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The Impact of High Stakes Testing on Science Education

Copyright © Adam Waxler

Olaf Jorgenson and Rick Vanosdall argue that an elephant does not grow by constantly weighing it, likewise, we can not expect student achievement to “grow” by simply increasing the amount of testing.

In fact, in their article, “The Death of Science? What We Risk In Our Rush Toward Standardized Testing and the Three R’s”, Jorgenson and Vanosdall claim that the national movement to measure reading, writing, and mathematics through high-stakes standardized tests actually hinders education, particularly science education.  Jorgenson and Vanosdall explain that in an effort to improve test scores, schools are being forced to drastically reduce the amount of class time devoted to science instruction, which in turn, places our entire nation’s scientific future at risk.

Jorgenson and Vanosdall point to several examples of schools that have moved away from the traditional, passive memorization of textbooks to a more constructivist, inquiry-based approach to science education that have met with significant success.  Unfortunately, these schools that have proven success with activity-based science learning may now have their programs jeopardized by the push for standardized testing.

One example Jorgenson and Vanosdall point to is the Highline School District in Seattle, in which students learn science through hands-on activities, then integrate reading, writing, math, and technology through their science lesson.  By performing science experiments, students learn science by doing rather than reading about it in a textbook.  These students are actively involved in constructing their own knowledge.

Other schools that use inquiry-based science programs have met with similar success.  Mesa Unified School district has been using inquiry-based science kits for over 25 years and points to their students’ success on advanced placement exams as well as placement in various Science Olympiad competitions as evidence of their success in science education.  Jorgenson and Vanosdall also point to several examples of schools that made the switch from direct teaching and passive learning to guided teaching and active learning that show immediate and significant increases in science achievement as measured by state’s science achievement tests.

While the benefits of inquiry-based science are evident, this constructivist approach to teaching is clearly more time consuming than direct teaching.  As schools struggle to better prepare their teachers and students for high stakes standardized tests, schools are unfortunately devoting less time to science instruction.  Jorgenson and Vanosdall explain that in some districts the fixation on basic skills preparation has gotten so bad that students spend 20% of total class time on test preparation.  Unfortunately, in many cases, teachers simply have no choice as states begin to tie school funding, teacher salaries, and school “report cards” to standardized test results.  The short term consequences put core academic subject such as science and social studies on the chopping block.  The long-term implications, however, will be nothing short of devastating as we produce students lacking higher-order, critical thinking skills, and more importantly, lacking an interest and desire to learn science.

In education today, “time” seems to be the enemy.  Unfortunately, good constructivist teaching strategies, such as pattern search, Socratic questioning, activity based methods, and rationale inquiry methods all take time, significantly more time than the direct teaching, “drill and skill” approach.  Yet, the benefits of constructivist, inquiry based learning are evident in the achievement scores of students, as well as in their desire and motivation to learn more.  However, despite the clear advantages of inquiry based learning, high stakes testing is forcing schools to reduce time spent on science education, when in fact schools need to be giving teachers and students more time on science education, thereby allowing teachers to use the proven constructivist teaching methods.

Certainly, every student and parent has the right to know where there child fits in academically with the rest of the state, and even the nation, but administrators, teachers, and the community need to look beyond standardized test scores as a measure of student achievement and teacher ability and allow teachers and school districts the freedom to teach, and students the freedom to learn.

Adam Waxler is a middle school social studies teacher, teacher mentor, and the author of eTeach: A Teacher Resource for Learning the Strategies of Master Teachers. Adam is also the editor and publisher of The Teaching Teacher’s Newsletter. For more information about his ebook or to sign up for your free monthly newsletter log onto: