This report is based on a research study conducted by
Assistant Professor, Science Education
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
Since the time of Sputnik in the late 1950's, hands-on science
has been strongly promoted as a method of science instruction.
However, no consensus has been reached on the relationship of
hands-on science to student achievement, though this topic has been
researched using various methods since the turn of the 20th
century. The importance of hands-on science has come under debate
for practical, political, and theoretical reasons. Given the
attention paid to hands-on science as an approach to science
teaching and state standardized test scores as a measure of student
achievement, this study set out to compare fourth grade science
test scores between school districts that regularly used hands-on
science activities via the Einstein Project units and
The hypothesis was that school districts regularly using the
Einstein Project units would have a higher percentage of students
who scored in the "Advanced" and "Proficient" levels of the
Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam.
In 1991, a core group of educators and business people joined
together to engage in long-term efforts to affect lasting change in
Northeastern Wisconsin's elementary and middle school science
classrooms. Plans were made to expand the use of a hands-on science
curriculum and to enhance classroom teachers' science knowledge.
The Einstein Project was established, has since expanded into other
parts of Wisconsin, and has become a national model for systemic
change in science education.
The Einstein Project's hands-on science units and accompanying
materials were developed by the National Science Foundation, the
Smithsonian Institution, and the National Academy of Sciences. The
eight-week units are packaged in a kit that contains enough
materials for an entire class of 30 students. As kits are returned
to the Einstein Project's science resource center from the school
districts that lease them, they are restocked and refined through a
teacher-student evaluation process. Currently, 34 units are
available for grades K-6, in addition to seven middle school units.
The resource center stocks over 1100 kits.
The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) is a
statewide standardized exam given each year to measure student
achievement in five subject areas: reading, language arts,
mathematics, science, and social studies. Wisconsin's model
academic standards in English language arts, mathematics, science,
and social studies determine the scope of the state exams. The
score a student earns on each WKCE test determines his or her level
of proficiency in that subject matter. Since 1997-98, four
proficiency levels have been used: advanced, proficient, basic, and
minimal performance. Achieving at the advanced or proficient level
is the long term educational goal for all students. The currently
used cut-scores dividing the proficiency levels were established at
a state-level workshop held in February, 2003. The definitions of
each proficiency level were determined as:
The Einstein Project's records were used to determine the number
of kindergarten through third grade (K-3) units that were leased by
each school district during the academic years from 1997-2005. The
K-3 units have the potential to impact student learning before
students take the WKCE in November of their fourth-grade year.
Twenty-one school districts were determined to be regular
users of the Einstein Project's K-3 units.
WKCE data were available through the Wisconsin Department of
Public Instruction's (DPI) website (http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/).
For the past five years, the DPI has made available detailed
information about the performance of state schools through an
extensive data resource called the Wisconsin Information Network
for Successful Schools (WINSS). This network is seen as an
electronic report card and provides information on what children
should know and be able to do, how successful they are in acquiring
this knowledge, and what work needs to be done to improve the
performance of both schools and students. Relevant data to this
study included the percentage of students in each district who were
categorized as advanced or proficient in each
academic year. This percentage is referred to as the A+P
score and is the number that is widely reported each year.
Maximizing this percentage is a goal of school districts.
Unfortunately, WKCE proficiency data for February, 2002 and
earlier are not comparable to proficiency data for November, 2002
and later years. Cut-scores were originally determined in 1997-98,
but were changed in 2002-03 after WKCE content was altered to
improve alignment with state academic standards, the No Child Left
Behind Act was implemented, and state testing dates were changed
from February to November. The newer cut scores are based on what
students should know and be able to do at the beginning of an
academic year. Thus in this study, A+P scores were used for
2002-05. November, 2006 scores were not yet reported when the
analysis occurred. It should be noted that not all data are
reported in WINSS to protect student privacy. Care is taken to
avoid disclosure of information about small groups of students. A
group is considered small if the number of students in the group is
five or fewer
This research study was organized around four questions that
compared the percentage of students who were categorized as
advanced or proficient on the WKCE (A+P score)
for each year from regular users of the Einstein Project materials
(hereafter referred to as Einstein Districts) with State
A+P scores and the A+P scores from a randomly selected set of
school districts that did not use the Einstein Project materials
(hereafter referred to as Non-Einstein Districts).
1. How did the A+P scores for fourth grade science from
Einstein Districts compare to State A+P scores?
A common question asked by many school personnel and parents is:
How well is my school district doing compared to State averages?
For each year of this study, the A+P score for each Einstein
District and the State were downloaded from WINSS. Simple averages
were calculated and are noted in the following table. For each year
and overall, the Einstein Districts had a higher A+P score than the
State A+P Scores
Einstein Districts' A+P
Average of 2002-05
In addition, from 2002-05, 88.2% of the individual Einstein
Districts had a higher A+P score than the State average. In other
words, almost nine out of ten Einstein Districts exceeded the State
A+P score. These two pieces of evidence point toward students from
Einstein Districts outperforming the State averages.
2. How do the A+P scores for fourth grade science from
Einstein Districts compare to the A+P scores from Non-Einstein
Included in the State A+P scores is the school district of
Milwaukee. For a variety of reasons, the performance of Milwaukee
Public Schools' students lowers the State A+P score. So what would
happen if Milwaukee was removed from the comparison, and the
Einstein Districts were compared to a randomly selected set of
Wisconsin school districts? (By the luck of the draw when this
random set was generated, Milwaukee was not selected.) Data in the
following table are similar to the previous table, except the State
scores have been replaced by the Non-Einstein Districts' scores.
Once again, the Einstein Districts' A+P scores are higher every
year and overall.
Non-Einstein Districts' A+P
3. Is the achievement gap in fourth grade science A+P
scores smaller for Einstein Districts when compared to (a) the
State and (b) Non-Einstein Districts?
The achievement gap in science between privileged students
(primarily white males from affluent backgrounds) and
underrepresented populations (traditionally, these groups include
females, minority students, students with disabilities,
economically disadvantaged students, and students who have limited
English skills) has drawn much attention from researchers, the
media, and school personnel. A common question has been: How can
more students from these populations be successful in the sciences?
One measure of success is academic achievement as measured by
standardized tests, so a couple of comparisons were made in this
study. For the comparison between the Einstein Districts and the
State, it was found that the achievement gap was smaller in
Einstein Districts every year and overall for students with
disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, students with
limited proficiency in English, and minority students. Even though
the overall achievement gap for female students was slightly
smaller for State A+P scores than Einstein District A+P scores, for
two of the four years represented in this study the Einstein
Districts achievement gap for female students was smaller than the
State gap. In fact, in 2005, female students had a higher A+P score
than male students in Einstein Districts, which is a rare
occurrence for female students.
For the comparison between the Einstein Districts and the
Non-Einstein Districts, the overall achievement gap was smaller in
Einstein Districts for female students, students with disabilities,
students with limited proficiency in English, and minority
students. The difference in the achievement gap for students with
limited proficiency in English was so large that it was
statistically significant. However, the achievement gap for
economically disadvantaged students was smaller for Non-Einstein
Districts than Einstein Districts.
4. How do the fourth grade science A+P scores for
Einstein Districts compare to (a) the State and (b) Non-Einstein
districts with respect to:
The final comparison in this study looked at how
underrepresented populations (e.g., female students) from Einstein
Districts compared to their counterparts (e.g., other female
students) in the State and from Non-Einstein Districts, whereas in
the previous question the underrepresented population (e.g.,
females) were compared to their privileged counterparts (e.g., male
students). For the first comparison, Einstein Districts
outperformed the State each year and overall for female students,
students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students,
students with limited proficiency in English, African American
students, Hispanic students, and combined minority students. The
Einstein District A+P scores for Asian students were greater each
year and overall, except for 2002. However, the State A+P scores
for Native American students were greater each year and
For the second comparison in this question, Einstein Districts
outperformed the Non-Einstein Districts each year and overall for
female students, students with disabilities, students with limited
proficiency in English, and Asian students. All of these
differences are so large that each is statistically significant.
Results were mixed for economically disadvantaged students, Native
Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and combined minority
students, with some years the Einstein Districts outperforming the
Non-Einstein Districts while other years the opposite occurred.
There are three overall conclusions that are solidly
substantiated by the data gathered in this study. All strengthen
the case for the use of a hands-on science curriculum in elementary
classrooms and show signs of academic success for underrepresented
student populations in the sciences:
In addition, female students, students with disabilities, and
students with limited English proficiency and Asian students from
Einstein Districts were found to significantly outperform their
counterparts from Non-Einstein Districts.
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