The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know.  It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't"....  ...Anatole France

Commentary of the Day - February 19, 2001:  Science Education and The Dilemma of "High-Stakes" Testing:

One of the central features of the recent "accountability" movement in K-12 education has been the development of "standards" and "assessment" instruments.  Although education is primarily a state responsibility and the actual standards that are put into place in the K-12 schools are state standards, national organizations have developed model standards for school mathematics and science education that frequently form the basis for state standards.  Non-governmental organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science together with quasi-governmental organizations such as the National Academy of Science have been active in efforts to make the public aware of the poor state of school math and science education.  These groups also have developed model standards aimed at improving the education that K-12 students receive in these subjects.

"Science for All Americans" and "Benchmarks for Science Literacy" are two examples of such standards for science education.  These are detailed sets of standards that delineate what every school child should learn about science in elementary, middle and high school.  The goal of these standards in noble -- to raise the level of scientific literacy in the  United States to an acceptable level.  Well-known science educator Audrey B. Champaign from the State University of New York - Albany, speaking at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has said that education policy is "standards with teeth".  By this she meant that when accountability measures with both rewards and sanctions are added to standards  "de facto" education policy has been established.

The aim of the education policy that has been proposed by the  Bush Administration, and which has been supported widely by both Democratic and Republican legislators, is to use annual testing as the instrument to achieve accountability in the distribution of federal aid to K-12 education.  Many states are carrying the idea one step further by requiring students to pass similar exams to receive a high school diploma -- so-called "high-stakes" testing.

As the Irascible Professor sees it, two problems are created by the combination of universal science education standards and corresponding high-stakes tests to measure student performance.  First,  a "one size fits all" set of standards that are aimed primarily at developing science literacy may not be appropriate for those students who might be interested in science or engineering careers.  Ideally, we should be doing more to identify those students who exhibit an interest in science and to nurture that interest with activity- and inquiry-based learning.

Second, when high-stakes tests are employed, teachers tend to teach to these tests.  For practical reasons the tests almost always end up being of the multiple choice variety.  Teachers typically use a "drill and practice" approach to prepare their students for them.  Unfortunately, drill and practice exercises are the best way to destroy any interest a student may have in a subject.  These rote memorization exercises do little to help students understand the underlying scientific theories.  Instead, they turn learning into punishment.

The dilemma, however, is that without some impetus for improvement science teaching in America's K-12 schools is unlikely to change.  The Irascible Professor thinks that better teachers and more resources would go a long way towards achieving that impetus.  Testing can play a role, but it should not be the sole focus.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.