Urban Students Fold Under Basic Science

By Sean Cavanagh — November 27, 2006 6 min read
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Students in urban schools struggled with relatively basic tasks in a recent test of their science skills, a weakness observers say reflects many teachers’ tenuous knowledge of the subject, as well as the inconsistent way in which it is taught across the country.

A federal study released this month shows that students in 10 urban districts scored below nationwide averages in science at the 4th and 8th grade levels on a 2005 version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Read the report, “The Nation’s Report Card: Science 2005 Trial Urban District Assessment,” available from the National Center for Education Statistics’ resource center on the Nation’s Report Card.

Fourth and 8th graders from a larger group of 70 districts, serving cities with populations of at least 250,000 residents, also lagged behind their peers nationwide, according to the report issued Nov. 15, which is known as a trial urban district assessment.

“My general impression is one of extreme disappointment,” said Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va. “I can’t imagine these kids surviving in a scientifically literate society.”

The science scores mirrored urban schools’ performances in reading and mathematics, though there has been progress in those subjects, based on NAEP scores released last year. The urban science test is the first of its kind, so no comparison with previous scores is available.

The 10 districts in the science assessment were Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Boston; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Houston: Los Angeles; New York City; and San Diego. Between 1,000 and 2,000 students in each district, at each grade level, took the test. The districts’ participation was voluntary.

While the scores among those districts varied greatly, they were almost uniformly low, when compared with national averages. The average 4th grade score nationwide, for example, was 149, on a 300-point scale. Scores among the 10 urban districts reached only as high as 147, notched by the Austin school system, with the Chicago and Los Angeles districts tying for the lowest score, with 126.

In 8th grade, Austin also achieved the top score, of 144, while Atlanta had the lowest mark, with 117. All 10 urban districts, however, fell short of the nationwide student average in 8th grade of 147.

Differentiated Pay

NAEP, known as “the nation’s report card,” examines samples of students in school districts. Educators and researchers rely heavily on the national assessment as a consistent gauge of academic headway, including across racial and ethnic categories, which otherwise could only be measured by individual state and district tests.

Trial-Assessment Scores

Students in large urban districts don’t stack up to their peers nationwide on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science. The scores are on a 300-point scale.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to view chart: Trial-Assessment Scores

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

The 4th and 8th grade science NAEP covered a range of topics in the earth, physical, and life sciences. The test breaks out student scores in three achievement categories: “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” More than half the 4th graders in the 70 large central cities scored below basic, which, as defined by the report, meant they could not carry out investigations on a basic level, interpret fairly simple graphs, or have a beginning understanding of energy or of scientific classifications and relationships.

The Council of the Great City Schools initiated the request to conduct the special urban assessment in science, as well as previous tests in other subjects, said Stephanie Germeraad, a spokeswoman for the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the council, a Washington organization that works on behalf of many of the nation’s big-city school systems, sees the low scores as evidence of the need for national standards in science—guidelines he also believes are necessary in reading and math. In recent months, some education advocates have renewed calls for national standards in core subjects, such as science, saying strong steps are needed to keep the United States competitive internationally.

“It is the height of national folly to think that America can maintain any competitive edge in science the way we are now testing and teaching it,” Mr. Casserly said at a Washington event announcing the NAEP results.

Support for national standards has traditionally met resistance from federal lawmakers, who have recoiled from challenging state and local governments’ control over school policy. Nevertheless, the No Child Left Behind Act has given the federal government more say over how schools are run.

Mr. Casserly also argued in favor of paying science teachers more than teachers of other subjects, an idea that Mr. Wheeler said the 55,000-member NSTA supports.

Talented undergraduate math and science majors have many lucrative job opportunities, Mr. Wheeler noted. “We live in a capitalistic society,” he said. “We’ve got the Intels and Microsofts of the world competing for these people.”

Some districts have implemented policies to pay teachers in science and other in-demand subjects higher salaries or offer other monetary incentives. Teachers’ unions usually resist such proposals. In Massachusetts, a coalition of 50 superintendents has pledged to support differentiated, higher pay for math and science teachers in their districts as part of an initiative aimed at boosting state funding for programs in those subjects.

“Our superintendents are saying, ‘We want to level the playing field with private industry,’ ” said Alison L. Fraser, the director of the Great Schools Campaign, the Boston-based advocacy group leading the effort.

‘Low Status’ Career Path

Schools have long struggled to attract and retain qualified math and science teachers. At the high school level, 61 percent of students who take a chemistry course and 45 percent who take a biology course are taught by teachers with neither a major nor certification in that subject, according to federal statistics.

Science teachers at the elementary and middle school levels tend to have a similar lack of subject-matter expertise, said Heather G. Peske, a senior associate at the Education Trust, a Washington organization that promotes higher achievement by low-income students. While she agrees that math and science teachers are lured away from schools by higher-paying jobs, Ms. Peske said even more potential hires lose interest before they ever set foot in the classroom because many undergraduate science and math majors come to see teaching as a “low status” career path.

“They’re discouraged by the perception of the profession, and by the reality of the low salaries,” Ms. Peske said.

Federal lawmakers are considering several bills aimed at increasing the pool of well-qualified math and science teachers as part of a broader undertaking to gird the United States’ economy against foreign competition and foster technological innovation. Proposals include making it easier for students seeking bachelor’s and master’s degrees, who were not originally considering careers in education, to gain certification to teach math or science.

Finding elementary and early-middle school teachers who are trained in science is a particular challenge, because teachers at those levels are typically expected to cover several subjects in which their training may be limited. In an attempt to help such educators, the NSTA and other organizations are lobbying Congress to support paying for “science specialists,” or teachers with training and certification who could teach all science lessons in an elementary school, or offer tutoring and support to other teachers who are struggling in that subject. (“Schools Enlist Specialists To Teach Science Lessons,” April 7, 2004.)

With specialists, schools “could ensure that they have at least one teacher with strong content knowledge,” Ms. Peske said. “It’s more efficient.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Urban Students Fold Under Basic Science


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