Opinion
Education Commentary

Thoughts On Being ‘Number 1' in Science: If Testing’s To Be the Standard, Then the Price May Be Too Dear

By Alan Colburn — October 31, 1990 4 min read

Some 3,680,537 children were born in the United States in 1982. Now entering the 3rd grade, they are the class of 2000--the class that, according to the President and the governors, will graduate from high school “number-one in the world” for science and mathematics achievement.

Believe it or not, this is a bad idea.

The President did not refer to anything specific when making the number-one-in-science promise. But the most likely reference is to standardized testing programs like those of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. These tests often receive a lot of publicity in the United States, because U.S. students are rarely “number one.”

Even if we could be number-one on the iea science ranking, the results would not justify the changes to our schools that would have had to be made to get there.

Since the 19th century, this country has offered schooling for everyone. The same tradition of comprehensive education does not exist in other nations tested by the iea.

Many of the industrialized nations we are compared with have offered advanced secondary schooling only to a select group of students. Admittance to the elite group is usually based on performance on examinations that supposedly measure qualifications for university work. Students below minimum standards attend vocational schools, fail a grade, drop out, or otherwise do not pass on to the secondary school. Thus, test scores for these students are less likely to appear on international assessments than those for the groups who do well on standardized tests.

This European model of selectivity is prevalent in much of the world. For example, in Singapore, whose students regularly excel in international assess-ments, children are tested when they are 9 years old. One way the results are used is in the identification of “gifted” students (academic streaming). Students are again tested, for secondary-school placement, when they are l2 years old.

It would seem, then, that the easiest and fastest way for American students to approach being number-one on the iea in science (as well as other subjects) might be to introduce a selective national high-school-entrance examination. Students scoring below a minimum would attend schools other than the traditional (college preparatory) high school.

But a national high-school entrance exam would, of course, prove both unpopular and deleterious. Students of lower socioeconomic status would be disproportionately represented among those failing it. And the gap between the “haves’ and the “have nots” would increase. This goes against the American ideal that public education is supposed to increase opportunities.

Even without the unlikely changeover to a highly selective school system, any sort of national examination geared to bettering out test scores would prove deleterious if teachers began teaching “for the test.” The science tests are mostly fact-oriented or geared toward application of scientific relationships.

Teaching for the test would reflect a national goal of students’ memorizing a lot of science content. It would also be akin to making “sat Preparation"-type courses a school requirement. Students might spend time learning how to perform well on standardized tests without necessarily understanding the actual test questions.

If doing well on tests becomes our national goal, teachers will teach for the test. Less time will be spent helping students really learn.

Already, teachers routinely know what will be on (some) standardized tests, and they teach specifically for the tests. This practice is even encouraged by some school administrators. Both school and teacher may receive cash bonuses for high student achievement in some states. High scores are publicized, administrators (and teachers and students) get promoted, and everyone feels comfortable in the illusion that their school district is not part of a “nation at risk.”

But a high score on a standardized science test generally shows mastery of rote knowledge, rather than acquisition of scientific skills or scientific understanding. Literate, educated people do well on these tests--but being able to do well on them does not necessarily demonstrate that one is educated.

Unfortunately, not everyone knows this. For example, one superintendent, commenting on a new, year-round school calendar in his district, told the Chicago Tribune this year that “besides generating additional classroom seats, the most important benefit to teachers and parents is that our test scores increased.”

In fact, there is an international trend away from science curricula based mostly on content. In Japan, for example, the Ministry of Education has said that it feels the science curriculum is too content-based and too removed from students’ daily lives. Singapore also is moving toward more curricular emphasis on developing critical-thinking skills and creativity. It is reducing the proportion of content-based questions on the national science exams from 60 percent to 40 percent, according to Lean-Gaik Yeoh, a supervisor in the education ministry.

Nor is the trend away from content-dominated science curricula confined to Asia. European science education is increasingly emphasizing the values and applications of science. The Cambridge Syndicate, responsible for several of the United Kingdom’s national science exams, has revised its tests for the 1990’s, with increased emphasis on societal issues and questions dealing with the value of science to the larger world.

In fairness to U.S. test makers, it should be added that there are people here working to create standardized tests that attempt to measure more important skills than memorization. Tests may someday be able to accurately gauge the progress toward attaining the understanding and ability needed to be “number one” in science.

In the meantime, however, we must resist the urge to place importance on something just because it’s measurable.

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