By Joshua Benton
Well-practiced from years of Texas Assessment of Academic Skills testing, the state’s eighth-graders beat out most of their domestic competition in a test of math skills, a study released Wednesday said.
But they fell below the national average in science, leading some teachers to argue that the state’s emphasis on testing math, reading and writing skills has too often left other subjects ignored.
“There are many places you could visit in Texas where there’s almost no science being taught,” said Dr. Linda Knight, president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas. “The focus is on math and reading, and it’s difficult to get the time to teach anything else.”
Wednesday’s announcement is part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which has compared American students with their overseas counterparts in math and science since 1995. The most recent study, in 1999, compared eighth-graders from 38 nations.
For the first time, however, the study allowed U.S. states and school districts to participate as if they were independent nations. Thirteen states, including Texas, volunteered, along with 14 districts and groups of districts. Nearly 2,000 Texas students from 52 randomly selected schools took part in the study.
In math – a subject that state officials have increasingly emphasized in the last decade through standardized testing – Texas eighth-graders fared well. Only Michigan scored higher among the 13 states studied.
Internationally, Texas finished in the same range as Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, but well behind top Asian nations such as Singapore and South Korea. It also finished significantly ahead of the international average, which was pulled down by low-performing nations such as Turkey and Morocco.
“We’re very pleased with the results,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson. “It shows our teachers and our curriculum are paying off.”
But the news wasn’t as positive in science, a subject in which Texas finished 11th of the 13 states participating, barely edging out North Carolina and Maryland. Texas finished below the American average and not significantly better than the international average.
Texas’ performance ran counter to most other states, which generally ranked higher in science than in math.
Dr. Knight, who teaches science in the Houston school system, puts much of the blame on the way Texas aggressively tests some subjects, including math, and puts less emphasis on others, like science.
In Texas, most students will have taken six TAAS tests in reading and six more in math by the time they finish eighth grade. Teachers, schools and districts are evaluated in part on test scores, which are used to figure the accountability ratings that the TEA gives schools.
In addition, students must pass exit-level math and reading tests to get a diploma.
There is only a single TAAS test in science, given in the eighth grade, and passage is not required for graduation.
As a result, Dr. Knight and others said, teachers shift emphasis away from subjects such as science and social studies and toward math and reading.
“I’ve had elementary schoolteachers complain to me they’ve had principals come into their room and say, ‘This looks like science! You’re supposed to be teaching math!'” Dr. Knight said.
Other teachers have complained of being told to spend the first 10 minutes of a science class on math problems or to include writing assignments in the weeks leading up to the TAAS, she said.
“If you tell a principal his paycheck is based on this test but not on how your kids do in science, he’s going to put his resources in the areas the state emphasizes,” said John David, an eighth-grade science teacher at Marshall Middle School in Houston.
Texas isn’t the only place where science teachers are feeling marginalized. As more states move toward high-stakes testing in math and reading, science is often being pushed aside, according to Dr. Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.
Only four states – Louisiana, New Mexico, New York and Ohio – have high-stakes testing in science. Nine others plan to introduce it in the next few years.
“There’s a huge disconnect between our national priorities and the priorities of school leaders,” Dr. Wheeler said. “Business people are always talking about how they need more qualified technology workers, but the schools aren’t emphasizing the science needed to produce them.”
Ms. Culbertson said that the state education agency is committed to science education and that the math and reading focus of TAAS will soon shift to include a broader set of subject areas.
Beginning in 2003, a revised battery of TAAS tests will include science tests for fifth-, 10th- and 11th-graders, while the eighth-grade test will be eliminated. Passing the 11th-grade exit-level test – which will include biology, chemistry and physics – will be required for graduation.
How a school’s students fare on science tests will become a factor in its accountability ratings in 2004.
“We’re doing what we need to keep science in the forefront,” Ms. Culbertson said.