Imagine you have to take a big state science test. It's full of questions about life science, earth science, physics and chemistry.

But wait — you haven't taken all those courses in high school yet.

That's what some high school students and younger kids, in Kern County and across the state, may face when they take the new online California Science Test for the first time this spring. It comes after the state passed new Next Generation Science Standards in 2013.

West High science teacher and department chairwoman Carrie Newman said one of the biggest challenges with the new assessment is it tests students in all the sciences. The Kern High School District requirement is only two years of science, so many students don't go on to take physics or chemistry.

“It’s a little troublesome because they’re taking a test on subjects most of them haven’t taken classes in,” Newman said. “It’s unfair to expect them to know everything.”

The district offers a freshman course providing an introduction to physical science that includes physics, chemistry and earth science, she said. In their sophomore year, students take a life science course such as biology.

However, she said, the class may not be enough for students who are taking the new test.

“We’re giving them the best advantage we can, but we can’t cover four years’ worth of standards in two years," Newman said.

Newman said KHSD is better off than some districts, which aren’t providing an introductory physical science course.

West High juniors and seniors took the test earlier this month, one of the first schools in the district to do so. KHSD is allowing schools to test students from 10th grade up.

Newman said another issue is while the Next Generation Science Standards were passed several years ago, the state Department of Education has not yet approved aligned textbooks and materials for high school students, leaving teachers to develop their own.

“It’s not hindering me too much not having (textbooks), but it does make teachers wonder if we’re doing things the right way. We don’t have a lot of examples to draw from,” she said. “It’s been kind of difficult, but we’re doing our best.”

KHSD Science Specialist Kristen Urquidez acknowledged the lack of textbooks, but said with the new standards, textbook learning isn’t as prevalent.

“While it’s great as a tool and resource, it’s not really driving instruction,” she said. “Rather than doing stuff out of textbooks, students are doing more labs and other hands-on activities.”

‘Controlled chaos’

Most Kern County high schools began implementing the science standards over the past few years, bringing a significant shift in how the subject is taught.

The new standards take learning beyond simply recalling information by focusing more on applying what's learned and engaging in actual science.

“It’s much more focused on students curating their own learning, with the teachers serving as facilitators and guides,” said Anthony Richardson, instructional specialist for curriculum and instruction for the Bakersfield City School District, which will have fifth- and eighth-graders take the test in April.

“It gives students the ability to be creative, to do things outside the box,” said Rachelle Montoya, director of curriculum and instruction for BCSD. “They’re learning by doing.”

Students will no longer take a multiple choice, paper-and-pencil test. Instead, it will be a computer-based test that is more focused on open-ended questions that measure students’ critical thinking skills.

The California Science Test is comprehensive. In years past, students took a test that would cover what they learned in whatever particular science class they were taking that year.

Now, it’s more focused on how much science they’ve learned throughout their high school career.

“I think a lot of our teachers are embracing the fact that students are actually doing science,” Urquidez said. “Sometimes that transition is uncomfortable, because teachers are letting go of some of the control they used to have, but it seems like they’ve come to terms with that controlled chaos.”

Growing pains

Urquidez said she believes the new hands-on approach makes classes more engaging for the students, which she hopes will be reflected in the test scores.

Newman is a little less optimistic.

“Many of the students were apprehensive heading into the testing,” Newman said. “The testing is probably not going to be super great. I think it will be hindered until more students take these other courses.”

Newman said one solution could be to raise the KHSD science requirement to three years, which is recommended and sometimes required for students who want to go on to a university.

Urquidez said for KHSD, the expectations for the first couple of years of the science test are not very high. It will take time for students to adjust.

“We know the first couple years are going to be a lot of reflection for us,” she said. ”I think at the district, we’re very prepared to make changes after seeing this first year of data.”

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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