Saturday, February 6, 2010

Improving Students' Scientific Literacy - ACT Season

It's ACT season again. Juniors (and in some instances, sophomores, freshman, etc.) across the country will be marching into test rooms to take a battery of tests, the outcome of which could effect their ability to get into the college of their choice. For many high school juniors, taking the ACT is an optional experience. For juniors in Illinois where I teach (and in other states), taking the ACT is not optional. It is part of the state-mandated testing program used to assess student achievement and the job which schools are doing to promote student achievement.

It may seem to a physics teacher that a 40-question science test has little to do with our teaching of science. But it does! The ACT publishes a collection of College Readiness Standards (CRS) for Science - standards upon which questions are based. The CRS (or curses, as a colleague of mine refers to them) are broken into three strands. The three strands of standards are:
  • Interpretation of Data
  • Scientific Investigation
  • Evaluation of Models, Inferences and Experimental Results
As a physics teacher, those three strands have a lot to do with my teaching of physics. And most particularly, they have a lot to do with the implementation of my physics lab program.

If you give the College Readiness Standards a closer look, you will notice that they are great standards for your lab program. For instance, consider the following standards from the Interpretation of Data strand:

  • Determine how the value of one variable changes as the value of another variable changes ... .
  • Translate information into a table, graph or diagram.
  • Identify and/or use a simple (e.g., linear) mathematical relationship between data.
  • Identify and/or use a complex (e.g., nonlinear) mathematical relationship between data.
  • Extrapolate from data points in a table or graph.

I would love my students to become more skilled at these types of activities as a result of participation in my lab program. By providing students with practice at developing these skills through lab activities and post-lab analysis sessions, I am nurturing better science students, but also preparing students for success on the ACT test.

Now let's take a look at some College Readiness Standards under the Scientific Investigation strand:

  • Understand a simple experimental design.
  • Understand a complex experimental design.
  • Predict the results of an additional trial or measurement in an experiment.
  • Identify an alternate method for testing a hypothesis.
  • Predict how modifying the design or methods of an experiment will affect results.

Once more, these are great standards for a lab program. If my students could develop their understanding and skills in the areas of these standards, they would be much better lab students. And they would also perform better on the ACT test.

Finally, lets look at a few College Readiness Standards under the Evaluation of Models, Inferences and Experimental Results strand:

  • Select a simple hypothesis, prediction or conclusion that is supported by a data presentation or a model.
  • Determine whether given information supports or contradicts a hypothesis or conclusion, and why.
  • Identify strengths or weaknesses in one or more models.
  • Determine which model(s) is(are) strengthened or weakened by new information.
  • Use new information to make a prediction based on a model.

We likely all agree that students need to improve their skills of thinking critically, analyzing information, designing experimental procedures, interpreting data, evaluating models in light of evidence, and drawing evidence-based conclusions. If my physics lab program (and other parts of my physics curriculum) were instrumental in improving these skills, then I would consider the lab program and supporting curriculum to be a success.

With confidence, I can say it's ACT season. Every day of the year, it should be ACT season in my physics classroom. Every day of the year, students should be improving their scientific literacy skills. It's ACT season again always.

This month's article is contributed by Tom Henderson. Tom is the author of The Physics Classroom website.  He is a graduate of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. He has been a high school physics teacher since 1989. Tom currently teaches Honors ChemPhys (Physics portion) and Honors Chemistry at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, IL, where he has taught since 1989.

Tom invites those teachers who are interested in providing physics students with practice at taking ACT test type items to view and even use the following documents as practice opportunities within the classroom:

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