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By J.B. Wogan November 16, 2012

State science testing didn't get federal push

Four years ago Barack Obama promised to improve states' standardized testing of scientific aptitude in public schools.

In his campaign literature, he pointed to a few states that were already measuring students' ability "to design and conduct investigations, analyze and present data, (and) write up and defend results." He said he would work with governors and educators to make sure more states tested those skills.

We didn't find any evidence that the Education Department is directly involved in creating new state standards and assessments for science. Although standards and assessments are the responsibility of states, the federal government has played a role recently in supporting states with changing curriculum and measuring aptitude in other subjects, such as reading and math. In rating a related promise, we found that the Obama administration had pushed college readiness assessments in states. In that case, the federal government leveraged competitive grant funding and waivers under the No Child Left Behind law to compel changes at the state level. So far, state science testing hasn't received the same kind of federal attention.

The Education Department did use grant funding to encourage the hiring of science teachers and the expansion of science, technology, engineering and math curriculum. Obama has also used his bully pulpit as president to speak about the importance of 21st century critical thinking skills. In a related promise, we noted that Obama convened meetings and encouraged contests involving students, science and engineering societies, nonprofits and businesses.

Finally, the science section of the country's national standardized K-12 education test received an overhaul in 2009. The revised test not only examines students' knowledge of subjects such as biology and physics, but also evaluates critical thinking skills, such as inquiry, interpretation and argumentation. It's worth noting, however, that a better national test is not a substitute for Obama's goal of improved state science assessments -- only a representative sample of students take the national test every four years and the results do not provide information about the performance of individuals or specific schools.

State testing appears to be on horizon, too, but not as a result of federal policy. A partnership of 26 states have set out to do exactly what candidate Obama described in his 2008 campaign promise. Using a report on science education from the National Research Council -- a branch of the National Academy of Sciences -- the states are trying to create a common set of standards that states could use for future science testing. Those standards don't exist yet, but the National Research Council report says that public school science curriculum should go beyond memorization of facts and concepts -- students should also learn skills such as analyzing and interpreting data and making evidence-based arguments. If the effort is successful, standards would be available for states to adopt by 2013, with new testing to follow in years to come.

Improved science assessments as Obama once envisioned them might materialize in his second term. However, we couldn't find any evidence that the federal government played a role in improving state standardized testing in science. We rate this a Promise Broken.

Our Sources

Interview with Jason Amos, spokesman for the Alliance for Excellent Education, Nov. 15, 2012

Interview with Maria Ferguson, Executive Director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Nov. 15, 2012

Interview with Martin Storksdieck, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council, Nov. 15, 2012

Interview with Arnold Goldstein, program director at the National Center for Education Statistics, Nov. 15, 2012

Interview with Mary Crovo, deputy executive director at the National Assessment Governing Board, Nov. 15, 2012

Email interview with Elaine Quesinberry, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, Nov. 15, 2012

National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress: Overview (accessed on Nov. 15, 2012)

National Center for Education Statistics, What Does the NAEP Science Assessment Measure? (accessed on Nov. 15, 2012)

PolitiFact, Federal money supported states' push for college readiness standards and testing, Nov. 15, 2012

PolitiFact, Competitions for science are racing along, Nov. 15, 2012

Committee on Conceptual Framework for the New K-12 Science Education Standards, National Research Council, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, 2012

U.S. Department of Education, Obama Administration Sets High Bar for Flexibility from No Child Left Behind in Order to Advance Equity and Support Reform, Sept. 23, 2011

Robert Farley
By Robert Farley November 9, 2009

Grants will encourage states to assess higher-order thinking skills

President Barack Obama has packed a number of his campaign promises related to education into his "Race to the Top" program, which seeks to encourage innovative approaches to teaching and learning by having states compete for $4.35 billion worth of grants from the Department of Education. The program was funded through the Obama-backed economic stimulus package approved by Congress in February.

In a speech in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 4, Obama announced the criteria for states to win the grants.

"The first measure is whether a state is committed to setting higher standards and better assessments that prepare our children to succeed in the 21st century," Obama said. "And I'm pleased to report that 48 states are now working to develop internationally competitive standards -- internationally competitive standards because these young people are going to be growing up in an international environment where they're competing not just against kids in Chicago or Los Angeles for jobs, but they're competing against folks in Beijing and Bangalore."

In academia-speak, the grant program talks about rewarding states that develop and implement "high-quality assessments," later defined as "an assessment designed to measure a student's understanding of, and ability to apply, critical concepts through the use of a variety of item types, formats, and administration conditions (e.g., open-ended responses, performance-based tasks, use of technology)."

A White House fact sheet on "Race to the Top" says it would emphasize "designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, by encouraging states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards that builds toward college and career readiness, and that includes improved assessments designed to measure critical knowledge and higher-order thinking skills."

Competition for the grants will be conducted in two rounds -- the first starting this month and the second in June -- with winners announced in April and September next year.

But Obama has set this promise in motion; and so we rate it In the Works.

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