Science experiment

The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science are out, and they provide compelling evidence that accountability works. The old saying goes that "what gets tested gets taught." That's not quite right; what schools are held accountable for gets taught-and learned.

Take a look at the five "gold star" states that posted statistically significant gains since 2000 at both the fourth-grade and eighth-grade levels: California, Hawaii, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Virginia. Now take a gander at three states among the few in the nation that currently include science as part of their school accountability system: Kentucky, South Carolina, and Virginia. Spot a pattern

Much is made of the fact that No Child Left Behind will require all states to test students in science starting in 2007-2008. By our count, 31 states already have at least one science test in place. But it is these three states-where results on a science test count when determining a school's rating or accreditation-that are showing big gains. (True, that doesn't explain California or Hawaii, though perhaps the former's best-in-the-nation science standards [see here] deserve some credit.)

What's the lesson for policymakers, especially members of Congress? Simple: if they worry about achievement in science and want schools to focus on the subject, they need to add it to the accountability mix. As it currently stands, science won't "count" under NCLB-in terms of determining whether schools make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)-even when testing commences in that subject. A few months ago, the Administration quietly floated a proposal to change that. To date, Congress has shown scant interest in the idea, working instead to add myriad new programs and initiatives to train teachers and boost achievement in science in the name of "competitiveness."

We don't need more programs or symbolic efforts at "professional development." For the many middle- and high-school science teachers who didn't study science in college, a summer workshop is not going to do much good. What we need is to make science matter as much for schools as it matters for the nation, to provide incentives for schools to do whatever it takes to improve student learning in the subject. (In response, schools might even decide to pay physics teachers more than phys ed. teachers, in line with good science, a.k.a. the law of supply and demand.) 

The best news of the week, then, is that a bipartisan group of Congressmen, led by physicist Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich), has floated a bill (H.R. 5442) that would add science to the AYP formula. Kentucky, South Carolina, and Virginia performed a valuable service by experimenting with accountability for science. Now that their strong results are in, let's take their approach nationwide.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is a President at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute