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Chat Wrap-Up: Science Education

June 06, 2006 5 min read
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On May 25, readers’ questions focused on the state of science education in the United States and specifically the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science, released the day before. They were answered by Michael J. Padilla, the president of the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, and Sean Cavanagh, the Education Week staff writer who covered the NAEP release. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Question: Please summarize the NAEP science-test results.

Read a complete transcript of our chat on “The State of Science Education.”

Cavanagh: In sum, the scores show 4th grade students making progress in science achievement, while scores among 8th grade students were relatively flat. Gains among 4th graders were strongest among the lowest-performing students, and the increases among minority students—particularly Latinos—were especially strong.

The most discouraging results for many school officials are shown among 12th graders, whose scores rose by a point from 2000 to 2005—but whose overall performance has fallen since 1996. Since 1996, the percentage of 12th grade students who could be deemed “proficient” in science has fallen; the portion of high schoolers whose skills meet even the “basic” level also fell. Keep in mind that to meet the basic threshold, a student need only be able to demonstrate “some knowledge and certain reasoning abilities” for understanding Earth, life, and physical science.

Question: Aristotle stated that wonder is the basis of knowledge. Given the fierce climate of testing in schools, how can science teachers keep this essential quality alive in students?

Padilla: Excellent point. That reminds me of a joke about a farmer who, in an attempt to increase the weight of his pig, emulated educators by weighing the pig daily. Sounds silly for agriculture, but to a certain extent that is what we are doing in education. So where is the balance? What is just enough testing, so that we can know what students understand and how well our policies and practices are producing better achievement? The key, to me, is understanding that testing is not a measure that will in itself improve achievement. Testing is only a way to find out what students know. If we don’t innovate with our curriculum and teaching methods, students will not improve.

Question: The NAEP for science is a document that will have a definitive impact on the education community. How can the results of that survey be utilized by schools?

Padilla: There are several ways that the results and processes used in NAEP can help schools. Many states follow a mandated state curriculum framework. So educators can look at their states’ scores to see if that framework is producing results. Are you seeing improvement? Where does your state stand relative to its peers? If you are not happy with your state’s results, then ask questions of your state officials. Second, schools can use the released NAEP test questions as models—they are excellent examples of what good paper-and-pencil test items can be. Analyzing released questions will help teachers write better ones for their own students. Released items can also be used for student practice. Third, I believe that both the NAEP framework and released items can give teachers a better vision of what the target should be in science. These tools can be used by teachers as they work together to improve their school’s performance.

Question: How can middle and high school teachers keep students interested in science and encourage more of them to take higher-level science courses, without scaring them away from challenging coursework?

Cavanagh: That’s a big question, and I can only offer an opinion based on what I’ve heard from teachers and others who seem to be having success. One of the most obvious problems in math and science education that everybody from teachers to national leaders identifies is students’ losing interest in those subjects as they grow older and move farther through the K-12 pipeline. This problem is especially noticeable among girls, who, according to some surveys, are keen on science in the early grades but seem to grow bored or discouraged with it by middle and high school—and are thus unlikely to choose it as a career.

Having teachers with strong content knowledge in science is key, as many experts have said. It’s hard for a teacher at any grade level to cover scientific material with the sort of flair that will engage students if that teacher’s content knowledge is shaky to begin with. This is especially true in middle and high schools, where the scientific material becomes more demanding. Many effective teachers say they are able to keep students interested in potentially daunting scientific material by drawing connections to applications in the world outside the classroom—through ongoing activities and projects, discussions of scientific topics in the news, and similar efforts that are directly linked to specific content.

Question: Has there been any effort made to convince textbook publishers to create textbooks that are limited to the focus of the NSTA’s National Science Education Standards, but that create opportunities for learning in depth as well?

Padilla: It doesn’t take an acute observer to see that students’ science textbooks are getting larger and heavier each year. There is an insidious cycle that causes this. Most states and districts base their frameworks on the NSES and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy. What I have observed is that nothing is ever left out, and oftentimes topics are added to the list. The consequence for districts of leaving anything out of their frameworks is not getting it adopted, so they make sure that doesn’t happen. Textbook companies, in response to the marketplace, create books that match the frameworks. So, the books get bigger and bigger. The textbook companies blame the schools and the schools blame the companies.

At some point, we are going to have to figure out what needs to be eliminated. As the amount of scientific knowledge increases, we cannot simply continue to add more to the curriculum.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Science Education

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