U.S. students don't know much about science, according to the latest results from a national test released today. And one leading science educator says that a big reason for their poor performance
is a 2002 federal law that has pushed the subject out of classrooms by emphasizing reading and mathematics.
"For 9 years, elementary school principals have been telling teachers not to teach science because it's not part of No Child Left Behind," says Francis
Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Virginia, referring to the 2002 law that requires annual testing
of those students in grades three through eight toward a 2014 goal of national competence in those areas. "Now those students are in high school, and
we've seeing the consequences of that policy."
Eberle is speaking about scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which measures student achievement in reading, math, and
science at the fourth, eighth, and 12th grades. The 2009 assessment, which focused on science, found that 40% of high school seniors perform below the
basic level in science and only 1% at the advanced level. Younger students did marginally better, with 29% of fourth-graders and 38% of eighth-graders
falling below basic and 1% and 2% at the advanced level, respectively. Among the biggest states, Massachusetts ranks highest and California lowest in
grades four and eight, although students from New Hampshire, Montana, and North Dakota scored the best and those from Mississippi scored the worst.
(Scores for 12th-graders are available only nationally.)
The Obama Administration is no fan of No Child Left Behind, which is seen as putting too much emphasis on annual test scores. Department of Education
officials now refer to the law by its generic name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and Education Secretary Arnie Duncan hopes that the
next version, now pending before Congress, will offer school districts a variety of incentives for having students demonstrate significant year-to-year
Test officials, which call NAEP "the nation's report card," say the content has changed so much that the results can't be compared with previous
assessments in 1996, 2000, and 2005. The new test better reflects the subjects that students learn at those grades, they note, as well as placing more
emphasis on whether students can apply textbook knowledge to real-life situations rather than simply recall scientific terms and facts.
Science educators see the changes in the test itself as a big improvement. "It's the best test we've ever had," says Alan Friedman, former director of
the New York Hall of Science and a member of the test's oversight body, the National Assessment Governing Board.
Even so, Eberle and others regard the overall findings as very discouraging. "I don't see anything to celebrate here," he says. "Despite all the
emphasis on improving educational achievement, there's been a 30% decrease in the amount of science taught at the elementary level, and opportunities
for professional development have been reduced. It's not that teachers aren't trying. But there are fewer resources available to them."