Scientific Method

Local Educators Say Learning Not Just ‘One Of The Above’

Posted: November 14, 2012

Braden Whitmere (left) and Ryan Anderson, both 9, examine a soil sample in Jeanette McPherson’s third-grade science class at Plains Elementary School in Timberville on Tuesday. Local students are honing their science skills for the new SOLs. (Photos by Stephen Mitchell / DN-R)
Third-graders (left to right) Jenna Gabb, Andrew Campbell, Kyla Weaver and Fabiola Contreras, all 8, study soil samples Tuesday during a soil composition lesson in Jeanette McPherson’s third-grade science class at Plains Elementary School in Timberville. County schools are beefing up their science lessons as the Standards of Learning test gets tougher.
Jeanette McPherson teaches her third-grade science class about soil composition on Tuesday at Plains Elementary School in Timberville.
HARRISONBURG — Which of the following is true about Virginia’s new science Standards of Learning tests administered for the first time this school year:

a.) They are not straight multiple-choice tests

b.) Scores on the tests are likely to drop

c.) A stronger emphasis is put on students’ critical thinking skills

The answer is all of the above.

To prepare students for the changes, local teachers are tailoring lessons to practice the kinds of questions and concepts students will see on the science tests, which were changed in 2010 by the Virginia Department of Education. More rigorous English SOLs also are being given this year.

City and county educators say the main change in the science test format is that students — who will take the test in December or at the end of the school year — no longer will have a 1-in-4 chance of guessing an answer to a question correctly.

“The real world does not come in four-choice packets where answers that satisfy the question.

“The real world does not come in four-choice packets where you can eliminate the wrong choices and have the right answer,” said Andy Jackson, secondary science coordinator for Harrisonburg City Schools. Jackson added that the tests will better reflect the kind of learning that already takes place in city classrooms.

“Now, we have a test that can teach the rigor we’ve always called for in the first place,” he said.

Science SOLs are given in third, fifth and eighth grades and at the end of biology, earth science and chemistry classes in high school.

Jeanette McPherson, a third-grade science teacher at Plains Elementary School in Timberville, said she’s readying students by giving more open-ended questions and asking them to come to their own conclusions about the material.

“[We’re asking students] not just to memorize terms and definitions, but to really think [concepts] through and really understand the whole process,” she said.

Jackson and Nancy Lantz, who works in Rockingham County Schools’ central office, said the tests benefit students because they help them absorb scientific concepts better.

Lantz presented information about the SOLs to the Rockingham County School Board at its meeting Monday.

Although the tests may yield better-educated students, they also are likely to lead to lower test scores and passing rates, if results from the more rigorous math SOLs given for the first time in 2011-12 are any indication.

After math tests underwent a similar overhaul, the passing rate on math SOLs dropped almost 20 percentage points statewide last year, to 68 percent.

In Rockingham County, 91 percent of students in the division passed math tests in 2010-11, versus 74 percent in 2011-12. In Harrisonburg, 61 percent of students passed math SOLs in 2011-12, compared to 84 percent the year before.

“It would not surprise me, across the state, for there to be a drop,” Jackson said.

Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or
Multiple Multiple Choice

Sample SOL test question:

Earth science:

The knowledge of which of these can help a scientist in the field determine the name of an unknown mineral (you must select all correct options)?

— Hardness

— Temperature

— Density

— Amount of organic material

— Streak

— Amount of inorganic material

— Reactivity with acid

Answer: hardness, density, streak and reactivity with acid

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