Texas Science Teachers Fear Losing Clout, Resources Along With State's 8th Grade Test
Middle school science teachers in Texas are worried that their classroom resources are going to be drastically reduced because, starting next fall, the state will no longer require schools to administer its 8th grade science test.
Because financial sanctions and rewards for schools are linked to student scores on state assessments in Texas, many middle school teachers fear that their principals will put more emphasis on the subjects that are tested in middle school—mathematics, reading, and social studies—than on science.
"If it's not tied into money, we're lost," said Carol Henry, a science teacher at the 600-student Gus Garcia Middle School in San Antonio. "We're doomed."
Ms. Henry added that other science teachers say that they are worried that science, ultimately, is going to be ignored in middle schools.
Even now, the state is suffering from a shortage of science teachers, former state Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson declared in his keynote speech last month at the Texas Science Summit, a gathering in San Antonio of some 500 Texas science teachers.
But administrators are in a tough spot, counters Chris Castillo Comer, the director of science for the Texas Education Agency. School leaders have limited budgets and will tend to funnel money into subjects that have the most direct impact on their schools—the subjects that are tested by the state.
"It becomes difficult for them to justify the training and the cost of a good middle school science program, especially when they are being held accountable for math and reading," she said.
Ms. Comer, a former principal, said she understands that administrators have to work within their budgets, and added that they will always weigh students' needs.
Nonetheless, she said that she already has heard that some science teachers have been told to cut back on laboratory work and instead concentrate on remedial reading and writing.
And this is not simply a Texas issue.
The concerns raised by science teachers in the Lone Star State are justified, according to Brian M. Stecher, a senior social scientist with the RAND Corp., an independent research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif.
In his research, Mr. Stecher has shown that instructional priorities shift based on testing pressure. "There is a greater emphasis in terms of time and coverage, on things that are tested," he said.
He added that in some states, legislators have sent conflicting messages about instruction. "On the one hand, states have said that it is important for students to know subjects like science, art, social studies, and music," he said. But, by not testing those subjects with the same high stakes, states cause "teachers to reallocate time away from subjects [the state] has endorsed as being important."
Meanwhile, the shift in Texas grew out of a decision three years ago by the legislature to revise the state's assessments. As a result, the legislators added science exams in 5th, 10th, and 11th grades, and took out the science assessment in 8th grade. "There is always give and take," said Sen. Teel Bivins, the chairman of the state Senate's education committee.
He added that at that time, legislators wanted to make the state's high school curriculum more rigorous, and adding the science assessments in high school made the most sense. "This now better aligns our assessments with the recommended high school curriculum," said Mr. Bivins.
That is not good enough for a growing number of science teachers, who argue that by eliminating the assessment, and thereby de-emphasizing middle school science, students will have trouble with the high school exams. "We're concerned that students won't be ready for the exit exam," said Ms. Henry.
Ironically, under the reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was signed into law last month, states will be required to administer a science exam at least once between the 6th and 9th grades, starting in the 2007-08 school year.
But Ms. Comer of the Texas Education Agency said she hopes the Lone Star State won't wait that long to implement a middle-level science exam, because that would create a gap in the student-performance data state officials have been collecting. "We're hoping the next legislature will come in and right this wrong," she said.
Vol. 21, Issue 22, Page 24