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Curriculum Update

The latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies

TIMMS 2003: A Chance to Celebrate, Reflect

When the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study results were released this winter, U.S. educators got to savor a taste of success as well as reflect on needed improvements. The assessment is conducted every four years, in 46 countries at the eighth-grade level and 26 countries at the fourth-grade level.

U.S. eighth graders' average math and science scores improved compared to 1995. Available data suggest higher performance of U.S. eighth graders in both math and science in 2003 than in 1995, relative to the 21 other participating countries in those years.

Among U.S. fourth graders, no measurable changes were detected in average math and science scores between 1995 and 2003. They performed lower in both math and science in 2003 than in 1995, relative to the 14 other participating countries in those years.

Between 1995 and 2003, fourth-grade boys and girls showed little change in average math scores. Boys did show a measurable decline in science scores over the same period.

The overall flat fourth-grade results weren't surprising to Anne Tweed, president of the National Science Teachers Association. With federal language arts mandates, "a lot of [elementary schools] haven't turned their attention to [science]," she says. The scores should be a call to have science taught at every grade and every level. They may also reflect the need to ensure that less topics are covered in more depth--rather than many topics being covered more broadly.

In comparing U.S. achievement internationally, Tweed says the attention should turn to looking at what successful states and countries are doing right. What do we do that's different? What do they do that we could model?

News on the achievement gap is also mixed. The gap between white and black students in the U.S. narrowed between 1995 and 2003 in both math and science. But while Hispanic eighth graders improved markedly in both math and science between 1995 and 2003, Hispanic fourth graders showed no measurable changes.

"We still have way too strong a relationship between wealth and achievement in this country," says Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "In our urban and rural schools in particular, ... we offer them fewer rigorous opportunities to do challenging mathematics."

But Seeley is pleased with progress on the achievement gap. "I'd love to see us take that momentum and really funnel our resources into ... schools having difficulty." With federal, state and local investments in teachers and in learning for all kids, she envisions higher achievement levels for more schools.

"Don't take the headlines only in a negative vein--'too bad, so sad,' " Tweed advises administrators. She hopes the findings will open up discussions about more meaningful professional development and higher expectations of all students.

Middle School Pollution Sleuths

They're too small to see, but particles suspended in the air we breathe can cause a host of health problems--from eyes, nose and throat irritation to reduced lung function, chronic bronchitis and even premature death. A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency online tool offering real-time data on particulate matter from haze, smoke and airborne dust will soon become more accessible to middle and high school science teachers. For students, that means the chance to delve into scientific investigations based on real events.

Making it all possible is an EPA grant awarded to the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Hoboken, N.J.'s Stevens Institute of Technology. The center's Internet-based curriculum, called Particulates Matter, will raise awareness of these air particles and their health effects through lessons involving the collection, recording and analysis of real-time data.

The center is also using a Connecticut Department of Education grant to help develop training to assist New Haven and Bridgeport teachers in integrating air-quality analysis into Grades 6-8 science curriculum. The program will accompany the clean school bus technology being employed by these districts as part of the EPA Clean School Bus Initiative.,

Just Say NO to Misinformation

Inaccuracies about the effectiveness of contraceptives:

"The popular claim that 'condoms help prevent the spread of STDs' is not supported by the data."

Errors about the consequences of pre-marital sex:

Personal problems such as jealousy, poverty, depression, embarrassment and others "can be eliminated by being abstinent until marriage."

Gender stereotypes presented as facts:

"Generally, guys are able to focus better on one activity at a time and may not connect feelings with actions."

These are just a few of the examples pointed out by a study on the content in abstinence-only education programs. A group from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform examined the scientific and medical accuracy of the most popular abstinence-only curriculum used by programs receiving funds from the largest federal abstinence initiative. Of those 13 curricula, 11 were found to contain errors and distortions of public health information. School districts make up some of the 69 grantees who received federal funding for these programs in 2003; in fiscal year 2005, nearly $170 million has been earmarked for abstinence-only education, more than twice the amount spent in 2001.

Overall flaws in these 11 curricula, according to the report, are that they:

Contain false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, the risks of sexual activity and the risks of abortion.

Blur religion and science by teaching moral judgments alongside scientific facts.

Treat stereotypes--including those that undermine girls' achievement and show girls as weak and in need of protection--as scientific fact.

Contain scientific errors, specifically on human genetics, infectious disease and HIV.

Response from abstinence supporters has included the argument that Waxman's report doesn't mention how many inaccuracies were found or what portion of each curriculum program was examined. Leslie Unruh, founder and president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, has reportedly said Waxman's facts are inaccurate and his motivations are politically based. Unruh adds that programs recommended by the clearinghouse get their information from widely respected sources.,

A Year of Language Learning

Expect to hear a whole lot of talk about language learning this year. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages is leading the celebration of 2005 as The Year of Languages. At the school, district, state and national levels, the initiative aims to advance the concept that every American should develop proficiency in English and other languages.

For administrators looking to participate, guidelines and products to assist in planning events and obtaining media coverage are available. Many schools are currently involved, reports Martha G. Abbott, director of education at ACTFL. One group of Colorado high school students has already donated $1,000 to the effort. Related district-wide events are highlighting both language learning and cultural understanding. "The participation by local school districts ... is an opportunity for schools to showcase what their language programs have accomplished and the impact of these programs on students," Abbott says.

Meaningful Power of PISA?

Other recent globe-trotting test results are from the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment. Given every three years, PISA focused mainly on math this time. (Problem-solving, science, reading and attitudes toward school were also included.) Forty-one countries participated, with tests seeking to establish how well students can develop and apply mathematical models to deal with real-life tasks and interpret, validate and communicate the results.

U.S. 15-year-olds scored lower, on average, than their peers elsewhere in both math literacy and problem solving. Overall, wealthier countries perform best (high-performing Korea is a notable exception).

NCTM President Cathy Seeley says PISA shows the importance using real-world problems. "Most of our assessment measures don't get at that as much as we'd like to," she explains. Priorities should be "to incorporate realistic and complex problem-solving into our math programs--problems that [students] ... can sink their teeth into."

With the 2006 PISA's science focus, NSTA President Anne Tweed says the popular "two-year high school science" requirement should be reconsidered. "If we're prepping students for national and international assessments, they need opportunities to learn the concepts in all [areas of science]." When two years is all a district can offer most students, she suggests a look at integrated programs, which can cover the science standards in that time period.