Hands-on learning helped improve science SOL scores across Hampton Roads, educators say

Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS

On a recent morning at Hampton’s Langley Elementary, fifth-grade students conducted an experiment on how matter can change because of different temperatures. The activity was part of the division’s focus on infusing science instruction with more hands-on opportunities.

School officials across Hampton Roads say being back in the classroom and learning science concepts through doing, not just seeing and hearing, was a big factor in increasing this year’s science SOL pass rates.

Earlier this month, the Virginia Department of Education released the results of the 2022-23 Standards of Learning assessments. Some of the highest year-over-year gains for area divisions were in pass rates for science, with Portsmouth and Norfolk schools seeing a 7 and 8 percentage point jump, respectively. Hampton and Newport News saw 5 percentage point increases and Chesapeake and Virginia Beach both increased by 2 percentage points.

Some of the highest gains were in elementary schools. Norfolk’s Richard Bowling Elementary had a science pass rate of 47% last year, a 31% increase from the 2021-22 school year, and a whopping 42% increase from the 2020-21 pass rate of just 5%. Several other schools that had single-digit pass rates in 2020-21 also saw exponential growth, including Lindenwood, Oceanair and Tidewater Park.

In Portsmouth, several elementary schools also saw rates upwards of 20% from 2021-22 to 2022-23, including Churchland Primary and Intermediate, Simonsdale and Victory Elementary. Hampton also saw big jumps at some elementary schools, including more than 30% at Mary T. Christian Elementary, 20% at Kraft Elementary and 18% at Peake Elementary.

School officials said the highest jumps could be attributed to targeted support for the lowest-performing schools, including instructional support as well as coaching. In some cases, changes in staffing could have contributed to gains.


Hands-on learning

But overall, educators — including science curriculum experts — said one of the biggest contributors was the increase in hands-on learning.

At Hampton, labs already were highly encouraged. But division leaders decided to make them mandatory to address the learning loss caused by the pandemic, said science curriculum leader Janice Richison. Labs and other hands-on opportunities help students understand the real-world applications of the concepts they learn, said Heather Van Hout, a longtime teacher who is now a science teacher specialist for the division.

In Norfolk, the division last year purchased science kits for students. It then conducted professional development to show teachers the best ways to use the kits.

This year, Hampton is curating its own kits, with materials prepared and aligned with the curriculum. The kits require minimal preparation, eliminating another barrier that sometimes prevented teachers from conducting more experiments — lack of time.

Divisions resumed partnerships with several area organizations — including Jefferson Lab, the Elizabeth River Project and the Virginia Air & Space Science Center — allowing for more hands-on activities through field trips. Increased participation in science fairs has also helped.


Curriculum tweaks, teacher supports

Division leaders also say they are constantly tweaking their curricula — increasing the rigor of reading passages, introducing more science vocabulary, changing the pace of lessons and threading in reviews from past years’ lessons.

Some divisions have increased the frequency of their assessments to gather better data and more quickly identify areas where students require remediation.

Norfolk also changed its approach to unit assessments a couple of years ago. Now, the district’s science curriculum office, rather than individual teachers, creates tests. Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Bruce Brady said the tests are designed to show teachers where their students are struggling. The change is particularly helpful for new teachers, Brady said, because creating good tests often requires more experience.

Portsmouth Public Schools Director of Secondary Curriculum and Instruction, Shawn Millaci, said providing teacher support has helped. Portsmouth is focused on one-on-one coaching and on teaming teachers in groups referred to as Professional Learning Communities, which allow them to learn from each other. He said these efforts are important, especially as divisions see plenty of turnover and an increase in the number of teachers who’ve come into the profession from other careers and had gone through alternative licensure programs.


Updated standards, new assessments

The 2022-23 school year was also the first year that the SOL science test was based on the VDOE’s new science standards, which were rolled out in 2018. Some of the changes also may have contributed to gains because some standards were rearranged to be more developmentally appropriate.

For example, some science standards that were considered too abstract — like the structure of an atom — were pushed from elementary into middle school lessons.

Overall, educators say there is still work to be done to return to and rise above pre-pandemic levels. Many local schools still have less than a 50% science pass rate.

“We’re not resting on our gains from last year,” Millaci said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Nour Habib, nour.habib@virginiamedia.com