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'White-Knuckling It' Up Through the System

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Nearly half of the adolescent students surveyed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress say they often read science articles in magazines and newspapers, watch science-related television programs, or do science projects that are not required for school.

Yet between 1969 and 1981, the percentage of high-school students taking most elective upper-level science courses declined perceptibly.

Nearly half of the nine-year-olds sampled by the national assessment listed mathematics as their favorite subject.

Yet, among high-school students, mathematics is considerably lower in popularity; both voluntary enrollment and achievement in the subject have declined.

Minority-group students, surveys indicate, have very positive attitudes toward science. Yet, with the exception of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, they are greatly underrepresented in upper-level mathematics and science courses and the careers to which those courses lead.

In the elementary grades, girls perform better than boys on many mathematical tasks. Yet despite their generally superior reading ability, girls tend to do worse on "word problems." By high school, both their attitudes and their performance are worse than those of boys--and by college, the differences are dramatic.

Researchers and practitioners have become increasingly concerned with what they call "math and science dropouts," and are exploring when and why such turnabouts occur.

From experience and field work, many researchers and educators have concluded that, all too often, students come to view mathematics and science as abstract, difficult, boring, and of questionable social value. Schools, they say, often employ methods and materials that discourage low achievers, girls, and minority-group students. In addition, colleges and, consequently, elementary and secondary schools have contributed to the decline by downplaying the importance of rigorous academic courses.

Young children like mathematics "because it's cut and dried; there is a right answer, and there's a lot of satisfaction in that," observes Victoria L. Chapman, editorial director of mathematics magazines for Scholastic Inc.

But, more than other subjects, mathematics and science become increasingly abstract and require orderly thinking and independence. "I think it follows this whole pattern of less self-discipline," says Marjorie Steinkamp, a science-education researcher at the University of Illinois. "When it comes to math and science, self-discipline is essential, and I think kids know that. Many young people are turned off to the 18- and 20- hour days that they see scientists as putting in."

The high-school curriculum itself may be another turn-off: "In 9th-grade algebra, you encountered these equations and binomials, and you could see no reason as to what it was all about," notes Lola J. May, elementary mathematics consultant for the public schools in Winnetka, Ill. "You had to keep all the numbers and letters straight, and there were these exponents flying around. For people who couldn't grasp abstractions easily, a chapter a week was just impossible. You were white-knuckling it."


One of the ironies, educators say, is that application of mathematical and scientific principles--the very thing that makes the subjects more exciting and palatable--is one of American students' greatest weaknesses.

"The classic complaint is that kids know how to compute, but they don't know when," says Ms. Chapman of Scholastic Inc.

Ms. Chapman and others trace the problem to about 4th grade, when most schools expect students to consolidate and begin applying the reading and arithmetic skills they have learned so far. But the "back-to-basics" movement, with its emphasis on measurable skills such as decoding words--sometimes at the expense of understanding entire passages--has left many students poorly prepared for applied arithmetic and science.

Elizabeth Fennema, a well-known researcher in mathematics education at the University of Wisconsin, alludes to the "density" of word problems--"every word has an important meaning"--and suggests that even children who perform well in their reading classes may not have the powers of concentration and inference required to understand them.

"I think it's a thinking problem," Ms. Chapman says. "When you and I read, we are reading as literate people, making judgments as we go. Many youngsters, when they read, just call out the words and they read without thought. Similarly, with arithmetic, they rotely, routinely do the problem if it's set up for them.

"But the whole notion of wrinkling the brow and ferreting out meaning is a foreign notion to these kids. The idea that you read and figure out, that you read and pull out information, is foreign to them. I don't know why it happens this way. I do know that time and again you can walk into a classroom and find kids doing without thinking. American kids just are not doing a lot of thinking, ferreting out, studying, working at material."

For students now in high school, who attended elementary school before the "back-to-basics" thrust, the problem is slightly different, says Ms. May. "A lot of them went to 'open-classroom' elementary schools with individualized instruction. That produced a lot of children who didn't really know how to settle down and work when they really had to. We're now looking more at certain fundamentals, saying that these are things you have to learn."


In what many observers believe was an overreaction to the post-Sputnik era--or a belief that the reforms of that period would solve the problems permanently--schools and society at large throughout the late 1960's and much of the 1970's placed a lower premium on scientific and mathematical attainment.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national mean graduation requirement in mathematics is 1.7 years of high-school study, in science, 1.6 years. Available figures indicate that many students do the minimum. In 1980, according to "Public and Private Schools," the study by James S. Coleman and colleagues based on data from High School and Beyond, public-school seniors on average completed 2 years of mathematics and 1.7 years of science, private-school seniors about 2.4 years of mathematics and 2 years of science.

"In the last 10 years, no one has said, 'Hey, this is important,"' says Ms. Chapman. "Then the climate was, go to basics--computation and survival math, if you will. Now people are interested not so much in competency but in achievement, high achievement. There's recently been more and more attention to telling kids that if you want to do this career, you need four years of high-school math. Now that the wheel has turned, they're going to get it. They'll be in a climate that says it's important. You get what you ask for."

A recent study by Clifford Adelman of the National Institute of Education indicates not only that enrollments in most science and mathematics courses declined, but that what was taught was often diluted and devalued.

Compounding the problem is what Mr. Adelman called "the rise of the general track," which he described as a disjointed collection of survey and personal-service courses. The general track, which accounted for only 12 percent of the students in his sample of 1969 high-school graduates, enrolled 42.5 percent of the students studied in the graduating classes of 1976 to 1981. During the same period, the percentage of students enrolled in the "academic/college preparatory" track declined from 48.8 to 36.4.

According to Mr. Adelman's transcript analysis, which was prepared for the National Commission on Excellence in Education, students in the "general track" were far less likely than academic-track students to have taken algebra and geometry, and more likely to have taken Consumer Math and such courses as Math 1 and Math 2, which Mr. Adelman characterized as frequently being general or remedial in nature. Yet a high proportion of general-track graduates expected to attend college and to succeed.

Devaluation was also manifested in grade inflation, according to the Adelman study. While the proportion of students taking upper-level mathematics and science courses declined--as did scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and other standardized examinations--the percentage receiving A's and B's increased markedly, he noted. "Grades in mathematics and science courses rose at a faster rate than those in any other major course groupings," Mr. Adelman wrote. He offered three possible explanations: that only the most able students continue in mathematics and science; that teachers hike grades in an effort "to hold onto students"; and that teachers "perceive each course in the sequence as more of a college-preparatory course, hence hand out higher grades."

Whatever the reason, Mr. Adelman suggests, the grade inflation led students to believe they were learning more--while test results indicated they were not.

The Adelman study notes that a majority of colleges and universities eased entrance and graduation requirements during the intervening years. Other experts also believe there was a direct link between college requirements and high-school electives, and that higher college standards will help turn the situation around.


There are already signs that students and their parents are responding to the well-publicized alarm over mathematics and science. Several states and districts report that enrollments in upper-level courses have begun to turn upward again in the past few years.

A nationwide survey of some 700 principals, analyzed by Wayne W. Welch, professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, shows that 1981-82 enrollment rates in high-school biology, chemistry, and physics had risen by 2 to 6 percentage points since the 1976-77 school year. In grades 7 through 9, Mr. Welch found, the proportion of students enrolled in a science course held steady at 86 percent.

"I was kind of surprised at this," says Mr. Welch, whose special science project was supported by the National Science Foundation with data collection by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. "I think we reached the nadir in the late 1970's. It's a slight upswing, but it's in the right direction."

Increases in statewide graduation requirements, he adds, have been too recent to account entirely for the upturn. "It probably reflects a return on the part of students to a more traditional attitude toward enrolling in subjects," he suggests. "You talk to principals now, and they say, 'Yeah, kids are more serious about schooling."'

Adds David L. Dye, mathematics specialist for the Minnesota education department: "I think the publicity has resulted in parents' realizing that kids need to take those courses. Now, not everybody can understand calculus or precalculus concepts by 12th grade, but we don't know where that cutoff point is. We don't think we have reached it."

Perhaps the greatest challenge, according to some educators, is finding ways to harness and maintain the interest demonstrated by young children, without sacrificing rigor. For example, one educator noted that children quite rightly wonder why they spend weeks practicing three-digit multiplication when they can observe their parents using calculators. And surveys indicate that, while high-school freshmen regard mathematics as the subject that will be most useful to them in their adult lives, the perceived utility of both mathematics and science slips as students progress through high school.

"One of the big criticisms is that kids are turning off science and enrollment is dropping and their expertise is dropping," says Irma S. Jarcho, head of the science department at New York's New Lincoln School. "The reason, I think, is that teachers teach too much to the textbook and are so anxious to finish it that they can't be bothered with anything that's happening in the kids' lives."

The "irrelevance" problem, too, may stem from the recent emphasis on test scores and quantifiable skills. "Teachers have this great big conflict," says Ms. Chapman. "If, on April 4, my kids are going to be given the Iowa Test or whatever, I as a teacher have a duty to teach percentage increases and ratios. I'd want my kids to do well on the test. We never say to teachers, 'Take a week and give your kids this experience with numbers and data, pulling value from it as we do in the adult world, whether it's on a science level or a marketing level or a newspaper reporter's level. We are not asking teachers to act this way."

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