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Getting Serious About Science

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

It's a great irony--the shortage of scientifically based research on how to improve student achievement in science--but school districts aren't laughing. Under No Child Left Behind, students must be tested in science at least once in each grade span (3-5, 6-9 and 10-12) during the 2007-2008 school year. In preparation, states must have science standards in place by the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year. By the end of that school year, science classes must be taught by highly qualified teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education has called for more research on the best ways to teach science and measure student progress. Currently available research on science education is embodied in nationally developed benchmarks and standards, which emphasize inquiry-based learning, often involving hands-on experiences. The emphasis is on increasing understanding of key concepts by covering fewer topics in greater depth.

By current measures, student achievement in science leaves much to be desired. Only 18 percent of the nation's 12th graders performed at the proficient level on the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress science test. In comparison to 12th graders in other nations, U.S. students ranked 16th in the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study. (The good news: fourth graders ranked second.) The U.S. DOE and the National Science Foundation registered concern by sponsoring the first national science summit in March 2004. Districts can register their concern by taking the following actions:

Hire certified science teachers Research shows students fare better when taught by teachers who have studied teaching methods in science. Yet, out-of-field teachers teach 17 percent of students in the middle grades and 7 percent of students in high school.

Provide access to high-quality professional development To help underqualified teachers gain certification in science, some colleges offer online courses supplemented by intensive summer workshops. State departments of education are a good source of information about these opportunities.

Synergize (science and literacy) Some research indicates the goals of science literacy (the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena) can be combined with the goals of basic literacy. There is a movement toward using science content to teach reading, and materials are increasingly available to meet this need.

Invest in equipment wisely Several schools can share high-cost science lab equipment through a district-wide loan program. Experience shows that a critical part of the investment is a science specialist who can travel with the equipment and "team" with teachers to ensure the greatest benefit for students.

Include science specialists in decision making District leaders who have science coordinators or specialists in the central office can call on them to keep district actions focused and informed. Districts lacking a science specialist may wish to identify an unofficial teacher-leader to help keep district efforts (e.g., professional development offerings, textbook adoptions, science equipment purchases) on target.

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