In High Stakes Testing, Science Trumped by Math & Reading

This is a post I wrote five years ago today, and it sheds some light on the pressure that school districts experience as a result of high-stakes testing.  In particular, I draw attention to Atlanta cheating scandal which appears to have had its origins about five years ago when I first wrote this post.  There were warning signs then, as I wrote then, that teachers were pressured to focus their attention on reading and math literacy and not be concerned about other subjects, especially at the elementary and middle school levels.

Science and Literacy

The Science Report for the Trial Urban District Assessment recently became available by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Ten large urban U.S. school districts volunteered to participate in science testing, grades 4 and 8 in 2005, and the results of the test administration were just made available. Most editorial pages of newspapers in the ten districts carried comments and editorials regarding the results, which in general were not very good. You can view the Science Report for the Trial Urban Districts Assessment at the NAEP site. It’s very easy to use, and there are more statistics there to answer most any question you might have.

The districts involved in the NAEP testing include the following: Atlanta City School District: Austin Independent School District; Boston School District; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; City of Chicago School District 299; Cleveland Municipal School District; Houston Independent School District; Los Angeles Unified School District; New York City Public Schools; and San Diego Unified School District.

There were several articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution regarding the results for the Atlanta Public Schools. Atlanta did not do very well on the tests, with 58% of fourth-graders and 78% of eighth-graders scoring below “basic” in the NAEP science tests. The scores are not my concern here in this post.

My concern is the claim made by the Superintendent of Schools for Atlanta that “there’s no way for students to do well on NAEP science if they are not reading and doing math.”

This might be true, but I also found that the Superintendent made no apologies for the low science test scores saying that it was more important for the students to score well on the literacy tests administered by the State of Georgia each year.

Is reading and math necessary to learn about science? Probably yes. However, should we use literacy in reading and math as an excuse for not teaching science? Probably no. So, what is going on here? Why would a superintendent of a large urban district seemingly not be concerned that students in her district are not learning about science?

Consequences of High-Stakes Testing

There are several reasons why this kind of a dilemma exists. Test results demonstrated that students in the Atlanta school district are not very competent in science. However, Atlanta volunteered to take the test, as did the other ten urban districts. Science has not been a priority in the testing momentum that has taken over education in American schools. The No Child Left Behind Act does not require testing in science, thus enabling school districts to put more time into the school day into having students mastery literacy in reading and math. Has the increased time on reading and math tasks resulted in higher scores in these areas? Are students doing well in reading and math? According to NAEP test scores, no.

The NCLB Law has increased the pressure on school districts to create a curriculum that is skewed away from science and the arts, and toward minimal literacy. And state departments of education are going along for the ride. In Georgia, the emphasis on testing has gotten out of hand.

In Atlanta, the result of this pressure score well on high-stakes testing led to the Cheating Scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools.  The Governor’s investigation into the Cheating Scandal concluded that a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” existed in the Atlanta schools with teachers being pressured to make sure that their students were ready and able to pass the state’s end-of-the-year CRCT at any cost.

The Back to Basics movement, which put emphasis on individual students learning the “basic” skills, especially in math and reading, has led to the overemphasis on testing as a way to make sure that schools know whether students and schools are succeeding in meeting basic levels of achievement as measured by tests such as the CRCT.

As a result, high quality science teaching is not part of the elementary school curriculum.  Unfortunately, when science is taught in the elementary school, it is not focused on hands on and inquiry based learning, but typically on reading from a text, or doing cookbook style “experiments.” What’s worse, time is taken away from science (and social studies) so that more time can be devoted to teaching math and reading.

And the nature of the pedagogy utilized in the middle school does not reflect inquiry or hands on learning either. So at a time that many educators feel that students might be hooked on science or the “love” for learning, our schools have retreated to a back to basics regime, removing inquiry and experimentation from science teaching, and from school in general.

Science educators need to share some of the blame here as well. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8, a new report issued by the National Research Council, is very critical of science education standards, and the way in which schools fail to understand childhood learning and the potential for learning. Instead of making use of new research on learning, curriculum developers and schools have played it “safe” and used old forms of pedagogy.

Districts like Atlanta would do well if they experimented with alternative curriculum designs, and created curricula that were more integrated. That is, curriculum in which literacy, science and the arts is a fundamental aspect of learning. Science can contribute enormously to literacy, and to mathematics. Educators, such as the superintendent of Atlanta, needs to boldly look to the future and implement more innovative curriculum.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University

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