Report Card: Tennessee is Fastest Improving State for Science Education

November 14, 2016

By Cathy Ginel, science teacher with Oak Ridge Schools

Have you ever run on a treadmill until you are out of breath? Have you ever gotten to a comfortable point and then pushed that speed up just a little more to give yourself a better workout? Tennessee science teachers are on the treadmill, have pushed themselves, are seeing results, and are gearing themselves up for more.

The Nation’s Report Card was recently released showing that Tennessee students grew faster than the national average in science. Tennessee is now ranked the fastest improving in the nation in science and has moved into the top 25 states in science. Tennessee has eliminated the achievement gap between male and female students and has narrowed the achievement gap between white, Hispanic, and black students in science. This encouraging news provided us with needed results and evidence that education changes in Tennessee are having a positive outcome with our students. Teachers are seeing results of their additional work and are pushing for even higher scores in the future.

As an Oak Ridge middle school science teacher, I am proud to consider my students as emerging scientists in a town whose history is deeply entrenched in science and technology. Of all the towns in Tennessee, Oak Ridge’s past and current science connections through ORNL, ORAU, and other science commerce require that we provide a high-quality science education to produce high achieving science students. When considering our science education work in Oak Ridge, I found evidence within three changes to science instruction that support these improved scores.

  1. Science students have an increased focus on literacy, with support from more challenging language arts standards. Science students are expected now to read, analyze, and draw conclusions from scientific text. We try to support this by incorporating a Science World subscription to classes. We evaluate articles as they match units, such as an article on E.O. Wilson and pollination in our plant reproduction unit and an article on dog pedigrees in our heredity unit. Our language arts teachers have been most supportive by modeling question formats for us so students learn how to read informational text in a similar format in both language arts and science classes. Here, consistency is key.
  2. Students’ immersion in higher standards in language arts and math has pushed students to rise to meet higher expectations. The language arts and math standards push students to apply knowledge within the instruction. In science, this has helped our students apply scientific concepts to real world problems. During our cell cycle unit, students respond to a passage about cancer and its link to uncontrolled cell division. When studying genetics, students use the concepts of probability to create a person with traits according to the principles of genetics. As students learn about forces, they learn to make predictions about the outcomes within speed and force as other variables like friction can change. The more cohesive requirement of applying knowledge throughout the core subject areas has benefitted all subjects, including science.
  3. Students learn scientific content through multiple methods of instruction. There’s the old saying, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Science instruction fits that mold perfectly. With so many of our concepts being abstract and research showing that people learn in different ways, it is necessary for teachers to instruct in a variety of ways for every unit. In our science classes, students work in lab, create foldables, work with manipulatives, and interactive websites, in conjunction with direct teacher-led instruction. Our students need to see and touch science in a variety of ways to be fluent in the content.  
With these positive changes to our instruction, our students have pushed to a new level in science nationally. However, if we are on the treadmill and now comfortably jogging, shouldn’t we push to improve even more? How can we meet our new goals as we increase our speed? As we look to the next few years, and with new, more rigorous science standards in place in the 2018-19 school year, we can see our next challenge ahead of us. Yet this greater challenge can provide an even bigger payoff.  Perhaps we can break the top 15 states on the Nation’s Report Card. Maybe we can position not just Oak Ridge, but all of Tennessee to become a nationally recognized leader in science. The treadmill is continuing to move, but we are continuing to improve. We can also continue to improve faster than other states. Let’s be ready for the long-haul race.

Cathy Ginel is a seventh-grade science teacher at Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge. She is a member of the Governor’s Teacher Cabinet, and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) selected her for the inaugural class of the Tennessee Educator Fellowship. She is on Twitter as @CathyGinel.

This article originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Schools website.