Tennessee: Star of the States in Science

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

img_1103When I was student at St. Bethlehem Elementary School in Clarksville, I could not wait for science time. It was the time of the day that my curious notions and incessant questioning could actually be fulfilled as part of the regular learning cycle. I loved learning about the “why” behind everything – from the human body to animals to chemical reactions. As I got older, I also enjoyed seeing the connection between math and science in physics. In particular, though, I loved the idea of making an educated “guess” about a topic and then doing something to get to an answer. And, school lab work felt meaningful and authentic as assumptions led to experiments that led to observations and then to analysis and conclusions. I felt like a problem solver – even as a young child.

When I eventually taught science later in life, I more fully understood the preparation teachers must have to ensure students both have access to interesting and engaging content about the way the world works while at the same creating hands-on time to discover and test assumptions. Now I can easily verbalize that preparation for teaching science is about both the expertise of the teacher and her scientific knowledge and curiosity coupled with the space and materials she gives students that can make science come to life for all students. Science gave school great meaning for me and allowed me to engage in ways where I could apply what I was learning throughout the day – math, informational reading, and writing came alive in science. So, it is with great joy that I can be part of an exciting point in history in Tennessee – a moment that celebrates historic growth of our students in science!

Tennessee is being called the “star of the star states” by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as a result of the remarkable gains and achievement gap improvements we have made in science since 2009 when both 4th and 8th grades were tested and 2011 when 8th grade only was tested.

Tennessee’s results on the Nation’s Report Card or NAEP this year show the following:

  • Tennessee scored above the national average for the first time ever
  • Tennessee doubled the national average for student growth on NAEP science
  • Tennessee eliminated the performance gap between male and female students
  • Tennessee narrowed the performance gap between white and black students in both grades
  • Tennessee narrowed the performance gap between white and Latino students in fourth grade

When I first dug into our results, my mind immediately went to classrooms where I have seen science in action. Educators across our state have taken advantage of students’ natural curiosity and complimented it with incredible instruction that matches the uniqueness of the science field itself. We have more and more partners who are coming around this work to support innovative new approaches, like blended learning environments, STEM labs, work-based learning, and different professional learning models for educators. All of this is shining through in our results today.

img_1105So what does this historic improvement in science really mean? It simply means that we are on the right track. Tennessee has been a leader over the past decade in ensuring that we are setting high expectations, aligning to those expectations, and then continually analyzing and adjusting to keep improving. Isn’t this at the heart of what we learn in science as we delve into the scientific method – use what we know, or our data, to make a hypothesis and then create an opportunity for improvement while observing and adjusting?

Tennessee’s progress is just about as scientific as it comes, except for the magic ingredient that is purely Tennessee – our “do whatever it takes spirit”. Tennessee is called the Volunteer State for a reason. We got this name as a result of the marked valor Tennesseans showed in the Battle of New Orleans as part of the War of 1812. In addition, the nickname is representative of how Tennessee had over 30,000 volunteers sign up to fight in the Mexican War when the secretary of state only asked for 2,800. The spirit of Tennesseans is seen daily in how our parents, educators, government officials and community members respond to all students’ needs. Tennesseans have a vision and we are 100% committed to doing whatever it takes for student success. Our science results are just one more step toward this vision.

Out of This World