Two Conferences Address Challenges in K-12 Science Education

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Publication date: 
19 March 2004

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, educators and others with an interest in K-12 science education gathered to share thoughts on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the Bush Administration's FY 2005 budget request for science and math education programs, and ways to improve science instruction. Major topics of concern included the Administration's proposed phase-out of NSF's Math and Science Partnership program, the paucity of research into effective science teaching and assessment, and the impact that the NCLB requirement for science testing, beginning with the 2007-2008 school year, will have on curricula.

On March 15, at a conference sponsored by the Triangle Coalition, a panel discussion on the budget request with congressional staffers revealed a groundswell of support for preserving the Math and Science Partnerships (MSPs) at NSF. The Administration wants to phase out the NSF program, and to alter the MSP program at the Education Department by creating a new competition focused on improving high school math instruction. Citing the need for a competitive, peer-reviewed program to develop innovative models that could be replicated in the states, educator and National Science Board member Jo Anne Vasquez reported that the Board has sent letters to the President and to Congress, opposing the elimination of the NSF program. House Science Research Subcommittee staffer Kara Haas pointed out that the NSF Partnerships were formed using some pre-existing NSF K-12 funding, and the elimination of the MSPs would not restore that money, resulting in a "hollowing out" of K-12 programs at NSF. House Education and the Workforce Committee staffer Rick Stombres noted that the proposal to enhance the Education Department's MSP program with grants targeted to high school math improvement would require a change in the NCLB, and he did not think committee chairman John Boehner (R-OH) would reopen the bill for amendment. "I don't see it happening," he said. Stombres also praised the science and math education community for their efforts to increase funding for the Education Department MSPs, saying "you are getting the job done," and "keep up the good work."

The following day, some 700 participants gathered at the Secretary of Education's Summit on Science to listen to government officials talk about the importance of science education, and to hear presentations on science teaching, learning, and assessment. Education Secretary Rod Paige spoke about the Administration's efforts to ensure that all children receive a good science education, and acknowledged "the need for better research into what works." He stated that the implementation of regular testing in science will help teachers understand what helps students learn, and will help administrators and policymakers know "what's working and what's not." OSTP Director John Marburger eloquently explained that science is more than a list of vocabulary words or a collection of facts; it is a way of testing ideas about how nature works. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe spoke of the importance of a highly-trained S&T workforce and NASA's efforts to inspire students to pursue careers in science and engineering. Nobel Laureate Carl Weiman of the University of Colorado - Boulder remarked that while Apollo-era efforts to improve science and math education were targeted at the most promising students, current efforts are focused on ensuring science literacy for every child. "We're building something completely new in how we carry out science education," he said.

Of the many challenges posed by No Child Left Behind, one that was mentioned repeatedly was the impending requirement for science assessment: how will it affect curriculum content, and how much is known about testing students' understanding of science? "What's going to drive what's taught," stated National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts, "is what's in the assessments." A number of panelists noted that tests of higher-order understanding are costlier to score than multiple-choice, "fill in the bubble" tests. The Academy is working on a study to help states conduct effective assessments, Alberts said, but he feared that such assessments would prove "too expensive."

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