Fearing earth science’s erosion; As schools reduce role of subject, some worry key fields are at risk

Tuesday, October 2, 2001
Page 1A

Fearing earth science’s erosion
As schools reduce role of subject, some worry key fields are at risk

As much as any state, Texas has prospered from the bounty of the earth. Oil and gas have built staggering fortunes and shining skylines.

But a group of geologists, academics, and corporate executives is arguing that the state is risking its future prosperity by letting its schools’ commitment to the earth sciences erode.

“If you don’t get kids exposed to these things in the classroom, how are they going to learn?” said Jon L. Thompson, president of Exxon Mobil Exploration Co. and one of dozens lobbying officials to strengthen the state’s commitment to the field.

State officials acknowledge that a series of recent decisions has helped to move earth science to the margins. But they say it’s the unintended consequence of well-meaning reforms.

“The unfortunate net result is that earth science has become something we never meant it to be, which is essentially ignored,” said Chris Castillo-Comer, director of science in the Texas Education Agency’s division of curriculum and rofessional development.

Ms. Castillo-Comer and advocates for earth science say the root causes for the shift are several converging changes in the past few years.

Among them is the state’s new curriculum, adopted in 1998, which eliminated focused study of earth science in third, fifth, and eighth grades as part of a shift toward broader “general science” classes that touch on each field of science in every grade.

The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which will replace the TAAS testing system in 2003, also replaces the eighth-grade science test with a fifth-grade test. The change was made to ease the load on eighth-graders, who will take three other tests in the new regimen.

And last year, the State Board of Education changed a rule that allowed high school students to take earth science to fulfill science requirements. Officials want to be sure all students study biology, chemistry and physics. Starting with freshmen this fall, earth science counts only as an elective.

Add all those changes up, and the place for earth science – the study of rocks, lakes, volcanoes, and other things terrestrial – is shrinking.

Some schools still offer earth science classes as electives, but Ms. Castillo-Comer said few students take them if they can’t be counted toward science graduation requirements. Fewer than a quarter of Texas high schools even offer an elective in geology, meteorology, and oceanography, the main earth science high school course approved by the state, she said. It’s too soon to tell how the changes have affected class enrollments.

“The result of this is that earth science is going to be just a middle school subject in Texas,” said Mike Smith, director of education for the American Geological Institute, which has been coordinating the lobbying efforts in Texas. “Kids may learn earth science as 11- or 12-year-olds and never encounter the subject again.”

He said that, if there is a national trend in earth science education, it’s to increase its presence in the curriculum as environmental and energy issues become more important. For example, North Carolina made high school earth science a required course for graduation last year. The National Science Education Standards, produced by the National Research Council in 1996, includes earth science in its standards at each grade through senior year.

“These people are going to be voters someday, and they need to know something about the earth, the water, the soil, the environment if they’re going to understand the issues they’ll be facing,” said Edward Roy, a professor of geology at Trinity University in San Antonio and chair of AGI’s education advisory committee.

More than a dozen oil company executives have written letters or made phone calls criticizing the move away from earth science in Texas, a state with more working geologists than any other. “It’s difficult to imagine that a state that’s benefited so much from the bounty of the earth and should be so concerned about the future would neglect this part of education,” said Robert Stern, who heads the geosciences department at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Grace Shore, the State Board of Education chairwoman, said she has gotten 40 to 50 letters on the subject in recent months – “more than I’ve received on any other curriculum item.” She said she’s sympathetic to their concerns.

“We have a very narrow focus in our science curriculum,” she said. “I would like to see more courses counted for science credit.”

But she said the state must keep that narrow focus in order to have a sensible testing system. If high school students are going to be tested in a subject area, they need to take the classes necessary to prepare them for that test.

All Texas students are required to take biology and at least an integrated course in chemistry and physics; as a result, officials say, all students can be fairly tested on those subjects. Let some students take earth science instead of chemistry, they say, and the integrity of the test could be compromised. “We can’t test everything,” Ms. Shore said.

As a result, she said, earth science probably won’t be used for science credit unless the science requirement is expanded from two to three credits, something that Ms. Shore supports but probably would take several years to accomplish.

“You get back to the old problem of how many hours are there in the day?” she said.

Until larger changes can be made, Ms. Castillo-Comer – a former earth science teacher – and others are trying to find smaller ways to bring the field back to prominence. While earth science objectives will not be tested on the exit-level standardized tests, Ms. Castillo-Comer said officials will try to include some questions that use earth science settings to deal with concepts of biology, chemistry or physics.

“I know the importance of earth science in making sure that our kids connect back to the earth, especially in our huge urban schools,” Ms. Castillo-Comer said. “It’s been very difficult, and everyone is concerned. But we’re not going to lose it entirely. We just have to keep working at it.”