Saturday, February 26, 2011

NCLB is Killing Science

Valerie Strauss just postedWhy NAEP science scores were so low,” which points out what should be obvious: we’ve gutted content and good teaching practices in order to raise NCLB test scores.

“What is surprising about the newly released science scores in the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the nation’s report card, is that anybody is surprised that they were, on average, so low.

Over the past decade, the accountability system of No Child Left Behind has pushed schools to focus on reading and math because those were the subjects on which students were tested and the results used to grade schools and teachers. That results in less time for other subjects, including science.

No Child Left Behind did require that science be annually assessed in various grades starting in 2007-08, but the entire testing regime came under criticism when it became obvious that states were lowering standards to ensure higher test scores.”

I teach science in California, where 52% of students scored below basic. Much of what Strauss mentions in her article I experience firsthand. Science budgets have been slashed, making it extremely difficult to do hands-on, inquiry-based lab activities with students. My entire science department has a budget of only $1,000 to share between seven teachers, and this must cover office and lab supplies. There is no way to buy equipment or even repair it for this amount.

However, it is not just that schools are spending less time on science. Many have entirely abandoned teaching science in grades K-5. With pressure to raise NCLB test scores, science is often tossed out the window, along with arts, foreign languages and physical education. Kids who do not have any science in the lower grades enter secondary schools with an enormous disadvantage. They may start middle school without any formal experience with microscopes, the metric system or the ability to distinguishing between variables and controls. As a result, NCLB actually creates an achievement gap in science.

Another salient point that Strauss does not mention is the growing attacks on reason and scientific thought by both the religious right and corporations. This tendency reached new heights under the second Bush administration, and continues today with the ascendency of the Tea Party movement. It includes young Earth creationists and intelligent design advocates, who push doubt about Natural Selection and evolution, as well as corporate doubt mongers, like Big Tobacco, Big Petroleum and Coal, which try to convince us that smoking is harmless and that climate change is not a serious problem. While purely anecdotal, it seems like I’m getting increasing numbers of students who believe that scientific knowledge in general (not just evolution) is simply a matter of opinion, or one of many possible explanations, and all are equally valid. Under such conditions, it should not be surprising that students would do poorly on science exams. This tendency also influences teachers and is one reason why so few teach evolution well (if at all).

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