Students failing in science proficiency

by Crystal Gottfried, Staff Writer

The state of Texas received an "F" in science instruction in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's 2005 State of State Science Standards, published last month. The report said that almost half the states are not setting high enough academic standards for science in public schools.

The December 2005 report was completed in anticipation of the 2007 ruling when states will be required to administer tests in science under President Bush's signature education law, No Child Left Behind.

According to the report, Texas' failing grade was leveled at the Texas Education Agency's (TEA) Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for Science.

The report's primary issue with the TEKS was that the educational program produces "breadth of assertion instead of depth of understanding" and that the writers of the physical science sections of the TEKS "know very little of the subject beyond the fourth-grade level."

The unflattering highlights of the report regarding Texas were that the TEKS standards are by grade level, and for high school, by course, which was considered a good thing. But many of the introductions are identical, or nearly identical, for every grade.

"This contributes nothing to a reader's understanding of what learning is expected; and the organization is by themes so broad that almost any content from any field of science might fit anywhere," the report read.

The report also stated that the focus that schools now have on required subjects like reading and math to meet federal testing standards contained in the law has turned attention away from science. This has contributed to a failure of American children to stay competitive in science with their counterparts abroad.

The authors of the report analyzed each state and awarded a numerical score that translated into a grade. Only seven states got an A, including New York and California, while 12 states received a B and eight states earned a C. Seven states were awarded a D, and 15 failed, including Texas. Iowa was omitted from the report because it does not set standards for any subject.

In a separate assessment of how states are currently teaching evolution, 22 states received a D or F, with Kansas garnering a special distinction of F-minus, because of its recent decision to redefine science so that it would not be explicitly limited to natural explanations, and would allow for teaching alternative theories like intelligent design.

Mounting religious and political pressures over the last five years were cited in the report as undermining the teaching of evolution; however, chief author Paul R. Gross said that the willingness by schools in Kansas and elsewhere to consider alternative theories to evolution was only a small part of a larger cultural problem.

Concerns raised by a growing number of university officials and corporate executives were supported by the report. They said that the schools' failure to produce students who are well-prepared in science would undermine the country's production of scientists and engineers and that puts the nation's economic future in jeopardy.

Academic, corporate and congressional leaders warn that the nation needs to expand its talent pool in science to stay ahead of countries like China and India, which put huge resources into science education in their schools.

According to the institute's report, many states are not serious enough about teaching science, and have low or no expectations to respond to the new global competitiveness.

"I'm a what-gets-measured-gets-done kind of gal," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in an interview.

Spellings was not surprised by the findings of the report and cited the reluctance of many school districts to teach algebra before high school as an illustration of the nation's problem with science and math.

"If children are not taking it until the ninth grade or ever, we are in a world of hurt," she said.

The report identified how states set academic standards for science by asking schools whether their courses include suitably challenging content, whether they are properly organized and whether they incorporate "pseudoscientific fads or politics," which is a direct reference to the recent drive to teach intelligent design as an alternative explanation to evolution.

As the next phase of the No Child Left Behind law approaches, the results of this report serve as a grade ranking for each state, and the District of Columbia, that marks the progress that schools are making.

Starting with the 2007-2008 academic year, science becomes a subject that students will be tested on at least once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-9 and once in grades 10-12.

Although the results of the science testing will not be used to measure whether schools have made adequate yearly progress, schools that fail to make progress with reading and math are subject to sanctions.

What would be more critical is a retreat from an emphasis on all science instruction that leaves students ungrounded in basic subjects like biology, human physiology and the environment. According to the report, the nation's schools are not providing a reasonably effective science education, in the context of what students need to know.

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