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Are High-Stakes in Math and Reading Hurting Science?

By Sean Cavanagh — July 08, 2008 2 min read
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Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, science education advocates have worried that the law’s emphasis on reading and math has resulted in their favorite subject getting pushed out of the curriculum—presumably, with students learning less about it.

A study released today, however, argues that is not necessarily happening. At least not in Florida.

The research, published by the Manhattan Institute, examines the impact of high-stakes testing in reading and math in Florida on students’ performance in science. At the time of the study, science was a “low stakes” subject there, meaning poor test scores did not result in penalties for schools, though it now figures in school grade calculations in the state.

The study found that schools that received an F in the prior year, based on their reading and math scores under Florida’s A+ program, made greater gains on the state’s science exam than they would have if they had not received that failing grade.

The gains in science were “modest- to medium-sized,” author Marcus Winters explained. The increases were similar to those the Florida schools studied had made in reading, and appeared to be smaller than their increases in math.

The authors speculate that the previous year’s outcome on high-stakes testing in reading and math could have led schools to make changes that improved achievement across subjects, including science. Students’ improved math and reading skills also could have boosted their skills in science, they say.

Unlike some previous analyses, the new study seeks to examine the relative health of science education not by class time spent on that subject, but by students’ actual achievement, as measured by how well they scored on tests.

The findings “suggest that the incentives of Florida’s high-stakes testing program have not led to significant crowding out of student knowledge in the low-stakes subject of science,” the study says.

Students in Florida are tested in grade 5, 8, and 11 in science. Students in other parts of the country today, under the No Child Left Behind Act, are also tested annually in elementary, middle, and high school. The law does not, however, assign penalties for schools for low performance in science, as it does in reading and math, unless states decide to take that step.

The study focused on students’ performance in 5th grade, partly because there was less variation in Florida schools’ A-F grades at higher grade levels, said Winters, a senior fellow at the institute. He wrote the report with Jay P. Greene, also of the institute, and Julie R. Trivitt, of Arkansas Tech University.

The study suggests that No Child Left Behind’s focus on math and reading will not necessarily weaken science instruction, as some claim, Winters says.

Whether the science-teaching community accepts the study’s conclusions remains to be seen.

One point I’ve heard those folks make is that placing a heavy emphasis on math, and especially reading, at early grades will improve students’ science performance simply because those pupils will be more adept at reading basic-science texts, test questions, and so on. Heavy doses of math and reading at upper grades, they say, are not as likely to produce the same positive effect in science. Those grades were not considered in this study. Winters says addressing that question is a likely next step in the research—his, or someone else’s.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.