Newark Public Schools seeks to improve science scores with renewed emphasis on state standards

Two young female students with long, dark hair stand at a wooden desk working on a school project. There are two students in the background.
Newark Public Schools will reinforce New Jersey science standards and emphasize real-world applications in a plan aimed at improving student performance in the subject. (Allison Shelley/EDU Images, All4Ed)

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Newark Public Schools says it has developed a plan to improve student achievement in science after spring state test scores showed students performed below the state average for a second year in a row.

Officials didn’t provide details of the plan, but the district’s director of science education, Kathleen Tierney, suggested it would involve reinforcing a key element of state standards that call for three-dimensional learning, an approach to teaching science that supports students’ understanding of science content and its application to the real world.

The plan comes three years after the state adopted new science learning standards, including a requirement for climate change education across multiple grades and subjects.

Results of this year’s New Jersey Learning Assessment show Newark students continue to need academic support in English language arts, math, and science to recover from the pandemic. The state science test is given to students in fifth, eighth, and 11th grades. This year, 11th graders had the highest proficiency rate, and eighth graders the lowest.

Most Newark students saw small gains on this year’s state science test but continued to perform below the state’s average. Overall, nearly 8% of students demonstrated proficiency on the tests, a roughly one-percentage-point increase from last year. Across the state, roughly 25% of students passed this year’s science test.

To improve student performance, students have to make science connections to the real world, said Janice McDonnell, a science, engineering, and technology agent for the Department of 4-H Youth Development at Rutgers University. That means teachers have to find a way to blend key ideas so students can apply them in their daily lives.

“We just came out of COVID. where everyone had to learn how to interpret graphs and charts and trends,” McDonnell said. “Now we’re focusing on climate change education and questioning things like if it’s better to have an electric car or natural gas car. All of those things tie back to your understanding of science and the impact of science.”

Plan focuses on ‘three dimensional learning’ and applied science

At a school board committee meeting last month, Tierney said the district’s plan focuses on emphasizing three-dimensional learning, a reference to New Jersey state science standards that are expressed as “three dimensions”: disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts.

That means showing students how scientists develop theories and models based on core ideas, how engineers investigate data and identify patterns, and how both use these skills to create explanations and solutions to real world problems.

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The standards call for integrating the three dimensions into science instruction and creating assessments to gauge how well students understand and apply them. The standards were developed to provide flexibility in the way that students can show proficiency in the subject, according to the state. McDonnell describes the approach as a braided cord.

The state’s standardized tests require students to show that they understand core concepts and practices and can identify patterns in the real world to apply what they learned in the classroom. But Newark’s public schools have faced challenges in securing school science facilities and equipment that create opportunities for hands-on learning.

A 2010 report found that Newark’s “K-8 teachers are attempting to teach science without basic equipment such as faucets and sinks, lab tables, microscopes, and balances.” The report also said the district’s magnet high schools had better science facilities than its comprehensive high schools.

Since then, the district has worked with the city and the nonprofit Students 2 Science to create virtual science labs for more hands-on learning. It also uses the Inspire Science curriculum for elementary students, which uses a framework known to support in-depth, collaborative, evidence-based, and project-based learning opportunities.

For middle school students, the district uses IQWST, which stands for “investigating and questioning our world through science and technology,” a curriculum that aims to support the real-world applications of science.

At November’s committee meeting, Tierney also stressed the importance of three-dimensional teaching and said teachers would get resources to help with the lessons. But the district did not say what resources or support they would receive.

Even for students who are not interested in pursuing a career in science, it’s “more important than ever” to ensure they understand these ideas because of the “grand challenges that we’re facing,” McDonnell said.

“Always answering the ‘Why should I care about this?’ is really important, because they are kids,” McDonnell said.

In 2020, the state became the first in the country to adopt standards requiring K-12 public schools to teach about climate change across grade levels and in nearly all subjects. The requirement challenges students to think critically and broadly about the effects of climate.

McDonnell also says ideas such as how we use our land and how we fuel our cars are key in helping students apply real world challenges to their science education in schools.

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Newark students need academic support in science, too

The state science assessments, given three grades apart, each cover several years of science education, not just what a student learned during the year they take the test.

Since remote learning caused by pandemic disruptions impeded students’ academic progress, school districts are paying more attention to state tests and using them as a measure to gauge recovery.

Trends in this year’s science scores are in line with results in English language arts and math that show students’ slow academic recovery after the pandemic.

According to state data, 13% of Newark Public Schools’ 11th graders met proficiency standards on the science test this year, a slight improvement from results in spring 2019, when 10.7% met the standards. For fifth graders, the proficiency rate was 7%, down from 10.3% in 2019. Among eighth graders, the proficiency rate was roughly 4%, even with 2019.

Students with disabilities and English language learners scored the lowest and continue to need the most support.

The Newark district also uses curriculum and benchmark assessments as well as grades as an indicator of students’ progress.

Tierney told board members last month that the district’s Office of Science developed benchmark assessments for grades 2-11 that include biology, chemistry, and physics.

The data gathered from those assessments will be used to inform teachers, schools, and, ultimately, the district’s science strategy, Tierney said.

Ultimately, McDonnell said, it’s important for students to think critically about the application of science in their lives and build their knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and math so they feel confident making decisions about their environment and future.

“You don’t have to be a scientist to vote and be engaged in these kinds of conversations about climate change and how we use our resources,” McDonnell said.

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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