APS News

Assessment Tests Can Marginalize Science Education

Editor's note: This story was researched and written for APS News by Richard M. Todaro.

The release in October of a controversial report by the RAND Corp. think tank questioning the significant rise in test scores on the Texas state-wide assessment tests is the tip of a larger controversy over whether such assessment tests are inadvertently undermining the education of America's school children. While there is no shortage of strongly held opinions, available data indicates that US students today are doing about as well as they were in 1990, significantly better than around 1980 and, with a few exceptions, about the same as in 1970.

The RAND study was addressing the question of whether excessive test preparations are actually degrading classroom instruction by failing to improve genuine understanding in reading, writing, and math. Another, less well-known aspect of the controversy is the charge that science education is being neglected in order to prepare students for the tests in math and language arts.

Ted Schultz is the director of the Teacher-Scientist Alliance Institute, an educational outreach program run by the APS. He is a strong advocate of a "hands-on, inquiry-centered science" approach that he says allows students to "do" science rather than just memorizing and reciting. Schultz is also wary of some of the increased emphasis on state standardized tests.

"We work with about 60 school districts nationwide, and we are finding that a recent emphasis on math and language arts is driving teachers, schools and whole districts to increase the amount of time and professional development money allocated to these," Schultz says. "This collides head-on with our efforts to build new standards-based science programs."

Jerry Valadez is the K-12 science coordinator of the Fresno, Calif., Unified Public School District. He coordinates all science programs in the 80,000 student-strong school district, the fourth largest in California.

Valadez is also a major critic of California's current standardized testing with the Stanford Achievement Test -Version 9, known by its acronym SAT-9, because the state omits the science component of the test.

"'What matters is what is measured,'" Valadez says, quoting the old clich. "Because science is not assessed in California, science is being somewhat marginalized as one of the core subjects."

Brenda Evans is also highly critical of her state's assessment test. Evans coordinates K-8 science education throughout North Carolina.

In 1994, North Carolina adopted an assessment program called ABC, an abbreviation of the buzz words "accountability," "the basics," and "local control." The ABC program only measures reading, writing and math skills. Evans believes that the high stakes nature of the test causes teachers to neglect science education even as the overall quality of education is degraded.

"Teachers are spending too much time teaching to the test that doesn't encourage real-world problem solving," Evans says. "Math teaching is shallow and by rote while science and social studies are suffering greatly. We have teachers who love teaching science but are told not to do so."

Michael Kestner also works for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, where he serves as the section chief for mathematics and science. He says there is simply not enough hard data to support the conclusions of critics like Evans.

"We are getting a lot of anecdotal evidence saying that there is less attention [being paid] to science [but] I don't think we have enough data to make any formal, concrete statements to say science is being neglected," Kestner says.

Although Kestner was referring to North Carolina, there is a great deal of US test score data that compare US students in different states. It is collected by the US Department of Education's statistical office, the National Center for Education Statistics, known by its abbreviation, NCES.

NCES has run a highly-regarded assessment program known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since 1969.

The NAEP program conducts a yearly assessment of 9, 13, and 17 year olds in a series of subject areas, including reading, math, and science. A given subject area is assessed every two to four years. Dating back to 1969-1970, NAEP's long-term trend assessment has used the same methodology since its inception, and so measures progress in various subject areas over time. NAEP also conducts periodic, comprehensive assessments of all 50 states, providing a "cross-section" of how students are doing a particular time.

So what do the data show regarding science performance?

The 1999 NAEP trends report indicates that over the past 30 years, test scores among 9-year olds fell from 1970-1973, remained stable from about 1973-1982, and rose "significantly" thereafter until 1990. Scores have been stable ever since.

Among 13-year olds, scores fell from 1970-1977 and then rose "significantly" until 1992. Scores have fallen slightly since 1992, but are about where were in 1970.

Finally, among 17-year olds, test scores fell "significantly" from 1969-1982 and then rose "significantly" from 1982-1992. They have been relatively stable since, and are about where they were in 1973.

"It may be tempting to look at recent trends in NAEP science scores to see any effect of the increased emphasis on language arts and math testing," Schultz notes, "but the most recent national NAEP science assessment was done in early 1996, and the smaller long-term trend assessment was done in 1999, while the emphasis on language arts and math has been gathering strength only in the last two or three years. Thus, even for 9-year olds, the effects won't be visible until the reports on the national test in 2000 or the long-term test in 2003. For the two older age groups, it will take four or eight years longer and there will be other important variables that could obscure the effects."

Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner for assessment at NCES, says that while this trend assessment will be maintained, newer ones are being used.

"The newer assessment is a more contemporary one looking at what experts thinks kids should know and be able to do in today's society," Carr says. She adds that the 2000 science report will be released in September or October of 2001. It will provide more data to address the question of what effect state assessment tests are having on science education in the classroom.

Schultz cautions, though, that this will be possible for the elementary grades only in the small fraction of states that have standardized testing of science in those grades, and even then it will be difficult to disentangle the effect of such tests from other changes that will also be occurring.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette