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Today's high school seniors a bunch of scientific know nothings?
November 21, 2001 4:22 AM   Subscribe

Today's high school seniors a bunch of scientific know nothings? According to the most recent national test results, it would appear so. Is this a case that the money is thrown in areas that will make the SATs look good? If that's the case, has that been money well spent? Is it really just a case of money? Whatever the answer, it sort of makes you fear for the future.
posted by MAYORBOB (37 comments total)

 
Only NERDS study science, dork...
posted by ph00dz at 5:30 AM on November 21, 2001


I guess I should make the obvious comment about how China/Japan/InsertNameHere's schools are better than ours at producing educated students. I am appalled at the general lack of knowledge in subjects by my peers. OH well.
posted by Darke at 5:38 AM on November 21, 2001


The data and a ton of analyses.
posted by iceberg273 at 5:52 AM on November 21, 2001


Americans have been bad at science ever since Magellan discovered the New World....
posted by jpoulos at 6:36 AM on November 21, 2001


oh, wait, that's history. d'oh!
posted by jpoulos at 6:37 AM on November 21, 2001


The rush towards using standardized tests to evaluate the abilities of school districts to produce has been, in many cases, an evaluation of the ability of the school district to get their teachers to teach to the tests.

Teachers spend more time in the years of the tests teaching only towards what the tests are on, and how to take them. Basically a year-long Kaplan course.

This is also done at the sufference of other subjects that are not tested as Math and English are because in many cases, classes are re-organized to give more time to Math and English classes (semi-block scheduling, alternate days for other courses while Math and English remain every day, etc).

However; even as China/Japan/etc's school are credited with delivering higher 'educated' students than America (which is one of the reasons of this shift to standardized testing, tracking, and so forth), American students remain more innovative and better at real-world problem solving when non-standard solutions are needed.

Oh, I could go on and on, like how it is inane that an elected beaurocracy is allowed to be in charge of school policy, teacher hiring and firing (and even if a teacher can take a vacation), curiculum, text book selection, budget, and so forth. Since, of course, they don't have any educational background themselves and in many cases are just looking out to forward their own political careers, benefit their resume for other reasons, or to be able to influence the supervision of their own child by using their position to harass their child's teachers.
posted by rich at 6:52 AM on November 21, 2001


American students remain more innovative and better at real-world problem solving when non-standard solutions are needed

Really? Any evidence to back that up? I think they're a bunch of lazy, spoiled bastards. Instead of throwing money at schools without strings attached, we need to pay teachers what they would receive in the private sector and give them an incentive to do their jobs. American parents need to also start shouldering more of the blame, these behaviors start at home...
posted by owillis at 6:59 AM on November 21, 2001


Teachers were students once making them a "bunch of lazy, spoiled bastards." Throwing money at them would make them more spoiled.

That's your line of reasoning, students that want to learn (oh they're out there) are suffering the side-effects in tax cuts as much as the teachers are. The behaviors at home argument is tired and unconvincing. You will always have the non-interested students out there, but certainly not enough to back up your generalization.
posted by skallas at 7:14 AM on November 21, 2001


Did any of you go through the site and look at some of the questions? There is a good mix of multiple choice and written-answer questions. When I took standardized tests, they were all multiple choice. I think the inclusion of written response questions is excellent, though scoring is difficult. Note: there was no such thing as "one right answer" to the written response questions.

The teaching of science is harmed, in part, by restraining biological education. Students can't get a grasp of ecology without being taught critical concepts that are closely linked to the theory of evolution. But so many districts either eliminate mention of evolution, or so constrain the teaching of it, that the students don't get a workable grasp of the concept (lots of their teachers don't understand it either).

Another problem is that science is taught wrong - as a collection of "facts" (which is one way that history is taught poorly). Instead, science education should focus on methods, techniques, and processes.
posted by yesster at 7:20 AM on November 21, 2001


Really? Any evidence to back that up? I think they're a bunch of lazy, spoiled bastards.

Really? Any evidence to back that up? (It cuts both ways.)
posted by rodii at 7:24 AM on November 21, 2001


When I was a kid, my gifted program was cut to put more money into sports. The music program was shelved. The arts program never had enough money. Someone who has been teaching for 30 years might make about 50K in New York State. The local school district is so obsessed with getting their daily state aid that they send kids to wait for the bus in freezing rain at subzero windchill. It's a messed up system.
posted by xyzzy at 7:24 AM on November 21, 2001


Proles don't need education.
posted by aramaic at 7:26 AM on November 21, 2001


Hmm.. "incentive to do their jobs." Actually, my wife is a teacher and (without bias) she's an excellent teacher (the board likes her, she's always asked to mentor other teachers, she's asked to run new communities, they want her to become a supervisor, etc)..

She's extremely dedicated. She's a history teacher, and used to be a geography teacher.

She has to buy her own maps. I help set up her classroom at the beginning of each year and the books are all the same books from 5 years ago, the softcovers falling apart.

I don't think paying her more would give her more incentive. I think hiring more teachers, reducing class sizes, providing better resources and tools, and allowing the teachers who have an education in how to educate decide on curiculum choices would be a start, though.

I agree parents have to be more involved in raising their kids, but the ones that do typically get involved the wrong way. Like hiring lawyers for their daughter to make sure that, because she has ADD or some other classification, any assignment they think is too hard for her she doesn't have to do.

As for the innovation thing; I've read numerous articles on it over the past few years in the finacial press, as well as for some of my MBA courses.. I can go search for them if you reeeeeaaally want me to, or you can take my word for it as being a smart, albet lazy spoiled bastard. (smile)
posted by rich at 7:28 AM on November 21, 2001


Whether it be history, science or basic math todays HS graduates are about as ignorant as my seven year old. We constantly get new employees that cannot understand fractions or do basic math. I'm talking multiplication and division here!
posted by revbrian at 7:29 AM on November 21, 2001


(oh, I missed that 'written question' comment on testing; it's still a standardized question and teachers are teaching (and are expect to) on how to give the proper 'stock' answer)
posted by rich at 7:30 AM on November 21, 2001


More relevant links:
Welcome to the Ghetto (of Scientific Illiteracy)

Al Gore on The Politics of Scientific Illiteracy in 1998. Remember that half of Americans preferred a guy who believes in a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden and that "Evolution is just a theory".

More insights and facts about Americans and Science and how little we apparently know. These include; 87% of the American adult population does not know what a molecule is. 50% think people and dinosaurs lived at the same time, 50% don't know that it takes the earth one year to orbit the sun.

An ABC news article about The Sorry State of Science Education

The most recent National Science Foundation findings on Public Attitudes and Public Understanding - Interest in and Knowledge about Science and Technology from 2000. This includes the questionnaire which most recent findings are based around.
posted by joemaller at 7:42 AM on November 21, 2001


(oh, I missed that 'written question' comment on testing; it's still a standardized question and teachers are teaching (and are expect to) on how to give the proper 'stock' answer)

Did you review the test questions? I looked at a few. They gave the students a table of four planets' distance from the sun and the length of time of a planet's revolution. They asked the students to graph the data and draw a curve that connects the points. Then they introduced a hypothetical fifth planet and its revolution period and asked the students to make an inference about its distance from the sun. They also asked the students why their prediction might or might not be valid.

Unless teachers knew the exact questions in advance, there's no way you could teach a "stock answer" for such a question.
posted by anapestic at 7:51 AM on November 21, 2001


Tangentially, I suspect that the ghettoisation of factual programming has a not-insignificant role in allowing people's knowledge of the world to evaporate beyond their school years. When you're forced to look at the Discovery channel or PBS's Nova for something more intellectually challenging than "When Animals Attack XXVI", people aren't going to look. (I was watching a BBC programme last night about the Vikings in Britain, and learned more than I did at secondary school. It's a kind of pump-priming.)
posted by holgate at 8:02 AM on November 21, 2001


Really? Any evidence to back that up? (It cuts both ways.)

I "think" they are, versus whether they are or not I can't empirically state. As far as the "home life" argument, you may feel its tired and old but how come these problems keep getting progressively worse?

I think paying more to teachers would improve the caliber of teachers out there. While there are some really good ones, an alarming portion are woefully unqualified - because there's no money in it.

The policy of apportioning money within neighborhoods so the rich areas get disproportionate funding is also a recipe for disaster.
posted by owillis at 8:12 AM on November 21, 2001


Good point Holgate. I learned more from the TV about subjects like history and science than I ever did at school. Especially now TV has gone history mad. You can't move for middle aged men trying to explain Oliver Cromwell's psychology and experimenting with Roman defence systems.

The British education system is just as fucked up as the US one. The exams kids do at age 16 are now so easy, if you're really bright an A is no longer enough. It has to come with a gold star and a special pat on the back.
posted by Summer at 8:31 AM on November 21, 2001


the tests
posted by andrew cooke at 8:36 AM on November 21, 2001


I think they're a bunch of lazy, spoiled bastards.

i resent that. I am a student who pays my own way in college and come from a private school where not many people took their education for granted- much less so than people i know who come from public high schools. My older brother is the only white teacher in all black inner-city atlanta school- i dare you to tell him to his face what you said. To just say what you did is COMPLETE and TOTAL ignorance.
posted by jmd82 at 8:43 AM on November 21, 2001


Of course in principle it's worth knowing all kinds of things. But, in practice, maybe it's worth asking how important it is for the majority of high school students to learn this stuff.

I'm not saying it shouldn't be taught, or that kids shouldn't learn it -- just that maybe their not knowing it isn't too big a deal.

The U.S. education system hasn't stopped producing world-class scientists, by any stretch. Those who are interested enough to actually use science in their careers still have the opportunity to learn it (with exceptions of some school systems of course), and on average they go on to become at least as capable as students from anywhere in the world.

And the sciences are more and more specialized. A good high school science background is helpful in understanding the world, but has little practical application. A person who understands high school-level general science and a person who doesn't probably have pretty much the same chances at success in the world today.

Ideally, yes, kids should learn how to think about the world, and understand how it works, and appreciate art and music, and they should be encouraged to develop their own creative abilities, but there are probably only a handful of schools in the world that accomplish all that. These things have always been up to the individual student. So proportionally fewer young students are taking science seriously today; that's not necessarily a tragedy.
posted by mattpfeff at 8:59 AM on November 21, 2001


I "think" they are, versus whether they are or not I can't empirically state.

OK, but what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the...what was the cliche again?

As far as the "home life" argument, you may feel its tired and old but

Not me. I'm a parent; I think about this issue a lot. Though I'm not sure there's really a connection to school funding issues.

how come these problems keep getting progressively worse?

Well, the first question to ask is are they? Can you discern the truth from the propaganda?
posted by rodii at 9:14 AM on November 21, 2001


Make it sexy! Science is chic in SEED magazine: "SEED defines the science of contemporary urban culture," writes founder and editor Adam Bly in his first editor's note. In an interview from his office in Montreal, the young scientist says his provocative first cover shows that science is sexy. It's not only "for lab-coat wearing, frizzy-haired geeks. This is about showing science as pop culture." Adam Bly knows his science! (scroll down for a photo).
posted by Carol Anne at 9:42 AM on November 21, 2001


Of course in principle it's worth knowing all kinds of things. But, in practice, maybe it's worth asking how important it is for the majority of high school students to learn this stuff.

I really couldn't possibly disagree more.

If people understood how antibiotics work and how drug resistance in bacteria develops, people living out in the middle of Minnesota wouldn't be dosing themselves with antibiotics as a preventative against anthrax. People wouldn't refuse life-saving MRI's because they were afraid of "radiation." People wouldn't think that the HIV-AIDS link was "tenuous" and go back to having unsafe sex. People wouldn't think that their homeopathic medicines are safer than synthetic pharmaceuticals because they're "natural". People would recognize that fossil fuels aren't renewable and would be more concerned about the development of green energy sources. People would be able to choose intelligently whether or not to consume genetically-modified foods. People wouldn't go blind after mistaking "wood alcohol" for the stuff in beer.

We're surrounded by science and technology, and we've got to have some basic understanding of what's going on.
posted by shylock at 11:17 AM on November 21, 2001


Or better than understanding, an appreciation of what's going on.
posted by rich at 12:29 PM on November 21, 2001


We're surrounded by science and technology, and we've got to have some basic understanding of what's going on.

I agree with you here. And, yes, you have pointed out some very important, practical applications for science in the world today. But I don't think these are the kinds of things that students are so notably failing to learn -- they don't know them, yes, but they're not taught in school regardless. (Most of them are too non-PC, to begin with.)

The hard question is, how do you teach people how to think about science. But, hell, most of my classmates studying honors first-year physics in undergrad were just learning that -- and they were the ones who would have aced these tests. Would that it could be taught in high school.

(It's true of course that you'll never learn that if you don't study science to begin with, but if it ain't gonna happen anyway, that doesn't make that a good argument for studying science.)
posted by mattpfeff at 12:34 PM on November 21, 2001


jmd82: if your comment was directed to me, I was talking about the students. The teachers are trying the best they can with no money or support from administration/parents.
posted by owillis at 12:49 PM on November 21, 2001


I just finished my A Levels here in England (ok, I have a sciency outlook, maths, further maths, a dash of further further maths, biology, physics and electronics), and having done lots of past papers in them, I have to say they have been getting easier over the years, no doubt about it. The teachers in my school also noted this over the last few years, and normally just spent the first bit of our lessons teaching us how to get As (learn a little bit, stick it down in that way, ta-da!), and the rest of the lesson talking about interesting stuff (ie stuff not on the syllabus as it was dropped/not included).

However, I went to one of the top schools here, and therefore got some damn good teachers - the syllabi don't leave much scope for scientific understanding and development of a scientific approach to thinking, but are more jumping through hoops to get the marks.

I have a number of friends in the American system too, and I was shocked at the level of some of their scientific understanding (stars are the size of light bulbs for example (yep, they're in an Ivy League uni now..)) - and was extremely unimpressed with SATs when I had a stab at them - maybe its because you do more subjects at 18 years old over there?

From what I see, there needs to be an increase in elementary understanding of science over there (he says from his high horse) - mind you, isn't there a state which has stickers on biology text books stating how Darwins theory of Evolution is controversial and probably incorrect?

=)
posted by Mossy at 3:33 PM on November 21, 2001


From the test:
X -> Y + Z + energy
The equation above represents a nuclear decay, in which nucleus X decays into particle Y and nucleus Z and releases energy. Which of the following can explain why energy is released in the decay?
A) The mass of X is less than the sum of the masses of Y and Z.
B) The mass of X is less than the difference between the masses of Y and Z.
C) The mass of X is greater than the sum of the masses of Y and Z.
D) The mass of X is greater than the difference between the masses of Y and Z.


That's a Grade 12 question??

(Then again, I'm a clueless Australian highschooler who isn't even sure whether grade 12 is the final year of higschool in the US, and doesn't even want to know how standardised english testing works.)
posted by eoz at 3:45 PM on November 21, 2001


forgive the ignorant Yank -- "A levels" are for the end of high school? c. 17-18 yrs. old?

eoz -- grade 12 is indeed the final year of high school in the U.S.; 1st grade being typically undertaken at ages 5-6. And yes, alas, that sounds about right for a standardized test for that grade level. sigh. It tests only the most basic ability to think clearly, and still many of us get it wrong....
posted by mattpfeff at 4:43 PM on November 21, 2001


My take is that we need better teachers in our high schools. I know many people here at my university where their high school physics or biology teacher ended up being a football coach who knew nothing about their subjects and taught straight from the textbooks or ended up not teaching much at all. I think people teaching the sciences (biology/chem/physics/etc.) should at least have a B.S. degree for whatever they're teaching, and an advanced degree if possible.
posted by gyc at 5:20 PM on November 21, 2001


And yes, alas, that sounds about right for a standardized test for that grade level.

'Scuse me while I hide under a rock muttering 'but... but... I could do have worked out the answer to that question in year 10!'

Maybe I'll take advantage of this. If this is year 12 science in the US, I'll just do year 12 there! No more looking at a physics question and thinking 'how the hell do you do this?'. ;)
posted by eoz at 10:45 PM on November 21, 2001


A Levels are indeed 17-18, isn't that when us ppl do their SATs Is and IIs?

The problem with getting people with BSs and Advanced degrees in science to become teachers is that most of them actually go off and do science as teaching seems kinda, erm, dull (and there's alwaays that thing that you have to actually communicate and stuff). I think the government needs to aim some propoganda about teaching their way.
posted by Mossy at 8:18 AM on November 22, 2001


If this is year 12 science in the US

I should note -- this isn't the level of science that would typically be taught in 12th grade, but it is the level that would be on a nationwide, standardized test. The way the tests are constructed is highly politicized and their relation to what is actually taught (and required to be learnt to pass a class, as opposed to performing well on a standardized test) is not obvious. Besides, that might, just might be one of the easy questions....

17-18, isn't that when us ppl do their SATs Is and IIs?

yup -- though there's only one SAT. There is a PSAT, which is taken a year earlier and doesn't count for anything except some national scholarship money if you do really well. And, actually, many people take their SATs at the end of 11th grade, so they have the results before applying to colleges in the beginning of 12th. (They can take them again, if they want, too.)
posted by mattpfeff at 8:32 AM on November 22, 2001


I think that in our K-12 system most teachers are spoiled, lazy bastards, and none of your threats and anecdotes will change my mind.

Most students are too -- primarily on account of my previous assertion.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:12 AM on November 22, 2001


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