Science Evolves in Classrooms

Fourth-graders Lora Metrey, left, and Kayla Wood check an ecosystem experiment at Cashell Elementary School in Rockville. The school scored well on a national science test.
Fourth-graders Lora Metrey, left, and Kayla Wood check an ecosystem experiment at Cashell Elementary School in Rockville. The school scored well on a national science test. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008

In the past six years, science has slipped as a priority in public schools while reading and mathematics have grown dominant.

But in coming years, experts say, the same federal law that elevated reading and math could spark a resurgence of science in the classroom.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind law required states to test students in science starting in the 2007-08 year, on top of reading and math assessments mandated from the start. Virginia has given science tests since 1998, but the exams are new for Maryland and the District. (Separately, Maryland tests high school students in biology as a graduation requirement.)

Unlike the reading and math test results, science scores won't be used to grade schools for accountability. But education leaders predict that the scores will matter when disseminated to the public.

At least six states, including Maryland, released their first science scores this fall. The first science scores from D.C. schools will be released later this year.

Overall results from the new tests "are not very good," said Francis Q. Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington. "As a matter of fact, they're pretty dismal. And it really shouldn't surprise anybody," he said, because science as a topic "has really gone off the instructional radar."

In New Hampshire and Rhode Island, according to news reports, three-quarters of students failed the first science exams.

But in Maryland, more than three-fifths of those tested passed inaugural science tests in grades 5 and 8. Mary Thurlow, state coordinator for science, said she was "pleasantly surprised," considering that many schools "were not teaching science as often as they should."

Science advocates recommend 45 minutes to an hour of science instruction daily starting in upper elementary grades. But many elementary and middle schools now offer half as much science as they did before the law was enacted. Middle schools that used to teach a full year of science and social studies now may offer a half-year of each. Elementary schools have squeezed the two subjects into one block of time to make room for more reading and math.

An informal survey shows what may be a low ebb of science instruction in the region's public schools. Many Maryland schools offer students two hours or less of science studies a week. Virginia schools offer more, which may point to a benefit of continuous state testing. Virginia outperformed Maryland in science scores on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Science advocates predict that school systems in Maryland and elsewhere, under pressure from the new tests, will begin to restore lost hours of instruction.

In 2006, Prince George's County schools raised daily science instruction from 30 to 60 minutes in the lower elementary grades and from 45 to 60 minutes in the upper grades, in anticipation of the new state test.


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