What it means for science fairs – The passage of ESSA, and recent MCAS vs PARCC vote in MA

posted in: STEM Education | 0

Submitted by Guest Blogger, Barnas G. Monteith

Vice Chairman, Massachusetts State Science & Engineering Fair, Inc.


The ESSA / Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law on Dec. 10, , replacing the stagnant No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It is a new chapter for educational assessment across the US, in the age of advanced curriculum standards like Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). It means a decreased focus on the accountability aspect of formalized assessments, and allows schools across the country to focus on learning time versus testing time, presumably with a broader set of curriculums with more attention to STEM fields.

Here in MA, we also had our own change in accountability measures, just weeks before the passage of ESSA. The Board of the MA Dept of Education for pre-Higher Ed students (known as the DESE) passed a bill on November 17th which shifted its longtime support for the homegrown standardized test MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) toward PARCC (the Partnership of Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers), which is becoming more popular throughout the country. As part of that shift, Massachusetts is removing the majority of accountability measures related to the testing systems for a period of two years. After that, Massachusetts will adopt a hybrid system of both PARCC and MCAS, for different grade levels/subjects.

However, it is likely that with the passage of ESSA, Massachusetts will have less need to enforce strict accountability measures after the two-year adjustment period.

Although the past few years have seen what appears to be a national prioritization on STEM inquiry, most of what has gone on has been politicized, constituting publicity stunts and superficial gestures at best. Obama held the first ever White House science fair, Governor Deval Patrick organized the first-ever statewide STEM Advisory Council, and numerous bills have come before Congress and been passed. However, by most major educational measures, public awareness measures, and most funding measures, the needle has really not moved very much. In fact not only have we seen Federal and state cuts that have affected STEM in recent years, we also have seen drops in funding from major companies and philanthropic organizations throughout the country, including funding for the very top science fair in the world in recent months.

It’s perhaps not a widely known fact that in MA, and in most states, science fairs are not required as part of the state curriculum. This is in very large part due to the fact that there is no current simple way to conduct a formal assessment on science fairs. At least not an assessment that would be able to end up truly affecting your GPA or state/district graduation requirements. By most educational standards, science fair rubrics are considered “informal assessment” models, and have generally been considered supplemental but not core educational tools. As such, at the MA State Science & Engineering Fair, despite being a 66+ year old institution and one of the first science inquiry non-profits in the country, we’ve usually faced district participation levels below 30%, and sometimes below 20%,especially in recent years. Similar numbers can also be seen across the country. While MA is considered one of the most educated states in the country, with one of the high densities of top colleges and tech companies in the world, it is still difficult to convince districts that science fairs are a top priority when they’re faced with an educational system that is addicted to testing. I would say in recent times, that “over-testing” is the more appropriate word here.

This “over-testing” has led to significant content and pedagogy loss over time. As teachers have been “teaching to the test” to maximize high performance results on standardized tests (and in many cases, to avoid an “underperforming” label and face accountability measures on an individual level – or worse yet, receivership of an entire school system), they’ve had less incentive to incorporate curricula and methods that will not be tested. It has created a funneling of the breadth and depth of subjects that are taught, into a smaller subset of material, with very little room for creativity and innovation in teaching. Further, there is little evidence to show that it has significantly increased the qualifications of teachers or students, compared to international testing results. Not to mention, it has led to a learning environment where students have less opportunity for their own personal freedom to learn about the topics of their own interest, and be guided and assessed on more individually custom-tailored terms (thus less of a “cookie cutter”/ “one size fits-all” approach which has been the norm for quite some time now, but rather, closer to a more personalized higher education style of teaching).

From a workforce development perspective, STEM jobs are in high demand and are essential to a growing economy of innovation. Science fairs are a proven means of inspiring students to consider a career in STEM fields; whereas many experts in STEM education believe that “over-testing” and decreases in time spent on STEM experimentation and laboratory time has led to a decline in interest in these fields. In short, science fairs make learning more fun than taking tests, and according to MA state data, science fairs inspire more children to decide to become scientists or engineers than school alone. Presumably as schools throughout the U.S. loosen accountability measures, outgoing survey data regarding career interest in academic fields (and thus interest in attending higher education and obtaining higher degrees) will become an increasingly more important measure for district performance.

One of the things we have been doing more and more at MSSEF is to collect and analyze large sets of data relating to student participation, school participation and teacher training, including survey data. In recent years we’ve found (although this was already widely known anecdotally) that teachers and school administrators like the idea of the science fair but just have not had the ability to spend time on it due to these constant stresses of formalized testing. The reasons include a lack of funding for science fairs either in school or after school, a lack of independent study time throughout the day, and a lack of administrative or community support (and again, this is likely because standardized tests dominate funding decisions).   As a result, despite increased investments into professional development, increases in award funding (in MA we give out well over half a million dollars in prizes each year), and an ever-increasing pool of innovative programmatic initiatives, most science fairs have not seen significant gains in school district participation in science fairs in the past few decades. But these recent developments in assessment-related legislation and prioritization of enhanced science inquiry in national standards may change the tides.

Common Core, with its focus on Math and English Language Arts (ELA), has been widely adopted and has become mainstream in U.S. assessment models, but unfortunately does not truly address science & engineering subjects.   That is where NGSS comes in — and while NGSS was first released in 2013 by a core group of supporting states, these standards have not been adopted by all states yet, and the adoption has been somewhat slow going.

A key aspect of NGSS is its prioritization of “science practices” – a means of incorporating scientific methodology and though processes into project based work. These “practices” are listed as Dimension 1 of a 3 Dimensional approach to teaching science in the future. Boiled down to their essence, “science practices” are a list of investigative and experimental processes (as well as engineering design principles) that demonstrate literacy in scientific thinking. When you look at the list of practices, it becomes clear that they overlap perfectly with the key steps in a science fair project. While NGSS also provides basic guidelines as to the means of assessing these practices, they are essentially no different from science fair rubrics. Meaning, in states that adopt NGSS, science fairs offer one pathway for a juried alternative assessment, that can be incorporated as part of a formal curriculum, while offering supplemental rewards and achievement potential outside of the school environment as well. Certainly more work is needed in the field of alternative assessments as they relate to science fairs in the formal school environment, but most well-established science fairs certainly have decades of experience and data to support this effort.

With the recent passing of ESSA, increased popularity of PARCC throughout the US, and the potential for the upcoming inclusion of the NGSS into more state curriculum standards, the time is ripe for science fairs to become a mainstream aspect of education in the U.S. for generations to come.

It seems to me there is a window of opportunity to promote science fairs to new districts as a viable aspect of formal science curriculum offering a time-tested model for alternative assessment in basic scientific methodology and literacy. Now that there are new assessment models, with far less accountability, and a newly adopted national science standard which highlights science fairs there is no good excuse for schools not to hold a fair. I hope you’ll join me in convincing local school administrators, school boards, legislators and executives at all levels of power, nation-wide, that science fairs offer a quality educational experience, combined with an unparalleled opportunity for self exploration and discovery by students of all ages and skill levels. There hasn’t been a better time in recent history to make science fairs a true priority.