10 Ways to Improve Scores on High Stakes Science Tests

The NCLB (No Child Left Behind) law mandates that schools must administer annual tests in science achievement at least once in Grades 3–5, 6–9, and 10–12. Current U. S. Department of Education guidelines do not count science test scores as part of the Annual Yearly Progress calculations, so science is not in the limelight like math and reading. A recent survey done by NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) asked members if they thought science should be counted towards AYP. They found that 63% of the 600 people who responded are in favor of counting the science tests in AYP. Reasons in favor ranged from “otherwise why test and gather data?” to “science is the language of life”, while others called for adding science to AYP in “hope of raising its importance” among educators, parents and students. Those who oppose stated the same thing from a different view saying “inadequate resources are devoted to science, making the testing unfair.” In September President Obama unveiled a sweeping plan to give states some flexibility under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law. It is yet to be determined how this will affect science testing in each state. Until we know exactly how this will play out in each state, high stakes test in science are still being given. I have suggested my top ten ways to improve these test scores.

  1. Teach Science: Good instruction is the best test prep! On September 19, 2011, in Philadelphia, at a symposium presented at Drexel University called “STEM Smart: Lessons Learned from Successful Schools” (a national report of best practices in K-12 STEM education) this conclusion was cited: Give students time in science class. We can’t get high scores on science tests from students whose classroom instruction time has been shortened to find more time for other subjects.
  2. Teach Science the way it is supposed to be taught (hands-on inquiry) based with students recording their work in science notebooks and using science process skills of observation, data collection, inference, prediction, communicating. Encourage students to get involved in science fairs. A science fair project deepens a student’s knowledge of science process skills and gives students practice in writing and reasoning about science. This will give students an advantage when it comes to the “open ended” questions that occur on some tests.
  3. Utilize multiple opportunities to construct use and analyze charts and graphs. Most standardized science tests consist in large part of chart-reading activities. Ask students to read the question before studying the graph. Study the graph. Have them ask: What is the purpose of the graph? Have them read the title of the graph. What information is going to be presented? Have students ask this question: What data is represented on the x and y coordinates? Have students gather data from experiments and construct their own graphs. All of these questions and activities will help students when taking standardized tests.
  4. Multiple opportunities to analyze graphics accompanying questions. Many science questions are accompanied by graphics of some type. Be sure to students are aware that the graphics are there for a reason. Have students look at the pictures on a particular page in their textbook and have them rewrite the captions using their own descriptive words. This will give them practice in focusing on the illustrations that accompany some test questions.
  5. Multiple opportunities to “draw conclusions” based on inference. Many science test questions ask for students to make conclusions based on the evidence given in the question. Successful test takers in science make guesses based on what they read and what they already know. If students are collecting data as they do science activities and experiments, they will get practice in drawing conclusions based on data.
  6. Multiple opportunities to practice questions that LOOK LIKE the standardized test from your state. Use the column format that is used for the multiple choice and use the open-ended format that looks similar to the real test. Look on the Department of Education website for your state and find sample tests. These usually look like the real thing. Even use similar font when you construct your practice test. In Pennsylvania for instance the font is Palatino. Some textbook publishers have already researched this. Holt for instance, has something called the One Step Planner®. This is a test-generating program that gives the teacher a choice of formats, and one choice is to format a test that looks like your particular state test. Not all states are represented, but they are constantly upgrading their services.
  7. Take test in the room where science instruction has taken place with the teacher who teaches science. Some research has shown this can increase score slightly.  Students might remember learning science in the science room.
  8. Institute a “Question of the day” rather than a test prep class or session. Use questions from released tests as practice for your students, starting the class with one of the questions daily. Science teachers can assist their students in preparing for high-stakes tests by integrating test practice into their lessons throughout the school year. If possible, select questions that are relevant to the day’s lesson to reinforce the concepts taught.
  9. Teach science vocabulary and use flash cards to reinforce these words in the week preceding the test. Make knowing the “big words of science” fun. Encourage student conversation using the words of science. Never allow student slang to ensue! Always demand words like “the thingy” or the “jawn” to be replaced by the actual scientific words related to the concept you are teaching.
  10. Use science notebooks in class. The science notebook is a place to record everything that goes on in science class. Use of the notebook increases the amount of writing a student is required to do in any given day. It increase scientific thinking and allows students practice in writing their thoughts sequentially.