Winter’s Tale

Post by SEN

My fourth grade students tromp into class each January morning wearing down jackets, scarves, baseball caps, nylon basketball shorts, and tennies, or better yet, flip-flops. The conglomeration of clothes is my fourth graders’ way of high-fashion dress, a nod to freezing winter temperatures and a nod to California sunshine.

California Bay Area elementary school

California Bay Area elementary school

On the other hand, my students are serious learners. On return to school after New Year’s, we began a science unit on classification of animals and plants. They learn fast, hold facts in their brains, and are quick to apply what they know.

On the study question that asked students to classify creatures in a photo as omnivores (plant and meat eaters) or herbivores (plant eaters) and give reasons, most students claimed bacteria were omnivores while the teacher’s manual said bacteria were herbivores. However, the students claimed they were correct because scientists have learned that many bacteria digest anything. How do they know? These children watched a lot of media coverage about the gulf oil spill, especially when the reports talked about petroleum-eating bacteria.

What does any highly qualified teacher do? I analyzed the data. It turns out those students were generally correct, but they had not read the question carefully.

The students certainly knew about omnivores and herbivores and didn’t need to have a review lesson on that scientific topic. If I had given points only by counting correct answers, I would never know that these smart students needed more instruction on the study skill of reading the question carefully before deciding on an answer.

The more I read about the poor scores of students in the United States on summative tests like the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the more I shake my head. Recent NAEP science test results reported that only 34% of a sampling of 308,000 fourth graders were proficient. The test was given to schools nation-wide in early 2009.

Statistical array results can bring up a lot of questions. Teachers aren’t teaching enough science because the focus is on reading/language arts and math? Science instruction is given short shrift because the teaching/learning day isn’t long enough? Public school budget crises divert attention from student academic achievement? Professional development isn’t emphasized unless the topic is reading and math?

Or all of the above? Education experts arguing about reform often use the results from NAEP tests to bolster any and all of the positions listed above.

Still, at my school for my class of students in 2011, the answer is none of the above. Above all, we do have the resources to analyze data. So here is the conundrum. Our school district does not volunteer to give the NAEP assessment. But how many of my kids would have proficient scores on that exam? I think almost all of them.

The scores, however, would not tell me which students needed more help with the study skill of reading the question carefully. To be proficient in high school and college, students need that skill, not only science facts.

What the NAEP results do tell me is that one time scores give a glimpse of science learning in the country’s schools, but what teachers need is collaborative time to analyze results and make instructional decisions that address student needs at a particular school.

And remember, they’re only in fourth grade. Minus jackets and mufflers, they’ve run outside to play soccer at recess in the California sun.

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2 Responses to “Winter’s Tale”

  1. Natalie Berkowitz says:

    I am confused: What part of reading question incorrectly did students perform? Were bacteria NOT in picture?
    If you were using a ‘teachers’ manual for correct answers, that is on the fault of the teacher for a few reasons (1) teachers manuals are notoriously out of date….science moves much faster than text book adoptions (2) The fact checkers for text books are ‘paid’ which means there is an inherent risk the checker is looking for what the publisher wants covered (also known as teaching to the test) (3) It is important for teachers teaching science to have the actual science background where they can answer the question themselves as opposed to relying on what the textbook maker manufactures. By all accounts, evolution DOES NOT occur in Texas…..go figure.
    Public schools in CA can not opt out of NAEP if they are selected – parents can opt out of their child taking the test individually.
    On a science note, herbivore, meaning plant eating, means bacteria have the capacity to digest carbohydrates and some plant fats. Omnivore means the organism, in this case bacteria, has the capacity to to digest carbohydrates, plant fats, proteins (what higher order animals and some plants contain) and animal fats. The bigger issue is understanding the classification of what allows an organism to ‘digest’ anything and it is the enzymes (proteins) the organism uses to break down the various structures.
    Students being generally correct indicates the students were on the right track yet lacked the actual conceptual knowledge to process the question. Superficially the question is a sorting question, which is lower level, with analysis on top to delineate the sorting process.
    Not only do teachers need collaborative time to create lessons better than what textbooks and pre-packed kits provide (Ex: FOSS), teachers need tougher requirements in studying science themselves. According to our friends at Harvard and The Smithsonian Institution, a poorly trained teacher in science passes on misconceptions which are difficult to eradicate.
    (In this case, see the one on photosynthesis). I commend you for taking the time to read the data released by NAEP and I encourage you to find out more about the science you teach – above and beyond what the text book publishers want ‘you and your students to know’ which is a rather limited amount of information.
    Talking about a ‘qualified’ teacher means a teacher who jumped through various hoops and climbed hurdles (NCLB) rather than meaning subject matter competency and ability.

  2. CJN says:

    Thank you for the comments. In the case of the students who knew more than the question was asking–merely to recall what the science text had said–it became clear that the study skill of reading the question carefully (taught and retaught in fourth grade) had not been practiced.
    There are so many California standards to cover for fourth grade science that teachers have difficulty being experts in every single aspect of the curriculum. FOSS kits, collaborative time to analyze data, grouping students with the most expert teacher for a specific topic are all ways to avoid relying solely on the publisher’s text chosen by the district.
    As for the main point of the post, tests like the 2009 science NAEP tell those interested in improving student achievement that the students in the volunteer sample did poorly two years ago. The analysis did not explain all the reasons why students made errors. Perhaps one must dig way down into the report to find that information.