The ACT, Science and the Slim Six

This is Cameron. He is a Project Exploration intern at the Fossil Lab at the University of Chicago. He will be an 11th grader at North Lawndale College Prep. He is cleaning rock off the bones of a 110 million year old crocodile.

This is Rachel. She will be a 7th grader at Kenwood Academy. She is dusting for prints as part of our Forensics Investigators program. The students investigated a mock crime scene in Washington Park with scientists from the Illinois State Police.

If all goes well, Cameron and Rachel will be in the “slim six” – the slim six percent of African Americans who met college readiness standards in science on the 2011 ACT.

As measured by 2011 ACT scores only 23% of Illinois students – from public and private schools – are ready for college. The ACT is four-hour long national college placement exam that measures students’ content knowledge in English, Math, Reading and Science.  As reported by Rosalind Rossi in the Chicago Sun Times today, in Illinois in all subjects African American students scored the lowest amongst their White, Hispanic and Asian peers.

What’s going on here? Why are African Americans so far behind their counterparts in  – and in science in particular? Are they uninterested in science? Maybe science just “isn’t for them.”

Our experience at Project Exploration suggests otherwise. Across our youth-science programs we can’t meet student demand. Currently the greatest demand is by principals and African American families for boys’ programming to match services for girls. When given the opportunity to do meaningful, hands-on work, alongside adults who are passionate and knowledgeable, students don’t just take advantage of a program they come back for more. We know this from more than a decade of programming with more than 1000 students.

Then what IS going on? What is the deal with these ACT scores?

I think a few things but the main one is that science magnifies the inequities in education generally. It’s a peculiar subject.

From an academic standpoint science weeds out and  (in some cases by design) pushes out students who struggle with reading and writing. The most “fun stuff” in high school science (experiments and dissections) is most often the reserve of students in the highest performing groups and Advanced Placement classes. If you don’t read well or write well it’s unlikely you’ll get to be part of those programs.

From a resource perspective under-resourced teachers in already under-resourced schools don’t have the time, tools or professional development they need to do right by science and by their students – much less what they need for themselves to be stellar teachers.

From and educational policy perspective science lives a far third behind reading and math; test scores on standardized tests don’t measure science with the same frequency, intensity as reading and math. But the standardized testing itself may be what’s most detrimental of all:  multiple choice and short answer tests reduce the very creative, problem solving and observational skills that science, engineering and technology to their most superficial versions.

But even if STEM was given plenty of time and teachers had the training and support they need there is a critical third factor at work for students least likely to be prepared in science for college: out of school experiences.

We know that science in school is important, but it will not be sufficient for ( in the framework offered by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) preparing and inspiring young people when it comes to science.

Students don’t really know what science IS till they get to do it. And they can’t conceptualize science as a way of life if they never meet people who live it. The best, most well-researched curriculum in the world won’t reach students who are disengaged and disenfranchised from school.

If things go well Cameron and Rachel will be in the slim six percent of African American students who are ready for science in college: they’ll not only have the reading, writing, and math skills they need, they’ll have experiences that will enable them to get a C or higher in a freshman biology class. If things go really well, they’ll discover a way of thinking about the world and wonder for the world around them through science. They’ll come to understand the difference between evidence and opinion and they’ll know that if they CHOOSE to pursue science there’s a place for them in it.

What will it take for things to go well? It will take opportunities for Cameron and Rachel not only to GET interested in science, but also ongoing opportunities to STAY involved with science and through formal – and informal opportunities – to develop the skill set they’ll need to get a competitive score on the ACT test.

But what about the other 94% of African American students?

They need the same things as Cameron and Rachel. But unless there is a plan the slim six will stay slim. The community invested in education and STEM initiatives need to get organized with students at the center of learning systems. We need our rich science community to make pathways into science transparent and available. We all have a role to play – inspiring , equipping, and sustaining students.

This is one case where we’d like to see the slim get fatter.

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