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What’s the drag on student achievement in STEM?

September 8, 2011

As Minnesota heads back to school this week, educators are sure to be buzzing about the state’s recent disappointing scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) of science. [To view results summaries, select “2011 Minnesota Statewide Assessment Results – Science”.]  As Minnesota has placed such a high premium on mobilizing STEM initiatives, such results have left many scratching their heads. Some state education officials and science-education experts explained the results as yet another symptom of poorly structured assessment priorities and consequent instructional choices.

Ze’ev Wurman’s recent critique of the National Research Council (NRC)’s Framework for K-12 Science Education, however, made public only a week or so before Minnesota’s results were released, may shed some instructive light on the issue, especially as the overarching goals of Minnesota’s Science Standards draw heavily from the NRC’s 1996 National Science Standards.

In a blog post on his company’s website, Wurman, a software engineer and experienced educational standards reviewer/adviser at federal and state levels, took the NRC’s standards to task for “not expect[ing] students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science.”  In the end, he summarized the NRC’s objectives as:

“…not expect[ing] our students to be able to do any science, or to be able to solve any science problem.  This framework simply teaches our students science appreciation, rather than science. It expects our students to become good consumers of science and technology, rather than prepare them to be the discoverers of science and creators of technology.”

Though high-stakes-testing rules may cause some drag on non-reading and non-math disciplines, the hope here is that educators look closely at what truly increases students’ successful understanding of science, and that schools will adjust their instructional paths accordingly.  Based on Wurman’s argument, building satisfactory science proficiencies in large percentages of students—something the state has deemed essential to its economic future—will take much, much more than simply building students’ general scientific literacy.

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