Science Blues

The latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) will do little to calm growing fears about students' lack of science content knowledge. NAEP's most recent study (see here) reveals that urban districts--Cleveland Public Schools first among them--are struggling mightily to educate their students in the sciences.

The study examined ten urban districts' scores on the 2005 fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP science tests. Overall, seven out of ten district scores were no different than the average for the nation's large central city schools. Yet when compared to public schools nationwide, nine of the urban districts had lower than average scores (Austin Independent Schools was the sole district in the study to meet national averages).

Among the ten urban districts, Cleveland Public Schools ranked at the bottom in terms of achievement. Just 6 percent of its fourth-graders, and 5 percent of its eighth-graders, scored at the level of "Proficient" or above in 2005. Nationwide, only 27 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders in public schools scored "Proficient" or above. Fully two-thirds (34 percent) of fourth-graders and just under half (43 percent) of eighth-graders scored at the "Below Basic" level.

Consider what this means in terms of science skills and content knowledge. Fourth-graders scoring at the "Basic" level or below, while able to read basic graphs and understand some concepts related to classification and simple scientific relationships, still may know little about the Earth's features, properties, or structure. And while eighth-graders scoring at the lower levels may demonstrate some knowledge related to the solar system and relative motion, they likely have only a tenuous grasp on cause-effect relationships and, more importantly, how to apply scientific reasoning to real-life situations.

For Cleveland, the only silver lining came in the results of its low-income students, whose scores were on par with other economically disadvantaged youngsters in large central cities--though meeting an already dismally low level for achievement is hardly worth celebrating. (On average, both low-income fourth- and eighth-graders scored at the 23rd percentile in large central cities.)

NAEP's study provides more cause for Ohio to raise its expectations for students' math and science education. Governor Taft's Ohio Core plan, which would increase the number of math and science courses high school students must take, is a good start. Despite much hand-wringing from teacher unions and governor-elect Strickland, business leaders and policymakers are pushing hard for its passage in the General Assembly (see here, here and here). And the recent about-face by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics on "fuzzy math" standards will hopefully result in a comprehensive reappraisal of Ohio's lackluster standards (see here and here).

Yet the challenge of pairing rigorous standards with high quality instruction remains. Cleveland, despite its poor showing (indeed because of previous abysmal scores) in the study, has partnered with Case Western Reserve University to provide intensive math and science training for teachers (see here). By 2008, the partner program hopes to turn 230 elementary teachers into able math and science instructors.

More districts should follow suit and seek creative partnerships with not just universities, but also teacher supply programs like Teach for America (TFA), which recruits top-notch college graduates (more and more of them math and science majors--see here) to teach in high-need reas across the country. (Though Ohio's current restrictive elementary licensure requirements would have to be relaxed to lure them to the Buckeye State). Such nontraditional programs like TFA are producing teachers as effective as or better than traditional route educators (see here) and can do much to swell the ranks of educators in disciplines like math and science.

As Cleveland's district math and science director William Badders soberly remarked, "Teachers can't teach what they don't know." Thus to provide students the core science and math skills needed for future success in college and the workplace, Ohio will need to match high expectations with a teacher workforce that can meet them.

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