Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Science Program Objectives

After a focus on disciplinary literacy in the last couple of posts, I’m now returning to the theme of science program review/revision…

I’ve spoken to several districts in the last few months that have established a vision for science education. That excites me a lot! Talking to them further, I often ask how they’re going to measure whether or not they’re achieving that vision. They share their 3-5 year plan with me for revising their science program, and I ask, “How will you know in 3 to 5 years whether you’ve made progress in accomplishing your vision?” Many leaders have no answer to that. Supporting administrators and educators in establishing that evaluation plan is, therefore, the purpose of this post and others to come.

In order to create that evaluation plan, the school/district science leadership team will first need to translate their vision statement into specific and measurable objectives. These are the big picture goals of science for the students. They’re more concrete than the vision but less specific than the more content-related learning objectives that would be part of a standards-based report card (I’ll describe those objectives in a later post). Ideally, these goals will be written out as SMART goals, meaning they are:

  • Specific: Clearly states what will be done. 
  • Measurable: Links to a particular outcome using a specific test, noting a particular target. 
  • Achievable: Want it to be a stretch, but realistic. 
  • Results-focused: Should measure student outcomes, not program implementation. 
  • Time-bound: Have a due date. 

To craft a couple examples of SMART goals, let’s take a few phrases from the initial vision I shared in this blog from the NRC Framework for K-12 Science:

“[By] the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues …” 

Starting with the first phrase, I’ll turn it into a SMART goal. Let’s say I’m working with a group of middle school teachers.

By the end of their 8th grade year, all of our students will express an appreciation of the importance of science in their lives and a sense of wonder in relation to science, as measured by answering “somewhat agree” or higher on the relevant questions of the Science Attitudes Survey.

The goal is specific. There is a particular outcome wanted for all students. The goal is measurable. The school will be using specific questions on the Science Attitudes Survey, with a ranking of at least “somewhat agree” on those questions (note: I’m not referencing a specific survey here, though there are several available). The goal might be achievable. Science programs and goals should be for ALL students, but will all students really agree with statements about the sense of wonder inherent in science? That’s less certain. After the first year of data collection, having an established baseline will allow for more realistic goals. The key will be continuing to have high expectations for all and pushing on what might be considered “realistic.” The goal is results-focused. It’s not just that teachers will have more engaging activities. It’s focused on an outcome, student engagement in science, where they’re seeing its meaning related to themselves. The goal is time-bound. It’s by the end of 8th grade. As a middle school team, goals could be annual, semi-annual, or by unit, but if it’s collaborative work as a department, having a goal for the end of their three years with you would also make sense.

Here’s another example of a SMART goal, linked to the second phrase in the vision statement:

By the end of the year, all of our students will increase performance task scores by at least one point in each category of the claims, evidence, and reasoning rubric. Three times each year we will use this rubric with performance tasks to measure their ability to communicate claims supported by evidence, with clear scientific reasoning.

A lot of important goals will not be measurable on a standardized test! Staff could create a series of performance tasks requiring students to make a substantiated claim for a particular action their community should take in relation to a particular phenomenon that they studied (pollution, erosion, habitat destruction, etc.).

The goal is specific. There is a clear outcome noted for all students. The goal is measurable. The school will be using common performance tasks, and students’ growth on those tasks, based on a rubric is spelled out. Again, it’s unclear whether the goal is achievable, but we want all students to learn through the year, and moving up one rubric category might not be rigorous enough (notably, such a goal might not be relevant to some students already scoring at the top). The goal is results-focused. It’s focused on an outcome, student performance on specific tasks requiring communicating and defending scientific ideas. The goal is time-bound. Each teacher would expect to see progress by the end of the year.

Of course, the science department will need to come together regularly to look at data in relation to these big-picture goals. Conversations should likely be happening at least weekly in relation to student work and how particular formative or interim assessment data could inform instruction. Those weekly conversations would focus on more particular goals, likely those in standards-based grading. But, at least a few times per year (beginning/middle/end), teachers should be coming together to talk about progress in relation to these big-picture goals. Thompson, et. al., describe a process for this type of collaborative work. Selecting one of these goals per year can provide a focus for teacher collaboration and professional development. A science program does not have to be reviewed in relation to every one of the goals every year.

The next blog post will provide more specific guidance on the evaluation of science program in relation to these goals through a “system” of science assessment.