officials expect to issue accountability ratings in September.

Irene Pickhardt, assistant director of science for the Texas Education Agency, said that science test results must figure into the state rating by 2005.

In the Austin district, 70 percent of fifth-graders passed the science test the first time it was given last spring. Statewide, 75 percent passed. At Norman, 41 percent passed. More than 90 percent of the East Austin school’s students come from poor families.

Pickhardt said it is extremely likely that results of this spring’s science test will count, but “the final decision has yet to be made.”

After years of focusing on reading, writing and math, school districts are stocking their elementary classrooms with science equipment and developing science training programs for teachers. University officials are revising science instruction for people preparing for teaching careers.

Austin teachers have had access to kits that contain materials needed for science experiments since 1969, but how often they used them varied from class to class, said Sharon McIlroy, academic supervisor for science for the Austin school district.

Science labs such as Norman Elementary’s are popping up at elementary schools across the state, according to the Texas Education Agency.

School officials opened the science lab in October for all students, and pupils visit it once a week. Wednesday, pupils learned how to measure using graduated cylinders and triple beam balances, scales that measure an object’s mass.

“I like to come here because we get to do neat things with the scales, ” Williams said.

Officials at other elementary schools are also moving toward more hands-on instruction, said Chris Castillo-Comer, director of science at the Texas Education Agency.

“I’ve gotten so many calls from science (equipment) vendors,” she said. “They are saying, ‘Chris, what is happening across the state? We can’t keep up with the orders coming in from schools.’ ”

Holly Ahern, regional sales manager for Sargent-Welch, a distributor of science education equipment, has seen the difference. Ahern said she recently took a $90,000 order from the Dallas school district for elementary school supplies after not receiving any order from the district last year.

At Pillow Elementary School in Austin, where 93 percent of fifth-graders passed the science test last spring, students rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty. Candy Ellard’s fifth-grade class created a stream bed out of sand, poured water into it and recorded their observations. Their goal? To determine how much water land absorbs.

Ellard is the only fifth-grade science teacher at the North Austin school, where about half of the students come from poor families. She coordinated the Young Scientists program at Barrington Elementary School for seven years and teaches science and writing.

“What I have a hard time convincing people is you can get students to read and write by doing science, ” Ellard said.

Teachers often feel intimidated by science, some educators say, because they don’t have enough training. Kamil Jbeily, director of the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science Teaching at the University of Texas, said many of the state’s approximately 125,000 elementary school teachers do not have training to meet today’s standards.

“The majority of teachers that graduated from college, for a really long time, really lacked the science content knowledge in their teacher preparation,” Jbeily said.

Universities are revising their curriculum to better prepare elementary teachers to teach science, he said. Meanwhile, school and state officials must provide training for teachers who need help.

The Texas Education Agency hired Jbeily to create a program to provide science training to elementary teachers in Texas. The agency has earmarked $1.6 million to be spent over two years to create 20 academies throughout the state.

In the Austin school district, teachers are being trained to present week long science camps for students.

Over the years, McIlroy said, pockets of elementary teachers have consistently taught science hands-on, but many have worried more about reading, writing and math.

“I’m glad that we have science accountability now, and I am just hopeful that everybody is paying attention, ” McIlroy said.; 512-445-3633