CAST and NGSS represent new era in scientific education

On April 26, Dougherty Valley’s sophomore population woke up extra early — on a Wednesday, no less — to take the California Science Test (CAST), marking a transition in science education. This year’s test was a pilot, meaning that it is being used to measure how well it functions, and how easy it is to administer.

The change from the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test to CAST reflects California’s changing science standards. STAR was a multiple choice test about life science, while CAST was designed to accommodate California’s Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which focus on three Dimensional Learning Concepts: disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts.

California’s new standards focus more on the application and synthesis of scientific knowledge while also implementing the use of concepts that students are learning in their math and English classes. The CAST is computer-based, allowing students to display their ability to wield their scientific knowledge in performing simulations, manipulating and interpreting data and planning experiments.

The purpose of the test is to help teachers figure out how to better prepare students for careers in STEM after graduating school. The NGSS serves as a guideline for what teachers should focus on in the classroom, and is also being used in 25 other states. The emphasis within science classes is moving away from learning facts and towards learning to communicate, collaborate, and interact with others about science.

Different high schools around the district tested different grade level students. At Dougherty, sophomores were tested. The various groups of guinea pigs are California’s way of collecting data to figure out which grade level represents the best measure of scientific study in high school. In promoting scientific experimentation and application, CAST administration provides an exemplar.

Despite CAST’s promising potential, the resulting reactions of Dougherty’s sophomores varied.

“The CAST test… motivated me to study harder because I forgot some stuff… Since finals are coming up, I need to study more to do well,” acknowledged sophomore Stephanie Swee.

On the other hand, sophomore Kelly Li said, “It was really useless, [since] the stuff that was on it we learned a long time ago and… isn’t stuff that we’re going to cover.”

When asked her opinion on the high school science curriculum in SRVUSD, Li insisted that it is fine the way it currently is. “The test should change, [not the standards].”

At least for this pilot, the content of the test was general, not designed particularly to measure the knowledge of a tenth grader, accounting for the mixed reactions to the test.

There are four major areas that the NGSS, and subsequently, CAST, covers. Instead of the current STEM education system in which high school students take biology, chemistry, and/or physics, students would be required to study life, physical, earth, and space sciences. The team of STEM experts who came up with NGSS found that these concepts are the most important things for people to know, coming out of high school and into the spinning cogs of the world. The district taskforce is working on altering the high school curriculum so that these standards will be met.

Mr. Jesse Padilla, head of the science department at DVHS and one of the lead administrators of the CAST test, explained, “What the CAST was testing for was their ability to do scientific skills – they’re called ‘science and engineering practices’ – that are built into the new standards. So, the CAST test is not just testing for their understanding of content; it’s also testing for their ability to do those science and engineering practices.”

Once the NGSS standards have been fully implemented in SRVUSD, Padilla believes that “students who would possibly go into careers in the sciences or to study the sciences will be better prepared” as a result of this method of teaching/learning.

As science is driving the modern world forward, it makes sense for an all-encompassing learning technique to be carried out in schools across the state, but students are asking the inevitable question; is the test really necessary?

Padilla admitted, “Most of the data from those exams is way more useful for us as a site, as teachers, than it is for the student as an individual because it allows us to really evaluate what we’re doing in the classroom and if we’re being effective teachers. The main goal of the Next Generation Science Standards is to have students think like and behave like scientists, and CAST is their way of monitoring, ‘Are students now switching the way that they’re thinking and analyzing scientific information?’”