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Report Finds Schools Often Neglect Science To Meet ...No Child... Act

By Michael Janofsky
THE NEW YORK TIMES

Nearly half the states are doing a poor job of setting high academic standards for science in public schools, according to a new report that examined science in anticipation of 2007, when states will be required to administer tests in the subject under President Bush’s signature education law.

The report, released Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, suggests that the focus on reading and math as required subjects for testing under the federal law, No Child Left Behind, has turned attention away from science, contributing to a failure of American children to stay competitive in science with their counterparts abroad.

The report also appears to support concerns raised by a growing number of university officials and corporate executives, who say that the failure to produce students well-prepared in science is undermining the country’s production of scientists and engineers and putting the nation’s economic future in jeopardy.

Dozens of academic, corporate and Congressional leaders emerged from a meeting on competitiveness here on Tuesday to warn that the nation needs to expand its talent pool in science to stay ahead of countries like China and India that put vast resources into science education.

“Many states are not yet serious about teaching science,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy of the institute, a group that supports education reform. “The first step is to set higher expectations, and too many states have low or a lack of expectations to respond to the new global competitiveness.”

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, a strong proponent of more testing to measure how effectively schools are teaching, said she was not surprised by the findings.

“I’m a what-gets-measured-gets-done kind of gal,” she said in an interview. She cited the reluctance of many districts to teach algebra before high school as an illustration of the nation’s problem with science and math, adding, “If children are not taking it until the ninth grade or ever, we are in a world of hurt.”

The report set out to identify how states set academic standards for science, asking whether their courses include suitably challenging content, whether they are properly organized and whether they incorporate “pseudoscientific fads or politics,” a reference to the recent drive to teach intelligent design as an alternative explanation to evolution.

The results, a grade ranking for each state and the District of Columbia, serve as a marker for progress as the next phase of the No Child Left Behind law approaches.

Starting with the 2007-2008 academic year, science will become a subject that students will be tested on at least once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-9 and once in grades 10-12 — although the results will not be used to measure whether a school has made “adequate yearly progress,” as is the case with reading and math. Schools that fail to make progress are subject to sanctions.

Ms. Spellings said she favors using testing for additional subjects, like science, to assess progress. The authors of the report analyzed each state and awarded a numerical score that translated to a grade. Only seven states, including New York and California, got an A, with 12 receiving a B, and 8 plus the District of Columbia receiving a C. Seven states got a D, and 15 got an F. Iowa was not included in the report because it does not set standards for any subject.

In a separate assessment of how states are currently teaching evolution, the authors awarded 22 states a D or F, with Kansas winning a special distinction, F minus, for its recent decision to redefine science so that it would not be explicitly limited to natural explanations, and allow for the teaching of alternative theories, an opening to consideration of intelligent design.

The report cited mounting “religious and political pressures” over the last five years as undermining the teaching of evolution. But Paul R. Gross, its chief author, said in an interview that a willingness by schools in Kansas and elsewhere to consider alternative theories to evolution was only a small part of a “larger cultural problem.”