Education Letter to the Editor

Science Testing: Little Harm, No Alternative

June 05, 2007 2 min read

To the Editor:

In his Commentary “The High Stakes in Science Education” (May 9, 2007), Jonathan King has done (for a scientist) a remarkable thing. He starts with a good, strong generalization: “As with other paper-and-pencil standardized tests, the effect of [science] NCLB testing will be to retard and narrow the quality of science education.” One then expects to see the evidence that standardized tests are harmful for science education. But he offers no such evidence.

Instead, he says that post-World War II, the United States led the world in science and technology, and that its scientists were predominantly from public schools. OK. But is this supposed to mean that there were no pencil-and-paper tests, standardized or not, or that the scientific greats were educated without written testing? If so, Mr. King is talking about something other than American education between 1945 and 1980, certainly not about our scientific leadership. They went to school before, during, and just after World War II. They were also pencil-and-paper tested, probably more so than contemporary students.

Mr. King dismisses the opinions of U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and the National Academies, who say our schools are failing. Presumably, he thinks they are not. But his evidence is not in this piece. Perhaps Mr. King thinks all testing done to judge students’ math and science achievement, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which existed long before the present administration in Washington, is fraudulent. Or he is convinced that written tests of any kind have nothing to do with scientific literacy or achievement. But then he never says plainly what, other than a Ph.D. perhaps, does indicate such achievement.

He does, however, laud “experience-based laboratory curricula.” Perhaps the claim is that standardized tests displace this work in schools. If so, Mr. King has been asleep during the K-12 science-standards movement of the last quarter-century. All 50 state sets of standards are tediously passionate about “hands-on,” “minds-on,” “active” learning, and are roundly derogatory of book knowledge.

So, verbally at least, K-12 education is solidly with Mr. King. Unfortunately, no perceptible, general improvement in the scientific competence of American students has been detected—by any available, reproducible measure. But perhaps Mr. King just doesn’t believe in measurement?

Paul R. Gross

Hingham, Mass.

The writer is a professor emeritus of life sciences at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Science Testing: Little Harm, No Alternative