In the past decade, the federal No Child Left Behind law brought new attention to achievement gaps among students across the country. It also created powerful incentives for school districts to focus on teaching math and language arts — the two subjects measured under the law.

But in many schools — including in high-performing Fairfax County, officials say — that laser-like focus has come at the expense of lessons in other areas, such as science and social studies, according to the county’s instructional services staff.

“We have schools that have made double-digit gains in reading and math ... and double-digit losses in science and social studies. There’s a reason for that,” Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services Peter Noonan told the School Board last week. “What gets measured gets done.”

Noonan and his staff presented countywide student achievement data in math and science to the School Board last Thursday. Discrepancies between math and science were particularly stark at the elementary level.

Since 2005, the mathematics pass rate for all sixth-graders has risen 16 points to 88 percent. Gains for black and Hispanic students were even more dramatic — both groups jumped 30 points, from 47 percent passing to 77 percent.

In science, however, achievement has grown more slowly and unevenly.

Since 2005, the proportion of Fairfax kids passing the third-grade state science exam rose just 2 percentage points, to 91 percent. The passing rate for students with limited English proficiency actually dropped a point, from 78 percent to 77 percent.

By the time they reach fifth grade, Fairfax students lag behind the state average in science, the data show. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times)

Elementary-level social studies scores, which were presented to the board in November, showed a similar troubling trend.

There simply isn’t time enough in the day for teachers to do everything that’s asked of them, said Myra Thayer, the school system’s science coordinator.

That’s particularly true in the schools with the neediest children, she said, where kids are struggling with reading and math. If nothing changes, Thayer said, fewer and fewer needy children will build the skills they need to take advanced science courses in high school — and eventually, to gain college admission.

“We are at a critical point in terms of making decisions about what we really want for those kids,” Thayer said, “because the teachers are telling us that they don’t have time.”

(Some of the school system’s neediest schools did have extra time with students — through extended-day Mondays or a modified school-year calendar — until the extra hours were eliminated in painful budget cuts in 2009-10. Superintendent Jack D. Dale recommended cutting those extra-time initiatives because he said they had produced mixed achievement results.)

“How do we as a system wish to continue ... when we’re bound by federal guidelines and the threat of sanctions but we believe we need to educate the whole child?” Noonan said. “That’s an important question for all of us to wrestle with.”

Ultimately, the newly elected school board — slated to be sworn in on Dec. 19 — will have decide how to address the instructional concerns.

Some parents urged the board on Thursday to consider adopting science textbooks for elementary students, arguing that books can be a more efficient tool than the inquiry-based learning “kits” that Fairfax currently uses for teaching.

I’d love to hear what other parents and teachers think should be done to make sure that science, history and civics — and recess, art and music! — don’t get short shrift in the age of No Child Left Behind.