Science Education in Secondary Schools (page 4)
The science curriculum in secondary schools is largely determined at the state and local levels by science teachers, science supervisors, administrators, and school boards (Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2000). Research studies supported by the NSF have shown that even with significant autonomy there is considerable uniformity of science programs nationwide, and curriculum and methods of instruction have not changed significantly (Mullis & Jenkins, 1988; Weiss, 1978, 1987; Weiss, Banilower, McMahon, & Smith, 2001).
Typically, the science curriculum presents general or earth science at the ninth grade, biology at the tenth grade, and chemistry and physics at the eleventh and twelfth grades, respectively. In 1978, the largest science enrollment in junior high schools was general science, with approximately 5 million students. Another 2 million students in schools with grades 7–12 or 9–12 were also enrolled in general science. Earth science enrollments were approximately 1.25 million. Enrollments did not change substantially in a decade, although they changed in the late 1980s due to the emergence of middle schools (Bybee et al., 1990). General biology is offered to all students and enrolls approximately 3 million students each year. About 80 percent of graduating seniors have taken high school biology. However, this statistic is misleading and has an important bearing on reform of science education at the secondary level. For 50 percent of high school students who graduate each year, biology is their last experience with any science course. High school chemistry and physics courses are generally perceived as college preparatory, as are the majority of other courses offered in the high school curriculum. As a result, many students lack an understanding of physical science. This observation is supported by results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).
The nature of the high school science curriculum can be determined by examining textbooks for the respective disciplines. The similarity among textbooks for a discipline—and even among textbooks for different disciplines—is remarkable. These characteristics include presenting a significant number of facts in simple and condensed form and an emphasis on extensive vocabulary and technical terms. In addition to being encyclopedic, science texts currently in use implicitly suggest a pedagogy of inform, verify, and practice. The NSF materials developed in the 1960s and 1970s espoused goals of understanding conceptual schemes (the structure of disciplines) and using scientific processes (the modes of inquiry); changes in textbooks and, subsequently, teaching evolved in different directions. For example, reviews of the inquiry goal in science teaching found that teachers give little attention to inquiry and associated skills (Costenson & Lawson, 1986).
The need for contemporary reform is supported by poor student achievement in science that was first recorded in the 1960s. In 1988, Ina Mullis and Lynn Jenkins summarized two decades of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the Science Report Card. Following are summaries of achievement for 17-year-olds, that is, those students leaving high school.
- At age 17, students’ science achievement was well below those of students graduating in 1969. Steady declines occurred throughout the 1970s, followed by an upturn in performance between 1982 and 1986.
- More than half of the nation’s 17-year-olds were inadequately prepared for jobs that require technical skills or for specialized on-the-job training. The thinking skills and science knowledge possessed by high school students in the 1980s were inadequate for participation in the nation’s civic affairs.
- Only 7 percent of the nation’s 17-year-olds had the prerequisite knowledge and skills to perform well in college-level science courses.
The NAEP completed assessments in 1996, 2000, and 2005. The national results present achievement levels for students in grades 4, 8, and 12. The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) set student performance standards (Bourque, Champagne, & Crissman, 1997; NCES, 2001). The levels of student performance are reported as basic, proficient, and advanced.
How did American students do? In 1996, 3 percent of the nation’s students reached the advanced level at all three grades—4, 8, and 12. In the year 2000, 3 percent of the nation’s fourth and eighth graders reached the advanced level. Only 2 percent of twelfth graders reached such levels.
Twenty-six percent of fourth- and eighth-grade students and 18 percent of twelfth-grade students performed within the proficient level. Again, in 2000, fourth graders remained the same—26 percent were proficient. Eighth graders had 28 percent proficiency in 2000 compared to 26 percent in 1996. The percent of twelfth graders who were proficient dropped from 19 percent in 1996 to 16 percent in 2000. Thirty-eight percent, 32 percent, and 36 percent performed within the basic level for grades 4, 8, and 12, respectively. In 2000, these percentages were 37 percent, 29 percent, and 34 percent, respectively. Concerning the results at the basic level, we can look at these results another way; namely, how many students were below basic levels. The answer is both disappointing and a challenge for science teachers. Respectively, 33 percent, 39 percent, and 43 percent of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students were below basic levels of achievement in 1996. In the year 2000, these percentages were 34 percent, 39 percent, and 47 percent for grades 4, 8, and 12, respectively.
Compared to middle and high school students, younger students are making the most progress in science. In 2005, a representative sample of more than 300,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12 were assessed in science. This website presents national results for all three grades, and state results for grades 4 and 8. The 2005 results are compared to those from 1996 and 2000. Sample questions are presented to illustrate the types of skills and knowledge that were assessed at each grade. Aspects of schooling—such as teachers’ time spent on instruction, teachers’ preparation, and courses taken by students—are also reported.
At grade 4, the average science score was higher in 2005 than in earlier years. The percentage of students performing at or above the basic achievement level increased from 63 percent in 1996 to 68 percent in 2005. An example of the knowledge associated with the basic level is identifying two organs in the human body that work together to supply oxygen. Twenty-nine percent performed at or above the proficient level. Relating the amount of time a candle burns to the amount of air available is an example of the knowledge and skills at the proficient level. At grade 8, there was no overall improvement. In 2005, 59 percent of students scored at or above the basic level. An example of the knowledge and skills at the basic level is being able to compare changes in heart rate during and after exercise. Twenty-nine percent performed at or above the proficient level. Identifying the energy conversions that occur in an electric fan is an example of the knowledge and skills at the proficient level.
At grade 12, the average score declined since 1996. In 2005, 54 percent of students scored at or above the basic level. Knowing the function of a neuron is an example of knowledge at the basic level. Eighteen percent performed at or above the proficient level. Identifying the source of heat energy released in a combustion reaction is an example of knowledge at the proficient level (NAEP, 2006).
Achievement of Underrepresented Groups
Social and economic realities have influences that far exceed the effect of school in general or a science program in particular. Still, the science program should contribute, in some small measure, to the future opportunities of all students. The NAEP data indicate continued and substantial disparities in science proficiency among groups of differing race, ethnicity, and gender.
International comparisons of student achievement have also been made. In particular, the science education community has been, and will be, influenced by results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This was the largest and most comprehensive comparative international study of education that has ever been undertaken. TIMSS reported results for eighth-grade students in November 1996, fourth-grade students in June 1997, and twelfth-grade students in February 1998. In all, the study assessed a half million students from 41 countries in 30 languages to compare their mathematics and science achievement. In addition to achievement results, TIMSS also included thorough reviews of curriculum materials and instructional methods in the countries. A brief summary of 1996 achievement levels for students in the United States: At fourth grade, our students are above the international average and among the best in the world. At eighth grade, our students are just above average in science and just below average in mathematics. At twelfth grade, U.S. students’ performance was among the lowest of the participating countries in mathematics and science general knowledge, physics, and advanced mathematics. These results indicate a steady decline in U.S. students’ achievement during their school years.
In 1999, TIMSS was replicated at the eighth grade. Involving 41 countries and testing at five grade levels, TIMSS was originally conducted in 1995 to provide a base from which policy makers, curriculum specialists, and researchers could better understand the performance of their educational systems. Conducted under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), TIMSS was the first step in a long-term strategy, with further assessments in mathematics and science planned for 2003 and beyond.
TIMSS 1999, also known as TIMSS-Repeat or TIMSS-R, was designed to provide trends in eighth-grade mathematics and science achievement in an international context. Thirty-eight countries participated in TIMSS 1999. Of these, 26 countries also participated in TIMSS 1995 at the eighth grade and have trend data included in this report. Also, 1999 represents four years since the first TIMSS, and the population of students originally assessed as fourth graders had advanced to the eighth grade. Thus, for 17 of the 26 countries that participated in TIMSS 1995 at the fourth grade, TIMSS 1999 also provides information about whether the relative performance of these students has changed in the intervening years.
Six content areas were covered in the TIMSS 1999 science test: earth science, life science, physics, chemistry, environmental and resource issues, and scientific inquiry and the nature of science. About one-fourth of the questions were in the free-response format, requiring students to generate and write their answers. The achievement data are accompanied by extensive questionnaire data about the home, classroom, school, and national contexts within which science learning takes place (Martin, Mullis, et al., 2000).
U.S. students scored above the international average in both mathematics and science at the fourth-grade level. At the eighth-grade level, U.S. students performed above the international average in science and below the international average in mathematics. In the final year of secondary school (twelfth grade in the United States), U.S. performance was among the lowest in both science and mathematics, including among our most advanced students (Gonzales, Calsyn, et al., 2000).
It is also important to be aware of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Although not as popular as TIMSS in the United States, PISA is having an international impact.
The results of NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA provide substantial evidence that our educational system is not attaining the goal of scientific literacy. Indeed, it is failing to provide our students an adequate science education. The twelfth-grade students who did most poorly on TIMSS entered school in the late 1980s. Their science education consisted of traditional textbooks and instructional methods, and their achievement is dismal. Indeed, it was the worst in the world. The national and international results show that American science education needs improvement. Further, the TIMSS results also provide some indications of how we should reform curriculum, instruction, and assessments (Schmidt, McKnight, & Raizen, 1997; Schmidt et al., 1998; Valverde & Schmidt, 1997–98; Schmidt et al., 1996).
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