Students in Georgia Siannas’ fifth-grade science class at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School get 100 minutes per day of science, more than any other school in the Chicago region. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune)
Three years after Illinois made a bold change in how science would be taught and tested, little is known about how students have performed because neither schools nor families have seen state science exam scores since 2013-14.
Whether supported or maligned, state testing gives important information to schools and families about what students know in reading, math and science, and achievement results have been released continuously in reading and math.
But the delay in science scores — blamed largely on state budget woes — is unusual and problematic, given that federal law requires states to administer science exams at least three times from grade school through high school and make the results public.
There were no scores in 2015 because the Illinois State Board of Education didn’t give a state science exam, getting into hot water with the U.S. Department of Education. At the time, the state argued it shouldn’t give an old exam based on outdated standards for what students should know in science. For years, students took the state science exam in 4th, 7th and 11th grade grades.
Illinois adopted the updated Next Generation Science Standards in 2014, but a new state exam had not been created by 2015 testing time.
In spring 2016, the state administered a new science exam called the Illinois Science Assessment to 5th and 8th graders and to high school students taking biology. But scores have yet to be released for the 2016 exam, and by now, students have taken the spring 2017 science exam.
"How could schools have tested in 2017 and not have gotten 2016 results? It is kind of crazy," said Carol Baker, a longtime science educator who helped write the new state standards in science. She’s now a grade school superintendent in west Cook County.
State officials acknowledged science testing and scoring has not gone smoothly.
"The timeline for scoring the ISA has been less than ideal. We deeply appreciate all of Illinois’ educators and administrators for working hard to administer the ISA. We hear and understand their frustration with the delay," ISBE spokewoman Jackie Matthews said in response to written questions from the Tribune.
The agency has partnered with Southern Illinois University Carbondale to do the scoring, and the university is about one-third of the way through scoring the 2016 state science exams, according to Matthews. Those scores are expected to be released to districts this summer, and the 2017 scores in the fall.
"Uncertainty about state funding delayed ISBE’s ability to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with SIU Carbondale to begin scoring the ISA. The delay was the result of Illinois’ lack of a state budget and not of the process, nor of the scoring partner," Matthews said.
Baker said the delay in getting scores affects everything from curriculum planning at school to input at home about how students are achieving in science. In addition to providing individual student scores to parents, the statewide exam gives context to the public on how students are faring statewide, in districts and at local schools.
Baker said the state’s budget crises delayed the start of scoring, and testing officials had to undergo the time consuming and complicated process of setting "cut" scores that determine if a student essentially passes or fails the exam.
But Baker said the situation is not all bad. Without a state science exam in 2015, for example, teachers got the chance to train in the new science standards without the pressure of a statewide exam. And teachers have been incorporating the new standards in their instruction.
Next Generation Science Standards move away from memorizing science facts and toward analysis in key areas of science and engineering.
"One of the good things is that NGSS has really lit a fire in the science community," Baker said. "Most schools, most teachers, are working hard to implement NGSS — not because they have to, but because they want to. It is good instructional practice. It is good teaching and learning."
The state board of education keeps track of how much instruction time is spent in math, English, science and social sciences in grades 3, 6 and 8, and statewide data in 2016 show science instruction minutes on average rose to the highest in 15 years.
Third grade instruction in science rose to to an average of 34 minutes per day; 6th grade minutes went up to 48, and 8th grade minutes to 50. Science has usually trailed math and English in terms of instruction minutes, and has been about equal to minutes spent on social sciences.
Chicago Public School’s McAuliffe Elementary School in 2016 had the highest number of instruction minutes in science in the Chicago area and the second most in the state. In 3rd, 6th and 8th grades, students at McAuliffe averaged 100 minutes of science instruction per day. That’s double to triple the state averages.
The largely Hispanic school in the Logan Square and Hermosa neighborhoods focuses on science, technology, engineering, math and and the arts, and is named after teacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who died along with six other crew members in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
McAuliffe Principal Ryan Belville said while the school has not received state exam science scores, it does do local science testing to measure students’ progress in the subject, and teachers have incorporated the new science standards into the curriculum.
Last week, 5th graders in teacher Georgia Siannas’ midmorning science class did hands-on work in establishing how leaves lose their green hue and turn into different colors in the fall.
"I’m a facilitator. I’ll provide an example, but the rest is up to them," said Siannas, who walked through the classroom watching groups of students working together.
The current Illinois Science Assessment was put together by using test questions from the Washington, D.C., school district, a process that was not ideal because Illinois was under pressure from the federal government to give a science exam in 2016 after missing the science test in 2015. "ISBE created the ISA under significant budget constraints," Matthews said.
In addition, Baker said some high school administrators were not happy with the biology-related state science exam for a variety reasons, including that other key science areas were not tested, such as chemistry and physics.
"Despite our successes, we know we have room to improve and are committed to continuing to listen to the field to make each administration of ISA smoother," Matthews said.
ISBE and SIU plan to work with science experts and educators to create new test items, she said, but, "Expanding on the scope and content of the ISA will require a budgetary investment from Illinois lawmakers."