Middle School Science Texts Full of Errors, Review Finds

By Michelle Galley — January 24, 2001 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 2 min read
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Corrected: The January 24 print edition and an earlier web edition of this article misspelled the name of Linda Ronstadt.

Science textbooks used by an estimated 80 percent of middle school students nationwide are riddled with errors, a new study concludes.

For More Information

Read the “Review of Middle School Science Texts,” from the Physical Sciences Resource Center.

The review of 12 of the most popular middle school science textbooks, conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, lists specific errors in science textbooks in the hope of helping publishers avoid similar mistakes in the future, according to John L. Hubisz, a co-author of the report.

Some problems, such as an illustration depicting the equator running through central Texas and a picture of singer Linda Ronstadt that was labeled as a silicon crystal, were merely production errors, Mr. Hubisz said. More disturbing, he said, were factual inconsistencies and substantive mistakes. “We were after those things that would really upset middle school students,” he said.

For example, one book the researchers examined, Glencoe: Science Interactions, published in 1998 by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, asks students to find the volume of an object when given only the depth and width, and not the height. It also gives the wrong formula for finding the volume of a sphere. In addition, the text refers to the concepts of “heterogeneous” and “homogeneous,” which are not introduced until later in the book, according to the review. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill officials could not be reached for comment last week.

The two-year study, which was underwritten by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, underscores concerns cited in a report released in 1999 by Project 2061, the education improvement initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That report found that middle school textbooks did not adequately teach the fundamentals of science. (“Science Group Finds Middle School Textbooks Inadequate,” Oct. 6, 1999.)

As part of the AAAS project, publishers, curriculum developers, and state textbook administrators will tackle the issue of improving textbooks at a three-day conference next month in Washington.

Parallel Process

Such mistakes occur because too many authors are working on a book at the same time, some of the authors are not knowledgeable in the field of science, and “no one has checked the continuity,” Mr. Hubisz argued.

He recommended that fewer authors work on a book, and that publishers hire content reviewers who are specialists in their fields of science.

But that is not how the industry works, according to Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers. “Textbooks have a much broader range of expertise than a single person would have,” he said.

Textbooks have more design elements than books that are text only, and publishers need to make sure the presentation is age-appropriate, Mr. Driesler said. Such considerations mean the preparation of a textbook often requires a team of people.

Unlike the way in which a novel is produced—typically with a single author and one or two editors—chapters of a textbook may be prepared simultaneously by different writers. “It is not a linear process,” Mr. Driesler said. “It is a parallel process.”

In general, publishers have experts on subject matter working on the content of the textbook, he added. “The publishers do pull together teams of experts in the given fields to put together the material,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Middle School Science Texts Full of Errors, Review Finds


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