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Study Finds Achievement Up In Biology, Physical Sciences

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American students know more about biology and physical science than they did in 1970, according to preliminary results of the Second International Science Study.

The preliminary data, which show improvements in "process" skills associated with scientific study, suggest that "science teachers are doing something right" despite the current climate of criticism, says the Columbia University researcher who coordinated the American part of the international project.

The study, sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, was designed to investigate science achievement and curricula in elementary and secondary schools in about 25 countries. It looked specifically at students in grades 5 and 9, physics students in grade 12, and students in grade 12 who were not studying any science.

More than 200 U.S. public and private schools participated in the study, which during 1983 tested 2,909 students in grade 5 and 1,958 students in grade 9. These are the only tests analyzed to date.

Science achievement grew by 6.5 percent for the 5th-grade students and 5.2 percent for the 9th-grade students compared with the results of the First International Science Study conducted in 1970, said the U.S. coordinator, Willard J. Jacobson, professor of natural sciences at Columbia's Teachers College.

Students in both grades performed slightly better on the biology questions than on the physical-science questions. In particular, students in l983 surpassed their earlier peers on "process" questions, which required them to classify, calculate, measure, and otherwise analyze data in order to arrive at an answer, Mr. Jacobson said.

Programs' Impact

"If these findings hold," he said, "we can argue that the new programs developed in the 1960's and 1970's have had an impact. Children do understand more about the processes of science, and they are better able to apply what they know."

Consistent with the findings of the first International Science Study, males outperformed females overall on the tests, with greater differences between the sexes showing in grade 9 than in grade 5, according to the findings. The 1970 study found that a student's sex was the strongest single factor correlated with science achievement.

The 1983 study also found that nonpublic-school students in grade 5 performed significantly better than did public-school students on the test. Although the difference was not significant for grade 9, females in grade 9 in nonpublic schools surpassed the achievement of their male peers.

These results are consistent with previous science-education research, according to the associate research coordinator, Rodney Doran, professor of science education at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The only area in which students had lower scores than in 1970 was knowledge about the moon. One question asked how long a rocket trip to the moon would last. The other asked students to name the source of moonlight.

Space Travel

Children taking the test in 1970 probably had greater exposure to information about space travel, since men first traveled to the moon in 1969, said Mr. Jacobson and Mr. Doran. Mr. Jacobson also noted that knowledge about the moon is taught in earth-science classes, which are given less time in the school curriculum than other science courses.

The American research team presented their preliminary findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held May 24-29 in New York City. Mr. Jacobson and Mr. Doran expect to have results in the fall from similar tests given to 12th-grade students in physics classes and to others who were not studying any science.

By 1986, the researchers hope to compare results from the American study with those obtained from similar tests administered in 25 other countries. While each country is conducting its own study, there are items on the achievement tests and questions and statements on questionnaires regarding school practices and student attitudes that are common to all countries, the researchers said. In addition, they said, some test questions from the 1970 test were repeated in the new tests to allow for longitudinal comparisons.

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