Why Science Test Scores Being 'Stagnant' Is A Good Thing
    By Hank Campbell | May 24th 2012 02:00 PM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    More high school students are taking math and science classes - a good thing, we all want more science literacy - but the U.S. Education Department, in its quest to stop people from wondering how it still exists after 33 years of education not being a federal prerogative, cautions that scores have stagnated.

    To people not trying to rationalize their jobs, and not in the scare journalism business, that simply means we had nearly 50% fewer people in 1970 but we have a lot more now and the same percentage are good at math and science.  Math and science remain hard.

    That's why smarter people do it.

    I know, I know, the humanities and social sciences have gerrymandered all kinds of new definitions for 'intelligence', cleverly structured so that if you can play the piano or paint, you are as intelligent as any scientist - but it is unconvincing.  Hey, it was a progressive psychologist who invented the IQ test, not a teacher and certainly not a scientist.  They would have had much different definitions.  

    So because all the education in the world can't make people truly good at something like science, any more than music classes can create a concert pianist, we have more work to do remains the basic message of the US Education Department, whose only achievement after three decades remains that they turned over pedagogy to the National Education Association and gridlocked any chance of real education reform and even a *gasp* national standard for science.  

    It's actually a good thing that scores have stagnated; it means that no one has artificially lowered the standard to be impress their bosses and create a veneer of 'success' - once students have their required courses out of the way, they tend not to take science and math because it remains hard. Social studies and economics are a lot easier because you can just make stuff up, in math and science you can be wrong and you have a whole lot of people who are willing to make goat noises at you when you are. It isn't for everyone.

    The upside to 'stagnant' scores, percentage wise,  is that if you want to lead the world in science, the best people have to be doing it.  If anyone can do it, and have the same legitimacy, the best people will do something else.  That no politician has hit on the idea to artificially boost self esteem by reconfiguring math and science to be 'easier' is a big reason why America still leads the world in science.  

    Latest results show that some people are still not good at math and science.  Credit: Shutterstock

    The latest Condition of Education report stated that the percentage of students enrolling in science and math classes increased in everything except algebra I.(1) What happened there?  Students now have that in middle school instead of high school, so take heart students - while union talking heads, a bloated federal agency and media pundits continually tell you how "dismal" your scores are, most of you are taking the hard courses earlier than every single one of your detractors did. (2)

    But no good news is allowed to be good news when you are in the business of fixing problems and thus need to perpetuate them.  So the report somberly shows that math and science scores have not changed - and media coverage dutifully parrots the sentiment of the Education Department and its loathing of American children and use the term "stagnated".    Math remains as hard was it was in the early 1970s; only 1 percent of high school seniors scored at the highest achievement level in 2009.  Even in education, being part of the 1% is vilified.

    Well, even if scores are not up in high school, a lot more people are going to and graduating college, including in science and math.   Graduate school enrollments increased 37 percent from 2000 to 2010.  And despite claims by the AAUW that academia is some "Mad Men"-esque hotbed of gender inequality, women have added to their unbroken streak since 1988 and remain more than half of graduate school enrollments. In 2010, the report notes, postbaccalaureate (so, grad school, med school, law school, etc..) enrollment was 59 percent female.

    What about after college?  That is more bad news for the people in the business of talking about how terrible teachers are at teaching science, including every President of the United States for the last 20 years. Adult science literacy has tripled since I graduated college.  

    So I just want to say "thanks, teachers", because I know you are tired of hearing the government, the media and education lobbyists tell you that you stink at your job but hiring different people would make it all better.


    (1) It also showed that the trend toward charter and private schools is increasing - and not just among Democratic politicians who insist public school is necessary for everyone else's children, but among people who are really placed under a financial burden.

    (2) Don't let them tell you more money will improve things either. From 1988 until 2009, public school funding increased 74 percent after adjusting for inflation and hiring of teachers has far outpaced student enrollment.  Since very few people in the workplace can claim they made that much more money in that same period (unless they were 15 years old in 1988 and not working at all) education is taking a larger chunk of taxpayer earnings than ever before. America spends 35 percent more per year on K-12 education than the average OECD member country (like France):


    It's actually a good thing that scores have stagnated; it means that no one has artificially lowered the standard to be impress their bosses and create a veneer of 'success'.

    Few people outside of science like to admit the discrepancy in standards between science and social sciences. In university I had friends who had switched from science to commerce. Having survived the "real" calculus courses, they found the quantitative methods(QM) course a breeze. But those who had been commerce students all along and had taken the watered-down calculus version found the QM course challenging, if not impossible.

    Those same students had Fridays off--well almost; they had an optional seminar to attend. Meanwhile, in science or engineering, our 30 credit per year courses kept us in the building at least 5 days a week. For 3 credits, commerce students had 3 hours of lecture. For the same number of credits, we had just as many lecture hours, plus a four-hour laboratory.

    Many schools in our system complain about literacy problems, and yet they have 95% + pass rates in English and French. No school I know of has such "success" rates in mathematics or science. Are language teachers doing a better job or do they enjoy the luxury of lax bureaucrat-set rubrics?
    Here in Florida, we are having to redefine success for our students and schools.. Not in science, but in writing. The Dept of Education can't understand why only 25% received a passing score of 4 on the writing portion of the FCAT (the state's standardized test), when last year around 80% received a passing score of 3. So they are going to alter the formula for grading schools. I have three kids in the public schools now, so I am watching this carefully, and planning another summer full of math, reading, and writing lessons for them.

    I am watching this carefully, and planning another summer full of math, reading, and writing lessons for them.
    It's great that you're capable and willing to compensate for lower standards, but in a way, it's also unfair that your education department is forcing you into that position.