Save the science! A look at Pennsylvania’s ESSA plan’s inequity by Kathryn M. Bateman

In early August, news broke that Pennsylvania had laid out its plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Parents, teachers and community members were overjoyed; headlines ecstatically proclaimed new guidelines under ESSA meant less time spent on standardized testing in schools.[1] These articles state, and the ESSA report confirms (Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), 2017, September 18), that the plan is to reduce English Language Arts from four to three sections and Mathematics from three to two sections in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Additionally, the way schools are evaluated will change from the current School Performance Profile (SPP) to the Future Ready Index. However, it is not as simple as “less testing” and “even evaluation” as it appears in the newspapers.

Although the articles espoused increased equity, the new ESSA regulations have the potential to diminish the science education PA’s students receive in our public K-12 classrooms.  By removing science from accountability measures and promoting a “STEM” initiative that focuses on technology, Pennsylvania’s students are likely to see decreased resources devoted to the development of scientific literacy and the practices of science and engineering. This decreased attention to science puts Pennsylvania’s students at a disadvantage on the job market after graduation.  As other states develop their plans to implement guidelines for ESSA compliance, we must attend to the details which hold the potential to diminish science education for all students.

In a press release from the PDE in August, it was announced that the SPP will be replaced with the Future Ready Index. “The Index will place additional emphasis on academic growth, evaluation of school climate through a robust chronic absenteeism measure, attention to both four-year and extended-year graduation rates, and assessments of postsecondary readiness.” (PDE, 2017, August 2) Currently, the SPP, available on the PA Department of Education website for public viewing, evaluates schools based on indicators of academic achievement, indicators of closing the achievement gap (all students), indicators of closing the achievement gap (historically underperforming students), indicators of academic growth, and “other academic indicators.” The first three of these comprise 50% of the score and the fourth, academic growth, is 40% of the score. All of these are based on test scores (PSSA, PASA, SAT, reading proficiency in grade 3.) The fifth indicator, vaguely titled “other academic indicators” is 10% and includes graduation, promotion, and attendance rates.  Extra credit is given for students who receive a score of “advanced” on the PSSA and Keystone tests, 3 or higher on an AP test, and 4 or higher on an International Baccalaureate test.

By removing science from accountability measures and promoting a “STEM” initiative that focuses on technology, Pennsylvania’s students are likely to see decreased resources devoted to the development of scientific literacy and the practices of science and engineering.

There is currently an unequal distribution of accountability measures between tested subjects in the SPP model, which the Future Ready Index proposes to change as part of the ESSA plan. In the SPP, the English Language Arts PSSA and Literature Keystone are given twice the weight of their Mathematics and Science counterparts. In both achievement and growth measures, Mathematics and Science are allocated 10 points, whereas English Language Arts is allocated 20 points within the final score calculation.  The Future Ready Index is poised to change this inequity.  The following, from the PDE website, lists the major tenets of the Future Ready Index:

The proposed dashboard approach to school reporting:  

  • Increases emphasis on student growth measures, which incentivizes a focus on all learners and is less sensitive to demographic variables.
  • Measures English language acquisition among ELL students, not simply performance on a test of grade level ELA standards.
  • Incentivizes career awareness instruction beginning at the elementary level.
  • Addresses the issue of unequal weighting of content areas in the current SPP.
  • Provides indicators of student success after graduation.
  • Increases the emphasis on student access to course offerings such as AP, IB, college credit, and CTE programs of study.
  • Allows LEAs to include locally-selected reading assessments (Grade 3) and math assessments (Grade 7) as additional snapshots of student progress.
  • Incentivizes schools to offer career pathways that culminate with high value, industry recognized credentials.”(Pennsylvania Department of Education, n.d.)

Bullet point three (bolded above) sounds like the solution to the problem of higher value of English Language Arts in the SPP – the PDE must be accounting for the unequal accountability between English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science. When digging through the extensive plan set forth by PDE, there is repeated mention of issues with Mathematics and English Language Arts proficiency.  The Future Ready Index’s accountability model has no mention of Science. To those unfamiliar with the links in Science education and policy, one might assume this is a good thing – remove the pressure from the Science teachers to teach to the test, free teachers to teach what’s important and in ways they deem valid and effective. This is partially true. Some research has shown that testing can negatively impact the use of research-based practices in Science classrooms (Anderson, 2012.) In these studies, teachers often saw the test as misaligned with research-based practice, preventing the use of these practices, and subsequently negatively affecting their teaching practice (Aydeniz and Southerland, 2012).

However, other research has found that when Science is held accountable alongside Mathematics and English Language Arts, students do better on national assessments, (e.g. the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP)). Judson (2010) proposes that there are multiple layers for this – when teachers are evaluated on science scores, they will teach Science; when schools are held accountable for science scores, they will allocate resources to Science. This is particularly true in elementary school models of instruction where discipline-specific classes are not visited daily and the general education teacher decides what is taught, how it is taught, and when it is taught.  In states where Science is part of accountability models, more time is devoted to elementary Science (Blank, 2013). As such, the inclusion of Science assessments in accountability measures helps to maintain a holistic balance, improving the overall fidelity of the accountability metric and better equalizing the allocation of resources between the subjects. If Pennsylvania eliminates Science from the accountability models, schools will once again relegate it to a backseat to Mathematics and English Language Arts.

Other portions of the ESSA plan tout increase of “STEM.” This buzzword is not clearly defined within the document but appears to take an integrated STEM approach, rather than the instruction of the individual subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. PDE sees job openings in Computer Science that need to be filled, and the lack of quantity and quality education in computer science within the state. Though Computer Science is a valuable skill for students, STEM is not just Technology, it is also Science, Engineering, and Math.  Math gets support in other sections of the ESSA plan, but Science and Engineering appear to be left out, even with PDE acknowledging that there is a lack of access to “hands-on science activities” in low income and high minority schools (PDE, 2017, September 18). Assuming PDE means for STEM to be an integration of the four disciplines beyond only Computer Science (for which there is little evidence in the documents), the plan suggests supporting afterschool activities to increase interest and engagement for increasing interest in STEM. Again, research points to concerns. In an ethnographic study of students’ engagement with a Science newsletter, students who participated in an afterschool Science activity did not necessarily align themselves with a Science identity in the classroom (Rahm, 2012.) Providing opportunities outside the standard classroom time may engage students with Science, but it will not guarantee the development of a Science identity in the classroom, improve their Science learning, or pursue a career in a Science field.

Emphasized in the ESSA plan are the available jobs in technology-centric STEM fields, but there are many available in other Science fields for students with a variety of post-secondary training.  Science education in Pennsylvania currently focuses heavily on the scientific discipline of Biology as it is the only high school Keystone tested discipline.  A change to focus on the teaching of Earth and Space Sciences, where careers are readily available and growing is an alternative to the current vision.  The job market in Geosciences is projected to continue to increase by 10% in the next ten years, higher than the average job market projection in the United States during the same time period (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). PDE’s plan for STEM includes increasing access to counselors who make STEM career options available to students as careers; however, students are unlikely to desire a career in subject matter they have never engaged with in meaningful ways. Pennsylvania has a wealth of jobs available in existing fossil fuel industries and the developing alternative energy industries, each of which requires knowledgeable Geoscientists and carry a median wage of $89,780 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). Promotion of the Geosciences in schools leads to more Pennsylvanians ready to take on those jobs, contributing to the workforce, tax base and citizenship of their home state.

The ESSA guidelines are filled with ambitious and progressive policy moves that will benefit many of Pennsylvania’s children. Efforts to create year-long pre-service teaching programs would better prepare novice teachers to enter classrooms.  More training for superintendents and principals should increase their compassion and effectiveness as leaders of schools, particularly in high poverty areas like Philadelphia, Reading, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and York. Preschool for all students will help urban and minority students enter school on the same level as their more affluent, white peers. And, yes, decreased testing time for state exams will alleviate stress on principals, teachers and students alike. However, we must consider the ramifications for “a more holistic school evaluation tool” (PA Department of Education, n.d.) by which to measure all our schools, educators and students. I would advise the Pennsylvania Department of Education to not only consider the testing time but the type of testing, its validity, and effectiveness. What are we really measuring with the PSSA and Keystone tests? If it isn’t how well prepared our students are to enter post-secondary careers or training, then we need to consider the measure of the output before adjusting the inputs.

[1] For examples, see:,


Anderson, K. J. (2012). Science education and test‐based accountability: Reviewing their relationship and exploring implications for future policy. Science Education, 96(1), 104-129.

Aydeniz, M., & Southerland, S. A. (2012). A national survey of middle and high school science teachers’ Responses to Standardized Testing: Is Science Being Devalued in Schools?. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 23(3), 233-257.

Blank, R. K. (2013). Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap?. Science Education, 97(6), 830-847.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. (2015, December 17). Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Geoscientists. Retrieved from

Carroll, K. (2013). Socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, and asthma in youth. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 188(10), 1180-1181.

Judson, E. (2010). Science education as a contributor to adequate yearly progress and accountability programs. Science Education, 94(5), 888-902.

PA Department of Education (2017, September 18). Every Student Succeds Act: Pennsylvania Consolidated State Plan. Retrieved from:

PA Department of Education. (2017, August 8). PDE Announces ESSA Consolidated State Plan Draft Now Available for Public Comment. Retrieved from:

PA Department of Education. (n.d.) The Future Ready PA Index. Retrieved from

Rahm, J. (2012). Collaborative imaginaries and multi-sited ethnography: Space-time dimensions of engagement in an afterschool science programme for girls. Ethnography and Education, 7(2), 247-264.

Katie Bateman is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, focusing on Science Education at Penn State University. She is a former middle school science teacher and informal science educator, with specialization in urban education and holds a BS in Marine Science and an M.Ed. in Elementary Education. Her current research interests include Earth Science education, learning progression development, and how science curricular practices are impacted by educational policies tied to standardized testing and accountability measures. She is the Technical Chair for the AJE Forum.

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