Research Study Shows Value of Meaningful Science Program

Research Study Shows Value of Meaningful Science Program

Steven McGee
Through the Meaningful Science Consortium, SESP has provided a project-based science curriculum, professional development and teacher coaching to nine Chicago Public Schools for five years. Now as the schools are moving to internal support of the program by the district, new research offers timely guidance.

A study by SESP faculty members Steven McGee and Linda Brazdil shows a positive link between the curriculum, quarterly benchmark exams and student performance on state tests. McGee and Brazdil presented their research findings at the American Education Research Association conference in New Orleans on April 12.

“In order to raise students’ scores on the state test, we need to pay attention to performance on the benchmark exams, which provide teachers with valuable information to guide project-based instruction,” McGee comments. “Our research shows that improving the performance of students on the Meaningful Science projects should lead to better state test outcomes.”

McGee sees attention to instruction and benchmark tests as preferable to directly preparing students for the state test. In fact, related research by the University of Chicago has found that the more time that is spent on test preparation, the worse students do on the state test. “It’s the rigorous instruction that actually leads to higher outcomes,” McGee says, noting that beyond exposure to one practice test, test preparation is detrimental because it decreases instructional time.

Linda Brazdil
“Our study is one more piece of evidence that rigorous instruction leads to high performance on the PSAE,” notes McGee. Chicago Public Schools uses the Educational Planning and Assessment System (EPAS) to track progress towards the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) given in grade 11. EPAS is composed of tests administered freshman, sophomore and junior years. McGee and Brazdil’s study focused on growth from the ninth-grade test to the 10th-grade test.

This year the Meaningful Science Consortium schools are transitioning to internal support from the district. Although MSC will continue to provide professional development, coaching support is now internalized, along with the decision about continuing the benchmark exams. While all nine schools have continued to implement the three-year curriculum, McGee points out that the benchmark exams are an important part of the program to maintain.

Rather than simply examining the raw growth from one year to the next, in their paper McGee and Brazdil consider influences acting on the scores. They found a narrowing of the gender gap on EPAS performance as well as a narrowing of the gap between special education and general education students.

Their study shows results from the MSC program in spite of high teacher turnover and “limited time to form professional community,” says McGee. Within three years of initial training, fewer than half of the original teachers remain teaching the same course.

“Our recommendation is that the district really needs to continue to support the teachers through the types of programs that MSC provided,” McGee emphasizes. Schools adopted these unified systems of curricular strategies, professional development, personal teacher coaching and assessments to improve performance on the PSAE. 

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 4/27/11