Science Tests Come as Teaching Time Falls
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Maryland elementary and middle students are being tested this week in science for the first time under No Child Left Behind, a federal law that, in the minds of many educators, has squeezed science instruction to the margins of public education.
The results might be sobering, top science educators said.
In five years under the Bush education mandate, the nation's elementary and middle schools have pursued reading and math achievement with zeal, frequently at the expense of science.
Many elementary schools offer half as much science instruction as they did before the law was enacted, teachers and principals said. Science and social studies, once taught separately, share time to make room for more reading and math. Some middle schools that used to offer a full year of science and social studies give a semester of each.
But starting with the 2007-08 academic year, the law requires states to test students in science. A new exam is being field-tested in Maryland this year.
"I think the test will open up some eyes," said Brian Freiss, a fifth-grade teacher at Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring.
The new test catches many Maryland schools at an ebb in science instruction.
The No Child act, signed into law in 2002, requires schools to post adequate yearly progress on their way to attaining 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Schools would have to attain 100 percent proficiency in science by 2020 under a proposed reauthorization of the law.
Some states, including California, Florida and Virginia, assess students in science at multiple grades as part of statewide testing programs. Others, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, are beginning science field tests this year. The District's school system did not respond to requests for information on its science instruction.
Last year, the Prince George's County school system restored lost classroom minutes, increasing daily science instruction from 30 minutes to 60 in the lower elementary grades and from 45 minutes to 60 in grades 4, 5 and 6. Montgomery schools are rolling out new textbooks in grades four and five as part of a curriculum overhaul. Frederick schools are field-testing fifth-grade lessons that teach specific science topics during time allotted to reading.
In a fifth-grade classroom at Garrett Park Elementary School last week, students started work on a unit called "Magnets and Motors," an exploration of magnetism, electricity and the electric motor. Students tested their magnets on earrings and braces. Ilias Katsifis, 11, announced to classmates that if a magnet is set against the face of his watch, "it stops time."
Before the No Child act, 45 minutes to an hour of daily science instruction was common in fifth-grade Maryland classrooms, said Mary Thurlow, science coordinator for the State Department of Education.
These days, Freiss, at Highland Elementary, is allotted 30 to 45 minutes daily to teach both social studies and science, which is typical for schools in the region.
"It's definitely not as much as I would like," Freiss said.
Between the 1999-2000 academic year and 2003-04, the most recent date available, the average time spent weekly on science instruction in elementary schools dipped from 2.6 hours to 2.3, according to the U.S. Education Department.
Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress in reading and math under the Bush plan often make further incursions into science lessons to pull struggling students for remedial help.
"We've got elementary teachers who e-mail us saying principals are literally walking into their rooms, saying, 'Stop teaching science,' " said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.
Maryland has not tested elementary and middle students in science since the demise of the last statewide test, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, in 2002. Students have been tested in reading and math in several elementary and middle grades since 2003 but are tested in science only once, in high school.
Gary Heath, a just-retired assistant superintendent of Maryland schools, thinks the high school biology test "has helped keep science in schools, particularly at the middle schools."
"If there's been any squeezing," he said, "it's been in the elementary schools."
Education officials note that science instruction remains strong across much of the state and that in places where it has been cut, teachers compensate by sprinkling science content into lessons in reading and math.
National science performance has not declined in the elementary grades under the No Child act, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only ongoing national effort to test public school students. The percentage of students rated proficient or better in fourth-grade science increased from 24 percent to 27 percent in Maryland from 2000 to 2005, perhaps a reflection of more rigorous instruction across the curriculum. In Virginia, proficiency rose from 32 to 40 percent in the same span.
Teachers are torn between competing goals: Should they cover a single unit in depth, giving students time to perform experiments, analyze and discuss material, and apply their knowledge to other real-life situations? Or should they sacrifice depth for breadth and attempt to cover each of the 25 objectives listed in Maryland's science curriculum for fifth grade?
The first administration of Maryland's new test, given in grades five and eight this month, is a practice run. Next year's tests will count. And in 2008-09, if the No Child act is reauthorized as the Bush administration has requested, science results will be incorporated into adequate yearly progress reports for schools, districts and states. A school that misses yearly targets can trigger sanctions up to and including the potential "restructuring" of staff.
"I'm predicting next year there is going to be a big shock wave running through the elementary schools when they see the results," Wheeler said.