False Alarm on Science

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In a nicely timed alarm, the state’s department of education is noting that kids aren’t learning science as well as they are learning reading and math. You can never rest on your laurels, but this strikes me as alarmism of the worst kind. An article in the MetroWest Daily News notes,

On the 2010 MCAS, for example, 36 percent of 10th graders in the state scored below proficient on the science and technology exam, compared to only 24 percent on the math and 22 percent on English.

The problem is that in the next breath, MWD’s Scott O’Connell suggests that those results on the first science MCAS that counts as a graduation requirement constitutes a crisis:

Globally, American students are falling behind in the subject compared to their peers in other countries, based on the results of Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, an international assessment administered every four years. In the most recent results in 2007, the U.S. ranked 11th in science, a slip from its 9th-place showing in 2003.

The problem with that analysis is that there are many problems with that analysis. First, Massachusetts is not the United States. Massachusetts participated in the TIMSS as a country (as did Minnesota), and we placed in the top six countries in the world in math and science. Massachusetts actually tied for first in the world in 8th-grade science.

Yeah, I know. That’s good.

Next, O’Connell’s suggestion that

the government’s recent push for expanded science education in the state – highlighted by a move a year ago to make passing the science MCAS exam a graduation requirement – has yielded mixed results so far

is absolutely wrong-headed. It’s been in place for a year—and he cites the United States’ performance on the TIMSS in 2007 as evidence that the implementation of the MCAS isn’t working. Yikes.

Third, if past is prologue, the implementation of the science MCAS as a graduation requirement will make science instruction more of a priority. As happened with the implementation of the English and math MCAS requirements, performance will likely improve over the next few years.

Finally, the misdiagnosis by the department is even more egregious than what I have represented above. The international test of math and science (TIMSS) showed us that while the broad swath of Massachusetts students are performing pretty well, we are weak in advanced performers. Places like Singapore and South Korea have around double the percentage of advanced science students–and this is not something that a focus on science literacy will address.

So what’s this all about? In the MWD article, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitch Chester calls for greater emphasis on “science literacy.”

While students’ struggles on the science MCAS test may partly be due to unfamiliarity with a new test, Chester also acknowledged “there’s work to be done” to make sure students are getting stronger STEM instruction. A state panel is looking at ways of improving science standards, he said, including putting more emphasis on reading skills.

“We’re more and more focused on what the literacy demands of science are,” Chester said, adding the basic math and reading foundations of science are “often taken for granted.”

In short, the state wants to rewrite the science standards focusing on literacy rather than actual science. Tomorrow, I’ll share where this is likely to head—and it will be familiar territory, with the involvement of national trade organizations that are pushing a national science curriculum.

Here we go again. We are in the top six countries in math and science, we have finally implemented the science MCAS, and now we are considering a significant change in direction.

When will the state learn not to break what ain’t broken? Can’t our state officials redirect their focus toward issues where Massachusetts does not does not do well, such as dropout rates, and let what is working move forward?

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.