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Science Study Spurs Call for Reforms

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New York City--American schools should consider "radical"--and expensive--reforms in science education to raise achievement levels to those of students in other countries, the U.S. coordinator of an international science-achievement study said here last week.

Willard J. Jacobson, professor of natural sciences at Columbia University's Teachers College, noted that U.S. students consistently lagged behind those in all other countries in the international comparison, conducted in 1986.

"If we decide we want to pay the price to make our students score better, there are things that need to be done," said Mr. Jacobson.

"We may not want to pay the price the Japanese people pay to do well" in the international comparisons, he continued. "But these decisions should not be made by default."

Mr. Jacobson suggested that schools make policy changes that would enable more high-school students to take more than one year of a science course, as is the case in Japan. The additional instruction would allow teachers to reinforce their instruction on key concepts, and the repetition would encourage student mastery, he said.

In addition, he argued, schools should ensure that all students, not just boys, have access to science materials and equipment. When schools are short of equipment, they tend to limit access to the equipment to boys, which may explain why boys outperformed girls4in the study, Mr. Jacobson said.

Mr. Jacobson spoke here at a conference, sponsored by Teachers College, that presented an analysis of the findings from the second international science study.

The study, conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, found not only that U.S. 5th, 9th, and 12th graders performed at lower levels than students in Japan, England, and a nine-nation composite, but also that their performance had improved little over the past two decades.

The researchers had presented initial findings from the study in April at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. (See Education Week, April 29, 1987.)

The study measured pupil achievement in 24 countries. The high-school students were tested in general and advanced biology and chemistry, and in physics. The 5th- and 9th-grade students were tested on "process" skills that involved performing tasks and explaining their observations.

'Layer Cake'

The findings "indicate that all is not well with science in U.S. high schools," said Mr. Jacobson.

But the findings also suggest ways schools could improve, he added, such as by devoting more time to science instruction.

Currently, he said, U.S. schools take a "layer cake" approach in which they offer science in one-year layers, and a decreasing number of students study a science each year.

In Japan, by contrast, where science curricula are similar to those in the United States, more students take two or more years of a science, he said, over a longer school year.

"The subjects are complicated enough," he said. "You cannot depend on a student's having learned them by learning them once."

Gender Differences

The study showed boys outperforming girls in every subject and at every grade level.

Boys even scored higher than girls in classes in which the science teacher was female, noted Eve Humrich, a research associate with the iea "The overall results were unexpected," she noted. "We had hoped to find a relationship between teacher sex and student achievement, but none was detected."

Both boys and girls performed better in biology when they had a female teacher, although the sex difference was smaller in that subject, Ms. Humrich noted. Such results help biology "retain its notoriety as a 'feminine' subject," she said.

The gender differences narrowed substantially, however, on the "process" questions, she said.

On those questions, girls performed as well as boys, and on two items--one requiring the planning of an experiment to test seeds for oil content, and one dealing with paper chromotography--girls attained higher scores than boys.

Such results suggest that if girls and boys have equal access to materials and equipment, they can do equally well, Mr. Jacobson said.

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