COMET • Vol. 2, No. 34 – 26 November 2001


“U.S. Students Flunk Science Assessment” by Thomas H. Maugh, II

Source:  Los Angeles Times – 21 November 2001


California leads the world in Nobel Prize winners and high-tech companies, but the state’s students trail everyone else in science literacy, finishing dead last among 40 states in a nationwide examination…California’s science results are similar to those obtained on tests of mathematics and reading proficiency released earlier: The state’s elite students do very well, but the average is consistently among the lowest in the country.

California’s scores were similarly poor four years ago. That time, the only states whose students did worse than California’s were Hawaii, Mississippi and Louisiana. This time, no state did worse than California among fourth-graders. Among eighth-graders, California was tied for last with Hawaii. In both cases, American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands were worse than any state. State-by-state rankings were not prepared for high school seniors.

In part, California’s low scores reflect the large proportion of the state’s students who have difficulty reading English, state officials said. Between one-fifth and one-quarter of the state’s students, varying by grade level, are not fluent in English.

But that is not the entire story. In the eighth grade, for example, California’s non-Latino white students–most of whom are fluent in English–were among the lowest-scoring non-Latino whites in the country. Children of college graduates also scored very low compared with their peers elsewhere.

And nationwide, scores of white students at the high school level dropped on the science test, causing the performance gap between white and minority students to narrow slightly.

“We want to narrow the gap between the races, but not that way,” said former astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson, who directs the K-12 school program of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. [See COMET article #3 below.]

The poor science results reflect the reality that many schools teach little or no science and have few teachers with science training. Also, state competency tests generally do not include science questions, giving schools little incentive for teaching the subject.

The nation’s poor showing, and especially California’s, do not bode well for the future of high-tech industries, government officials and industry leaders said. Already, about a third to a half of new scientists hired by American companies are immigrants, noted Edward Donley, a former chairman of Air Products and Chemicals Inc.

“The numbers and problems are much greater, however, in finding technicians to fill the middle-level jobs requiring some scientific training,” he said. “Business has a hard time finding the people we need because most students don’t have the science and math they need.”

Steve Wozniak, one of the legendary founders of Apple Computer Inc., who has spent recent years teaching children how to use computers, also expressed concern about the results. “The future of our economy is going to be influenced by new technologies,” he said. “That all comes from science.”

Experts do not see any prospect for immediate change. Efforts to improve science education, including better training for elementary and high school teachers, new textbooks and Web-based materials, could all yield results, but not for several years, Nelson said. “Five years down the road we could see some improvement,” he said.

In many California school districts, science is simply not taught much, said state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. State tests do not include science until ninth grade, she said. “As I’ve always said, ‘What gets measured is what gets done.’ ”

Science will be added to the tests for the lower grades in the spring of 2003, she said.  New science standards will also go before the State Board of Education next year.

eacher training must also be improved, Nelson said. Most teachers in elementary and middle schools have an undergraduate training in science that “is pretty pitiful–broad, shallow survey courses. They get through college knowing no science and are then expected to teach it,” he said.

At the upper levels, teachers “generally get a pretty good education in science content, but are shortchanged in their preparation as teachers. And once they are in the field, they are not given the resources they need,” he said…

The federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress tests students every four years. This year’s science survey included 46,000 students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades whose scores produced the national survey and another 200,000 students whose scores produced detailed results for the 40 states studied.

Overall, about 29% of fourth graders, 32% of eighth graders and only 18% of high school seniors were scored as proficient.

Boys opened a small gap over girls between 1996 and 2000 in the fourth and eighth grades, according to the report, but the difference disappeared by the 12th grade.

White students had the highest scores, followed by Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. Blacks had the lowest average score–about one-third that of whites. The average for Latino students was about half that of whites.

The scores also indicate that the basic-level science classes that many schools call general science are “worthless,” said Robert C. Rice, chief operating officer for the Council for Basic Education. “Students who have not taken any science class score the same as those who had taken a course labeled general science.”


For full results, see



(1) “National Science Scores for 12th Graders Slip” by Abby Goodnough

Source:  New York Times – 21 November 2001


Despite the widespread emphasis on raising academic standards, the performance of high school seniors on a nationwide science test has declined since 1996…

>”The decline is not huge, but it is statistically significant and morally significant, as well,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said yesterday at a news conference. “After all, 12th- grade scores are the scores that really matter. If our graduates know less about science than their predecessors four years ago, then our hopes for a strong 21st-century work force are dimming just when we need them most”…

Massachusetts had the highest average score on the fourth-grade test, followed by Maine, Montana, North Dakota and Iowa. On the eighth- grade test, Montana produced the highest average score, followed by Massachusetts, Ohio, North Dakota and Vermont…

Students from poor families had lower scores than those whose families earned too much to qualify for the federal lunch programs. Six percent of 12th graders eligible for the lunch program scored at or above the proficient level, compared with 20 percent of those who were not.

The statistics also showed that eighth graders whose teachers majored in science education outperformed those whose teachers majored in other fields. The correlation was not tracked at the 12th-grade level.

Edward Donley, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which determines the test content and scoring, noted that students in private and public schools performed at about the same level in 1996, but that by 2000, private school students did far better. The percentage of private school 12th graders who scored at or above the proficient level increased, to 29 from 22. In contrast, the number of public school 12th graders reaching that level fell, to 17 percent from 21 percent.

(2) “U.S. System Helps Educate World, Yet Fails at Home”

Source:  USA Today – 8 November 2001


The future of the U.S. economy depends on the ability of public schools to produce graduates who can compete internationally–and most now can’t, says Craig R. Barrett, president and CEO of Intel Corp. Barrett, who was honored Tuesday by the National Alliance of Business for his leadership in improving math, science and technology education, met that day with USA TODAY’s editorial board…:

Question: What fuels your firm’s interest in public schools?

Answer: We are a U.S.-based company, but we do about two-thirds of our business outside the United States, and our international components are increasing. We have a constant need for more high-tech trained people. The bulk of our research and development is done here, but increasingly that’s going to move out of the United States for a variety of reasons, one of which is the availability of trained resources here.

We’ve all seen the results of the international tests that show that U.S. fourth-graders are about on par with their international counterparts, but by the time they get to the 12th grade, they are in the lower 10% of the industrialized world in terms of math and science competency. This is something you wouldn’t tolerate in any other situation. We fire football coaches after the first year of a losing record, but we continue to let the public school system take children and basically degrade them on a relative basis to their international counterparts.

Q: Who is the coach you’d fire?

Answer: The coach is the system. The educational system basically hasn’t changed in the past century, and it hasn’t recognized that there is international competition. It hasn’t really recognized that our university system is popular with graduate students from foreign countries because it’s the best university system in the world. More than 50% of the degrees in engineering are granted to foreign nationals. It hasn’t recognized that, very methodically and consistently, what you are doing is dumbing down the U.S. citizenry and educating the rest of the globe. It hasn’t fully recognized that the standard of living is going to be dependent on the quality of the workforce….

The ultimate test is how well our students do internationally. My particular interests are math and science, and if you look at those international results, I think it’s safe to say the U.S. has not shown any material improvement relative to its international counterparts. You are just in fact starting the system. You’ve introduced testing or assessment. Now, how do you use those results? How do you train those teachers? How do you adjust the curriculum? How do you measure the students’ progress? That may be foreign to many administrators in the academic environment, but it is certainly not foreign to the rest of the world. Every business in the United States has a more complex environment to operate in now than it did 10 or 12 years ago. You hear quite often from schools about the difficulties they have with the influx of foreign students with multi-language capabilities and so forth and so on. Frankly, those are excuses for why you are not performing. Everyone has a more complicated job than they had 20 years ago. It’s a matter of integrated training, implementation and assessment of results, then taking those results back in and determining whether you need more training or need to change the curriculum. And you just have to continue this cycle…

(3) “Choosing Content That’s Worth Knowing” by George D. Nelson 

(Director of Project 2061, a nationwide education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science;

Source:  Educational Leadership – October 2001


…Even our best students may not be learning what we think they are, whether in science or any other domain. Students engage in futile lessons that attempt to teach difficult concepts in too short a time or in classes that substitute facts and vocabulary for understanding. The examples call into question basic assumptions about what and how we teach and what and how students learn, and they challenge our notions about the goals of education and the roles of teacher and learner.

Consider these often-asked questions: What specific knowledge and skills should all students learn? How do we decide what is in or out of the curriculum? Should all students learn the same content, or should it differ for those with different aspirations, abilities, and interests? And if we agree that we want students to have more than a temporary acquaintance with important concepts and skills, how do we modify the curriculum so that there is adequate time for in-depth learning? And how do we assess that kind of learning? Finally, how do we incorporate the growing body of research that indicates that the most effective teaching strategies are highly content-specific–that content and instruction are inseparable–into our decision making…?”

Answering these and other difficult questions reveals the underlying tensions in the curriculum. Let’s explore some of the issues that arise when deciding what and what not to teach. Examples come from Project 2061’s area of expertise–mathematics and science–but the discussion applies equally well to any subject…

Project 2061’s goal has been to identify the knowledge and habits of mind that make up literacy in science, mathematics, and technology. Adults today need such literacy to live interesting, responsible, and productive lives. By defining the desired outcome first, we established that these learning goals should not be constrained by the traditional content that was reflected in the curriculum or textbooks in the United States and other countries, but should instead reflect the most useful content in broad personal and social contexts…

Research gives us some insight into how long it takes to teach for understanding rather than memorization, and it is a lot longer than our current ideas about learning lead us to think. For example, with six weeks of careful instruction, 50 percent of 6th graders could learn some concepts related to the fact that matter is made of very small atoms that are always in motion… In another study, most 8th graders were able to learn the difference between heat and temperature on a conceptual level after 13 weeks of dedicated instruction in thermo-dynamics concepts…

Nevertheless, many educators continue to cover the content in the books, and their students continue to memorize the related vocabulary and algorithms–an inefficient and ineffective mention-and-move-on instructional strategy. U.S. schools and colleges devote huge amounts of classroom time to reviewing and reteaching the same material every year because students don’t learn it the first, second, or third time. In the batteries-and-bulbs lesson described earlier, for example, researchers found that students had learned very little, even after multiple exposures to the topic. Recent evaluations of science and mathematics textbooks reveal similar weaknesses; most texts ignored or obscured the most important ideas by focusing instead on technical terms and trivial details…

If learning is the goal, and even the brightest students take more time to learn than is commonly thought, then the curriculum must be pared down to give students time to focus on a coherent set of the most important ideas and skills. Coherence is the key to helping students build the conceptual frameworks that help them retrieve knowledge and transfer knowledge to new contexts… These cognitive abilities provide a foundation for continuous learning that should be the goal of education in all subject areas. Unfortunately, according to a recent report from the National Research Council (2000), “many models of curriculum design seem to produce knowledge and skills that are disconnected rather than organized into coherent wholes” (p. 138). In differentiating between novice learning and expert learning, the report notes that “it is the network, the connections among objectives, that is important” (pp. 138–139). Research also finds that superficial coverage of many topics won’t help students develop the competencies that will prepare them for future learning and work (National Research Council, 2000).

For science, mathematics, and technology, Project 2061 has developed a process for making decisions about what to put in and what to leave out of a locally designed curriculum, while building in coherence and addressing the goal of literacy for all students. Educators can make these decisions at all levels of detail. Reducing the number of major topics, subtopics, and technical vocabulary taught, and eliminating needless redundancy can free valuable time for students to learn more important ideas and skills… Paring down the content and focusing on achieving a common set of learning outcomes does not in any way prescribe a boring, back-to-basics curriculum. There are many ways to get at the important ideas. Creative curriculum design can actually increase local curriculum diversity, while achieving common learning goals…

By working toward uniformly clear goals and expectations across the disciplines, taking into account all of the constraints and trade-offs, and bringing to bear the necessary resources–time, materials, and professional development, for example–we can educate all students for a deep understanding of important content. Such policies can help all students achieve the basic literacy that prepares them to lead interesting and productive lives, whether they choose to go into the workplace or to college…

(4) “Md., Va. Standardized Tests Score High on Parent Anger” by Darragh A. Johnson

Source:  The Washington Post – 11 November 2001


…From Maryland to Virginia, New York to California, parents are roiling and kicking against tests that they believe have overtaken their schools. Standardized tests, parents say, have shifted education’s focus from the individual in favor of the mass. In one Virginia school, recess was sacrificed to make room for extra class time. Art, music and physical education lost out in Anne Arundel, although the state has ordered the county schools to restore some offerings.

No longer is school a year-long journey with a wide exploration of the world, parents say. Rather, it has become a streamlined zoom with one goal: Do well on the test.

In Virginia, students are threatened with not graduating from high school if they don’t pass the Standards of Learning exams.

In Maryland, high school students soon will face the same pressure. The Maryland Schools Performance Assessment Program already looms over the curriculum in elementary and middle schools. What bothers many parents is that the essay-based test doesn’t even provide their children with a measure of individual performance. Rather, it assesses the school, and the principals and teachers are rewarded for the students’ good work.

In both states, schools could face dire consequences–state takeover or loss of accreditation–if too many students fall below state standards. The District’s standardized testing program, using the national Stanford 9 exams, has fewer formal penalties built into it. But flagging test scores were a key factor when Superintendent Paul L. Vance decided to reconstitute several schools over the summer, officials said.

With all this attention to testing, the parents say, the schools are becoming more and more one-dimensional.

“I resent,” said a vehement Leslie Grow, whose son Matthew is a freshman at Fairfax High School, “that as we get closer to May”–when the SOLs are administered–“it’s all about tests, tests, tests. And then they get to finals in June, and they’ve had it. They’re exhausted, and they bomb [the finals], and their grade drops. They don’t have anything left for finals”…

Grow’s concerns are shared throughout the region. “We’re testing so much,” said former Prince George’s County school board member Verna Teasdale, “that teachers don’t have time to teach, and students don’t have time to learn.”

With such discontent comes a simmering, slow-burn political movement questioning the value of high-stakes testing. Grow joined a grass-roots group, Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs, based in Bedford, Va. During the 2001 Virginia legislative session, she helped push for major changes in the tests.

In Maryland, Del. Janet Greenip (R-Anne Arundel) has begun hosting anti-MSPAP seminars across the state. Her feelings about the testing program are clear–“I hate it,” she said–and the meetings are designed to educate parents. Her first meeting, in Anne Arundel, drew a couple hundred people. Her second meeting, in Prince George’s last month, was sparsely attended, though the anti-MSPAP fervor was strong.

In Southern Maryland last year, a Charles County school board member kept her fifth-grade son home during the MSPAP and was subsequently censured by her fellow board members for telling the media about it. That form of fighting back has gained popularity in recent years–in suburban New York, 60 percent of Scarsdale Middle School eighth-graders boycotted standardized tests in the spring…

(5) “Against the Establishment” by Drew Lindsay

Source: The Washingon Post – 11 November 2001

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Often when Kirk Schroder, head of the Virginia Board of Education, is wrestling with major school issues, he leaves his Richmond office, climbs into his car and heads west for the hour-long drive to the ramshackle Charlottesville house of E.D. Hirsch Jr.

At 73, after more than three decades teaching at the University of Virginia, Hirsch is a professor emeritus, with the weathered, tweedy look that that implies… Born to a Shakespeare-quoting Southern businessman, educated at Ivy League universities, Hirsch listens to classical music, drinks vermouth, summers in New England–and makes a habit of shaking up the educational establishment.

Schroder is an entertainment lawyer and a veteran politico. Nearly three years ago Virginia Gov. James Gilmore appointed Schroder to the state Board of Education and then successfully lobbied to have him named president. The job was akin to riding a bull. Parents and teachers were up in arms over the newly enacted Standards of Learning program, which sets the knowledge that Virginia children must demonstrate proficiency in–via tests given in third, fifth and eighth grade, and in high school. The stakes were high–by 2004 high school students who score poorly on those tests would not be allowed to graduate.

So it was not surprising that one of Schroder’s first calls in his new post was to Hirsch, sometimes known as the father of the SOLs. “I wanted a gut check from someone who had played a major role in developing the theories behind these policies,” Schroder recalls…

That Hirsch wields such influence with the Virginia board is a sign of the wackiness of education politics these days. Not long ago, he was a marginal figure peddling theories denounced as elitist and ethnocentric. In a 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, he accused schools of a sort of malpractice for failing to teach “brute facts”–names, dates, events and concepts. For a core curriculum, he proposed a list of some 5,000 facts “every American needs to know”–from acrophobia through Mozart to Zurich.

Though Cultural Literacy vaulted onto bestseller lists, reviewers savaged Hirsch as a cultural aristocrat eager to foist on schools the Western canon and a narrow, elitist curriculum. Suspicion ran particularly high in the education community; the Harvard Educational Review in 1988 identified Hirsch as part of a conspiracy by “right-wing intellectuals and ruling groups to undermine the basis of democratic public life.” Never mind that Hirsch describes himself as a card-carrying liberal. Never mind that he is an abortion-rights, gun-control Democrat. And never mind that he intended Cultural Literacy to help educators understand why disadvantaged kids often do worse in school than their peers.

Today, nearly 15 years after this contentious debut as a school reformer, Hirsch has become an intellectual bigfoot with considerable influence over the education establishment that once demonized him. More than 600 schools nationwide use the “core knowledge” curriculum, which was derived from Cultural Literacy in the early 1990s with the help of hundreds of educators and specialists…A series of books spun off from the core knowledge curriculum is a hit with parents, having sold 2 million copies. And Hirsch’s ideas are embraced by such polar opposites as conservative William Bennett, secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, and liberal Washington Post columnist William Raspberry. Most important, perhaps, Hirsch is the theorist of choice for Schroder and others in the standards movement, which has left few schools untouched and features President Bush as its chief advocate…

Not long ago, the GOP wanted to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Now congressional Republicans are throwing money at it. “We’re talking today in education about being both progressive and pragmatic,” explains James Watts of the Southern Regional Education Board. “It is Bill Clinton, it is New Democrat, it is Third Way politics. It’s George Bush.”

And it’s E.D. Hirsch Jr. A little more than a year ago, as Kirk Schroder plotted the first major revisions to Virginia’s SOLs since their inception four years ago, he asked Hirsch to write a newspaper op-ed piece backing the changes…[Hirsch] eventually decided that Schroder’s package of changes represented the middle ground and endorsed them in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, calling the standards movement “our best hope for higher achievement and greater social justice.” And in the end, when the board passed the revisions, it was partly due to a boost from a man once seen as public enemy No. 1 in education.