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'Basics' Push May Hurt Science, Math Achievement, Study Finds

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The emphasis on "basics" that led to significant gains among low-achieving students in the 1970's coincided with a less encouraging shift: declining achievement in science and mathematics among more academically able students.

That is the central conclusion of a new analysis, released yesterday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep).

Based on the scores of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students on standardized achievement tests in reading, science, and mathematics, the analysis dissects broad national trends in the scores by looking at the gains and losses made by students at various levels of achievement. The analysis also examines some of the social and educational factors that may explain why students' scores are rising in some areas and declining in others.

The researchers based their conclusions on the scores of between 50,000 and 90,000 students who took reading tests in 1975 and 1980, mathematics tests in 1973 and 1978, and science tests in 1973 and 1977.

"We wanted to determine whether students at different achievement levels exper-ienced the same kinds of changes in performance," said Beverly L. Anderson, director of naep, in a statement issued by the Denver-based organization.

Rapidly Escalating Concern

The report, "Reading, Science, and Mathematics Trends: A Closer Look," comes at a time of rapidly escalating concern about the state of science and mathematics education. In addition, many states are re-examining their high-school curricula and considering more stringent requirements for graduation, particularly in science and mathematics. A handful of states have already enacted such requirements.

The naep analysis defines "high" and "low" achievers in terms of their scores on naep assessments. High achievers were those who scored in the top 25 percent of the national assessments; low achievers' scores fell in the bottom 25 percent. Both categories cut across socioeconomic levels, the report says.

Among the trends that emerged from the analysis:

Both high- and low-achieving 9-year-olds improved their reading performance, but those who had performed poorly in the past improved the most. The improvement in reading continued for low achievers through age 13.

In all three age groups, the mathematics and science scores of high-achieving students dropped between 2.5 to 4.3 percentage points between the two assessments.

Students whose scores fell in the bottom quartile did not improve in the areas of mathematics and science, with the exception of 13-year-olds, who made some gains in science.

At all three age levels, black students who were at the expected grade level for their age were more likely than white students in the same grade to show gains, although the overall performance of black students remained below that of whites.

A panel of experts convened by naep identified several factors that may lie behind these trends, according to the report.

The gains in reading made by low achievers, the group suggested, can prob-ably be linked to the compensatory-education programs that flourished during the 1960's and 1970's.

Both the "Right-to-Read" effort and Title I served large numbers of disadvantaged children. Proponents of the federal program, as well as some education researchers, have long argued that children who participated achieved significant educational gains.

The programs for disadvantaged children coincided with the "back-to-basics" movement that occurred in many states, the panelists pointed out. This movement, they suggested, "often focused on lower-level skills, perhaps at the expense of a challenge for more able learners."

But at the same time, the report says, "support for science programs dwindled, and mathematics didn't get the emphasis reading did." Shortages of qualified teachers in these fields grew during the 1970's, and "high-school graduation requirements in both science and mathematics were relaxed."

The panel made several recommendations for correcting the imbalances in achievement. They include: increasing support for science and mathematics programs; ensuring that high schools offer courses that will allow students to pursue technical studies; and reviewing teacher-certification policies.

In addition, the panel of experts suggested, educators should "reconsider the assumption that if students have the basics, more complex reasoning and problem-solving skills will automatically follow."

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