Education

The Scientific Method

By Sean Cavanagh — October 09, 2007 8 min read
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This article was originally published in Education Week.

Some proponents of science education say they have faced no greater foe over the past few years than federally mandated tests in reading and mathematics, which have forced teachers to devote increasingly bigger chunks of class time to building students’ skills in those two subjects.

But if testing has squeezed science out, can testing also bring science back?

That’s the hope of teachers, scientists, and others who believe that a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act requiring states to begin testing students in science in elementary, middle, and high schools this academic year could compel schools to carve out more time for the subject.

The attention paid to science in classrooms, particularly in elementary and middle schools, has eroded over the nearly six years since the federal education law was enacted, critics say. They say schools were forced to cut back on science lessons in their attempts to raise achievement in reading and math, which must be tested annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

States will have to test students once a year in science within three grade spans: 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. While the law does exam scores to calculate whether schools are making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal law—as is the case with reading and math—some observers suggest the scrutiny generated by the tests could spark at least a modest scientific rebirth.

Stands on AYP

** Teachers were surveyed via the association’s weekly e-mail newsblast. The survey received 400 responses. SOURCE: National Science Teachers Association

BRIC ARCHIVE

“School systems want to do well on any test where the results are released to the public,” said Linda Froschauer, a longtime elementary and middle school science teacher in Weston, Conn., who now helps other teachers in the subject.

“We’ve hit a bottom,” said Ms. Froschauer, a former president of the 55,000-member National Science Teachers Association, of the time devoted to science. “I’d like to say that once we see test scores, we’ll see an increase.”

Meanwhile, the NSTA is one of several organizations that are not content with the current status of science in the No Child Left Behind Act. A number of scientific, education, and business groups are asking Congress, as it debates reauthorization of the law, to demand that states include science scores in judging whether schools make AYP. President Bush also supports such a change.

The NSTA, in Arlington, Va., and the 160,000-member American Chemical Society, in Washington, planned to send a letter this month to House education leaders in both parties, asking them to add science to the mandatory mix for judging annual progress.

Upping the Stakes

That letter also has been signed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based association of chief executive officers.

The business and science lobby played an active role in supporting the America COMPETES Act, which authorizes an estimated $43 billion in spending on federal programs in math and science education and research over the next three years. (“‘Competitiveness’ Bill to Aid Math, Science Is Signed by President,” Aug. 15, 2007.)

Supporters depicted that measure as crucial to ensuring the United States’ long-term economic success—an argument advocates are now making in their support for adding science to AYP calculations.

“Including science as a required component of the No Child Left Behind accountability system is a critical element in ensuring U.S. competitiveness,” the letter says. But even backers of such a change acknowledge they face resistance from some state and local education officials, who are wary of heaping more of a testing burden on schools and districts.

Susan Denning, who oversees curriculum and professional development for the Washoe County district, in Reno, Nev., understands those competing interests. She regards science as a crucial piece of the curriculum, but she also knows that schools in her 63,000-student district are scrambling to raise reading and math scores.

Stands on AYP

The NSTA also collected written opinions both for and against adding science-test scores as a mandatory part of AYP. Among them:

FOR

“If science results are not included in AYP, [there] will be less emphasis on teaching and funding for science.”

“Administrators might take science instruction more seriously and give us the support we need to increase student scores in science.”

“Teachers need the ability to see growth every year. If students [are not tested] yearly, it is impossible to see this. ... By making this part of the AYP, it adds value to science instruction.”

AGAINST

“Science is the least consistent curriculum across states and the nation. Too much that is tested is the result of home education and exposure and not what is actually being taught.”

“Science assessments that are completed through online testing and multiple-choice questions have the potential of becoming ‘trivial pursuit’ assessments and not true hands-on, minds on assessments.”

“We would only be teaching the test in science, which means there would be no time to allow the kids to ‘discover’ science, find the area they like and develop [it] for their future career choice[s].”

“It would certainly add pressure to schools that are already struggling,” Ms. Denning said. “It would be one more thing that would make it difficult for us to get to AYP in any year.”

Over the past three academic years, three of her district’s 14 middle schools have reduced by one semester the amount of science taught in grades 7 and 8, in an effort to devote more time to reading and math and make adequate progress. Only one school has made those same cutbacks this year, she said.

In addition to establishing science tests this year, states will be required to report publicly the results of those exams, as they now do in reading and math. So far, only five states have had their science tests approved by the U.S. Department of Education, said Patrick A. Rooney, a senior policy adviser in the office of elementary and secondary education.

States can voluntarily use science- test scores as part of determining whether their schools make AYP by selecting science exams as the “other academic indicator” for judging elementary and middle schools, alongside reading and math.

So far, the Education Department knows of six states that have included science in some fashion in calculating AYP: California, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In Virginia, for example, schools have the option of using science as the other academic indicator.

Most states have chosen attendance rates as their other academic indicator, Mr. Rooney said. States are required to use graduation rates as a measure of AYP for high schools. But they can also use science as an additional measure at that level if they choose, he said.

In a draft proposal for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, released last month, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, and other leaders of the panel suggested permitting states to include science along with reading and math in calculating AYP. Schools would be allowed to use some combination of test scores in science, civics, government, history, and writing to count for up to 15 percent of elementary and middle schools’ yearly-progress targets.

Though its “first preference” would be to have science added as a mandatory piece of the AYP formula, the science teachers’ association would support the 15 percent plan, said Jodi Peterson, its director of legislative affairs.

High-Quality Needed

The debate over the place science should occupy in the NCLB law generally divides advocates interested in promoting science content, such as teachers and curriculum experts, and state testing officials, who believe adding science to the AYP mix is unrealistic, said Arthur Halbrook, a senior associate with the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Many state officials worry about their ability to craft meaningful science assessments, which will gauge students’ overall understanding of scientific thinking and processes and promote good teaching. Multiple-choice tests are easier and cheaper to develop than exams that require short or extended answers, but they provide relatively little information about students’ scientific competence.

Richard N. Vineyard, Nevada’s assistant director for assessment and curriculum, outlined those worries in a paper earlier this year for the state schools chiefs. Nevada now tests students in grades 5 and 8 in science and is adding a high school exam this year.

If science tests are made a mandatory part of AYP, “there will have to be enough flexibility provided for the states to develop assessments that will reliably and validly measure progress in science,” Mr. Vineyard wrote. “They must be reflective of the ways that the standards encourage science to be taught using a handson, inquiry-based approach.”

Gauging the exact impact that No Child Left Behind has had on instructional time in science is difficult. Many science educators were concerned about neglect of their subject during the school day long before the law took effect.

A study released this year, however, by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and advocacy organization, found that 28 percent of districts surveyed reported having reduced the amount of time devoted to elementary school science since the law’s enactment, while 8 percent said they had increased that time. Of those that reported a decrease, instructional time in science dropped an average of 75 minutes a week.

By contrast, nearly 60 percent of districts reported having increased the time spent on elementary English language arts, and 45 percent said they had boosted time devoted to math.

Effect on Teaching

If states devise high-quality tests, and continually refine them, those exams could end up helping teachers who are weak in science, said Iris R.Weiss, the president of Horizon Research Inc., a Chapel Hill, N.C., company that studies curriculum, teaching, and testing in math and science. But poorly designed tests, she added, could stymie better science teachers, who might feel compelled to teach the subject in a rote manner.

Too many students are taught scientific vocabulary in isolation, without understanding that those terms are a type of shorthand for broader, essential scientific concepts, Ms.Weiss said. “If we get the measures right, it could really take it in the right direction,” Ms.Weiss said of science instruction. “We might gain some focus on science, which would be a good thing—if [tests] could go deep.”

Some teachers say science tests are helping them accomplish that already. At Pound Middle School in Lincoln, Neb., 7th grade science teacher Kristin S. Smith worked with colleagues from her district to draft a science test that she believes covers not only factual understanding, but also broader scientific knowledge. Nebraska allows districts to design their own tests in different subjects, which must later be approved by the state. In the 32,000-student district, students take four one-hour science tests a year.

Most of the questions are multiple- choice, but students are also asked to answer open-ended questions structured around a lab, which include coming up with relevant questions and hypotheses. Testing those scientific skills is harder than simply quizzing students on terminology, Ms. Smith said, but it’s necessary. “It’s holding teachers accountable,” Ms. Smith said. “You can’t always do your favorite project. You have to make sure you’re doing all the relevant content around science and not missing anything.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at www.kauffman.org.

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