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A regular update on research from the Assessment, Curriculum and Technology Research Centre
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Welcome to the ACTRC Newsletter, Issue 6, January-February 2017

The Challenge of Achieving Student Readiness for the 7-10 Science Curriculum

Welcome to ACTRC's first newsletter for 2017. We begin the new year with research outcomes from 2015 and 2016 regarding the progress of students through the K to 12 Science curriculum in junior secondary school. The curriculum presents increasing levels of complexity from one grade to another in a spiraling progression, as shown in Table 1, to develop a deeper understanding of core science concepts and skills. ACTRC's Science Curriculum Study has been assessing the readiness of students for the Chemistry subject "Matter" in Grades 7 to 10. "Matter" is the first of the science subjects to be taught in Grade 7, providing the opportunity for a baseline "pre-test" that measures understanding and skills before students experience any secondary instruction. A pre-test for Grade 7 was conducted in June 2015, and other pre-tests for Grades 8, 9 and 10 were conducted during 2015 and 2016, before the delivery of each unit of Matter, to assess the levels of students' knowledge and skills as they progressed through the curriculum. The results indicate that a minority of students in regular high schools possessed the prerequisite knowledge and skills to be ready to engage with the curriculum, and the number of those ready decreased from Grades 7 to 10. At science-oriented high schools, a majority of students in Grades 7 to 9 possessed the prerequisites to engage with the curriculum, but this number also decreased and, by Grade 10, had fallen to 50%.  
Table 1. The Chemistry subject "Matter" in the spiraling curriculum.
To develop the tests used in this research, with the support of DepEd, ACTRC collaborated with colleagues from UP NISMED, UP College of Education, and the UP Integrated School, conducting a curriculum audit that identified the prerequisite conceptual knowledge and skills that are necessary for students to engage with the Matter content in Grades 7 to 10. Using the audit information, test items were written to assess mastery of the identified concepts and skills. Students from regular high schools and science-oriented high schools in the National Capital Region and from regular high schools in DepEd Region VI (Western Visayas) and DepEd Region VII (Central Visayas), including some students from the recently created Negros Island Region in Central Visayas, completed the tests. The number of students who participated ranged from 1,997 in Year 7 (including 400 from science-oriented schools) to 1,649 in Year 10 (including 284 from science-oriented schools). 

The results of the pre-Grade 7 test identify six levels of performance among the students, shown as Levels A (lowest) to F (highest) in Figure 1. Students at Levels E and F demonstrated knowledge of the concepts and skills that are needed to engage with the Grade 7 curriculum. At the regular high schools, just 39% of students performed at this level. The Grade 7 curriculum assumes this level of knowledge, so students need to have mastered these concepts and skills to be ready to learn the Grade 7 content. At the science-oriented high schools, 90% of Grade 7 students performed at this level.
Figure 1. Distribution of Grade 7 students across six levels of performance at regular and science-oriented schools.
This broad pattern of results was repeated in the pre-testing for Grades 8, 9 and 10, but the number of students who demonstrated knowledge of the prerequisites decreased from Grade 8 to Grade 10, in both regular and science-oriented schools. In the pre-Grade 8 test, the proportion of students at regular schools who were found to be ready to learn the curriculum fell from 39% to 27%. At science-oriented schools, it fell from 90% to 77%. Although the test was not designed to identify the reasons why the unready students had not mastered the prerequisites, it can demonstrate the areas of greatest challenge. The pre-Grade 8 test has four levels of performance – A to D, as shown in Table 2. Students in Level C and above were found to be ready for the Grade 8 curriculum, while students in Level B and below were found to be unready. The differences between the knowledge and skills at Level B and Level C included the crucial distinction between representations of matter where differences can be seen by the naked eye and representations of matter where differences cannot be seen even with a microscope and must be understood conceptually. The results suggest that this fundamental change in how scientific knowledge is represented is one for which many of the students were unprepared when entering Grade 8 Matter.
Table 2. Four levels of performance in the pre-Grade 8 test.
The trend of decreasing readiness for the Matter curriculum continued with the Grade 9 results, where the proportion of students found to be ready for the curriculum in regular high schools fell to just 13%. In science-oriented high schools, the proportion of Grade 9 students ready for the curriculum fell to 74%. In Grade 10, these percentages fell further in both types of school, to 11% in regular high schools and 50% in science-oriented schools. Like the pre-Grade 8 test, the pre-Grade 10 test describes achievement across four levels of performance, as shown in Figure 2. Again, the students in Level C and above were found to be ready for the curriculum, while the students in Level B and below were found to be unready. In the pre-Grade 10 test, the step from Level B to Level C required the employment of more abstract and symbolic representations of scientific knowledge, such as chemical formulae. Students at Level B were found to lack the prerequisite concepts and skills to master this more symbolic form of representation. At the regular high schools, 89% of students were found to lack these prerequisites, and this included 52% who also lacked the prerequisites to master the link between visible and invisible representations, like the Grade 8 students in the earlier test. At the science-oriented high schools, 50% of students were found to lack the prerequisites to master the more symbolic form of representation, and this included 9% who lacked the prerequisites to master the distinction between visible and invisible representations.  
Figure 2. Distribution of Grade 10 students across four levels of performance at regular and science-oriented schools.
This study demonstrates the importance of prerequisite concepts and skills in the learning of high school science. Results suggest that without mastery of the prerequisites, students entering high school struggle to catch up in the secondary curriculum and may fall further behind. The research does not tell us why this has happened. Future research will provide opportunities to explore and propose alternative approaches to meeting the challenge of achieving student readiness for the secondary science curriculum. This project provides insights into how assessment can be used to help stakeholders understand more about how the education system is functioning and where to focus efforts for continuous improvement. 
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