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America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science (2006)

Chapter: 2 The Education Context

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Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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2
The Education Context

Key Points

  • High school students’ science achievement nationwide is not impressive and has not changed substantially in three decades.

  • The national and state policy environment of science education is complex and interconnected. This complex landscape must be taken into account when reconsidering the role of laboratory experiences in high school science.

  • Currently, policies influencing high school science education are not well aligned. Some policies and practices may constrain efforts to improve high school science laboratory experiences.

This chapter provides an overview of current trends in science education and the key policies influencing science education. Understanding this context helps to reveal the dynamics that have shaped current high school laboratory experiences and may influence new approaches to high school science laboratories. The first section of this chapter describes current trends in science achievement and the changing student population. Against this backdrop, the second section identifies and briefly summarizes the array of national and state policies that shape science education. Whenever possible,

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

in discussing each policy or program, we discuss its possible implications for laboratory experiences.

RECENT TRENDS IN U.S. SCIENCE EDUCATION

Policy makers, scientists, and educators have expressed growing concern about the nation’s scientific literacy and the international competitiveness of its science and technology workforce. Here we describe recent trends in public understanding of science and in high school science education, which provides the foundational knowledge for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Public Understanding of Science

Major science education reports published in the 1990s advocated broad scientific literacy for all students, including understanding of science concepts and of the processes and nature of science (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; National Research Council, 1996). This type of broadly defined scientific literacy is an essential part of a liberal education. It can provide a strong knowledge base for high school graduates, preparing them for further science and technology education and also to work and live as citizens in an increasingly technological society. The available evidence suggests, however, that levels of scientific literacy are low and improving them is a slow and difficult process.

Northwestern University Professor Jon Miller has developed a systematic approach to defining and measuring public scientific literacy, in surveys conducted for the National Science Foundation (NSF) over the past two decades (Miller, 2004). Defining scientific literacy as the level of understanding required to read and comprehend the science section of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or other comparable major newspapers and magazines, Miller uses several measures of this understanding (Miller, 2004).

The survey results reveal slight improvements in public understanding of science. The percentage of U.S. adults with a minimal understanding of the nature of scientific research (From your point of view, what does it mean to study something scientifically?) increased from 12 percent in 1957 to 21 percent in 1999. The fraction of U.S. adults who understood experimentation, including the reasons for using control and experimental groups in medical research, also grew, from 22 percent in 1993 to 35 percent in 1999.

Over the past 15 years, Miller and colleagues studied public understanding of four specific scientific concepts—molecules, DNA, radiation, and the nature of the universe—that often appear in news stories but are rarely explained in depth. They found that understanding of these concepts is slowly increasing but remains low. For example, the percentage of U.S.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

adults who were able to provide a correct explanation of a molecule increased from 11 percent in 1997 to 13 percent in 1999. Compiling several of these measures into an overall measure of civic scientific literacy, Miller concluded that the percentage of U.S. adults who are scientifically literate grew from 10 percent in the late 1980s to 17 percent in 1999 (Miller, 2004). Despite this low level of scientific understanding, however, the surveys indicate that large majorities of adults continue to believe that scientific research is valuable for economic prosperity and quality of life.

Science Achievement in Secondary School

The low level of public understanding of science may be related to the quality of high school science education, including the laboratory experiences that are a part of that education. Results from three written tests—the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—indicate little or no improvement in high school students’ science achievement over the past 30 years.

Although high school science laboratories could potentially contribute to improvement in the science achievement of U.S. students, current large-scale achievement tests are not capable of measuring progress toward all of the goals of laboratory experiences. The committee identified several educational goals that high school laboratory experiences should help students attain. They include (1) enhancing mastery of science subject matter, (2) developing scientific reasoning, (3) understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, (4) developing practical skills, (5) understanding of the nature of science, (6) cultivating interest in science and in learning science, and (7) developing teamwork abilities (see Chapter 3 for a detailed discussion of each goal).

Results of National Science Achievement Tests

The NAEP includes two components—trend NAEP, which includes test items in science and other subjects, that has been administered many times over the past three decades, and NAEP subject-matter tests, which reflect current expectations for student learning in science and other subjects (National Research Council, 1999).

The performance of 17-year-olds on the science portion of the long-term trend NAEP provides some indication of the extent to which they have attained one of the goals of laboratory experiences—enhancing mastery of science subject matter. Although the test framework calls for measuring not only students’ mastery of subject matter but also their ability to conduct

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

FIGURE 2-1 Long-term trends in average scale scores in science from NAEP.

NOTE: Dashed lines represent extrapolated data.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1999 Long-Term Trend Assessment.

inquiries and solve problems and their understanding of the nature of science (U.S. Department of Education, 2001), the test itself is composed entirely of selected-response items and emphasizes mastery of science subject matter. The long-term trend NAEP does not fully measure complex cognitive abilities that may be developed through laboratory experiences, such as the development of scientific reasoning and understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work (National Research Council, 1999).

The national average of scores of 17-year-olds on the science portion of the long-term trend NAEP assessment was lower in 1999 than 30 years earlier in 1969.1 In contrast to this slight decline in 17-year-olds’ scores, the average national scores of 13-year-olds and 9-year-olds increased very slightly over the 30-year period (see Figure 2-1). The overall trend for all ages suggests that U.S. students’ science knowledge has not increased over the past three decades.

Student scores on the science portion of the long-term trend NAEP varied by racial/ethnic group and by gender. In 1999, white students had higher average scores than their black and Hispanic peers. Between 1970 and 1999, the gap between white and black students in science generally narrowed for 9- and 13-year-olds, but not for 17-year-olds, and the gap between white

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Students’ scores on the long-term NAEP assessment are reported as average scale scores and also in terms of proficiency levels (basic, proficient, advanced). However, because a National Research Council committee that studied NAEP found the process for setting these proficiency levels to be flawed, they are not reported here (National Research Council, 1999).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

and Hispanic students of all ages remained unchanged. In 1999, boys out-performed girls in science at ages 13 and 17, but not at age 9. Among 17-year-olds, the score gap between boys and girls has narrowed since 1969 (Campbell, Hombo, and Mazzeo, 2000).

Like the long-term trend NAEP, the NAEP science achievement test focuses primarily on mastery of subject matter. Between 1996 and 2000, the average score of 12th grade students on this test declined from 154 to 150 (a small but statistically significant amount), while the scores of 4th grade and 8th grade students remained unchanged (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001a). Student performance on the NAEP science achievement test also varied by race and by students’ socioeconomic status. In both 1996 and 2000, the average score for white students was higher than the average for black and Hispanic students. Students of lower socioeconomic status, as indicated by their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, had lower average NAEP science scores than students from more wealthy families (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001b).

Results of International Comparative Tests

Results of international comparisons provide additional insight into the science knowledge of U.S. high school students. TIMSS assessed the science performance of 8th graders in the United States and many other countries in 1995, 1999, and 2003. Over that time period, U.S. 8th graders improved their average science performance slightly, both in comparison with the earlier cohorts of 8th graders and relative to the 44 other countries that participated in the studies (Gonzales et al., 2004). The average scale score in science increased from 513 in 1995 to 527 in 2003, placing the United States well above the international average of 473 among all 8th graders in all participating nations.

Like the framework of the NAEP science achievement test, the TIMSS framework includes both a range of science subject matter and also student abilities related to scientific inquiry and investigations. However, with fewer performance tasks than the NAEP science achievement test, TIMSS may be more limited in its capacity to measure student attainment of the other goals of laboratory experience, besides mastery of subject matter (Owen, 2005).

Results from another international comparative test, PISA, suggest U.S. high school students have not increased their science achievement. In 2000 and 2003, 15-year-old students in many countries took two-hour PISA tests that focused primarily on reading (in 2000) and mathematics (in 2003) and also included some items related to scientific literacy. The U.S. scientific literacy score was below the average among OECD countries in 2000 and in 2003, and there was no measurable change in U.S. students’ scores between the two years (Lemke et al., 2004). The PISA science test framework includes

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

several elements that are aligned with the goals of laboratory experiences, including knowledge of science concepts and the ability to apply this knowledge to describe, explain, and predict scientific phenomena; to understand scientific investigations; and to interpret scientific evidence and conclusions. About half of the test items asked students to perform tasks that reflected applications of scientific knowledge to life and health, the environment, and technology, while the other half were selected-response items (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2004).

Overall, then, results from large-scale national and international tests indicate that U.S. high school students have made little or no progress in mastery of science subject matter. Such mastery might be attained through laboratory experiences or through other forms of science instruction, including reading, lectures, discussion, and work with computers. The tests yield little information about the extent to which U.S. high school students may have attained other educational goals of laboratory experiences.

High School Science and Undergraduate Science Achievement

Policies aimed at improving science education are designed in part to prepare more U.S. high school students to enter higher education in science and engineering degrees, in preparation for careers in these fields. The U.S. science and technology workforce is aging, and global competition for skilled scientists and engineers is growing (National Science Foundation, 2004).

Many undergraduate science and engineering students do not complete their degrees. Among first-year students who declared majors in science and engineering in 1990, fewer than half had completed such a degree within five years. Among those who did not complete such a degree, approximately 20 percent of the students dropped out of college, and the remainder chose other fields of study (Huang, Taddese, and Walter, 2000).

Although students drop out of scientific and technology majors for a variety of complex, individual reasons, one important reason may be that their high school science education, including their laboratory experiences, did not adequately prepare them for undergraduate education. A survey conducted in 2002 indicated that 20 percent of first-year students planning to major in science and engineering fields needed remediation in mathematics, and nearly 10 percent reported needing remediation in the sciences (National Science Foundation, 2004). In a recent study of student scores from its widely used college admissions test, the American College Testing Service found that only 26 percent of students tested in 2003-2004 were ready to pass their first college biology course with a grade of “C” or better (American College Testing Service, 2004).

Little research is available on the role that laboratory experiences may

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

play in preparing students to succeed in undergraduate science education. However, one study is available (Sadler and Tai, 2001). The authors surveyed nearly 2,000 undergraduate physics students at public and private institutions and compared their undergraduate physics grades with their high school physics experiences. The analysis of the survey findings indicates that, when demographic factors were controlled, taking a high school physics course had a modest positive effect on undergraduate physics grades.

The researchers also found that students who took high school physics courses that spent more time addressing fewer topics in depth (including fewer concepts, topics, and laboratory activities) had higher undergraduate physics grades than students whose high school physics courses covered more topics in less depth. The authors suggest that high school physics teachers should concentrate on a limited set of topics related to mechanics and include laboratory experiences carefully chosen to reflect those topics. They note, “Doing fewer lab experiments can be very effective if those performed relate to critical issues and students have the time to pursue them fully” (Sadler and Tai, 2001, p. 126). These findings suggest that laboratory experiences may be more effective in supporting student learning when they are integrated into the stream of science instruction, as we discuss further in Chapter 3.

Rising Enrollments and Increasing Diversity

Trends in public understanding of science and science achievement are influenced by larger changes in the U.S. education system. Rising immigration—the total immigrant population of the U.S. nearly tripled from 1970 to 2000—and the baby boom echo—the 25 percent increase in the number of annual births that began in the mid-1970s and peaked in 1990—are boosting school enrollment. After declining during the 1970s and early 1980s, enrollment in public schools increased in the latter part of the 1980s and the 1990s, reaching an estimated 48.0 million in 2003 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004d).

With rising enrollments, some science teachers face large classes. In California, total statewide enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade grew from 5.2 million in 1992-1993 to 6.3 million in 2003-2004 (California Education Data Partnership, 2005). In recent years, the average size of science classes grew from 29.3 students in 2000-2001 to 30.1 students in 2003-2004 (California Education Data Partnership 2005).2

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California and other states also report pupil-teacher ratios. This ratio is different from average class size because it is the number of pupils per full-time-equivalent teacher, including teachers who are not in the regular classroom. The pupil-teacher ratio in California high schools declined slightly from 24.5 in 1992-1993 to 23.5 in 2003-2004 (California Education Data Partnership, 2005).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×
Linguistic and Ethnic Diversity

In concert with these growing enrollments, student diversity has increased. The total proportion of public school students considered to be part of a minority group increased from 17 percent in 1972 to 39 percent in 2000, largely due to rapid growth in the proportion of Hispanic students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004b). At the same time, poor and minority students are increasingly concentrated in high-poverty schools.

Anthropologists have suggested that groups who are underrepresented in the scientific and technology professions constitute a culture that is different from the culture prevailing in school and in the scientific community (Costa, 1995). Such students cross cultural borders from the world of their peers and family into the world of school science, and conflicts between these different cultures may detract from their learning of science (Cobern and Aikenhead, 1998). They bring everyday knowledge and ways of thinking and talking developed in their home cultures that are rarely acknowledged or used in school (Heath, 1989; Lee, 2000). Researchers have found that teachers who focus on identifying this everyday knowledge can tap it in ways that support students in developing understanding of science concepts (Warren et al., 2001).

A recent review of the research on science education and student diversity concluded that diverse science students may benefit from special support in learning and using scientific language, in becoming comfortable with the community of school science learners, in understanding scientific concepts and modes of thinking, and in developing trusting relationships with other students and the teacher (Lee and Luykx, in press). The authors suggest that laboratory experiences may be particularly valuable in helping the many children of immigrants who are not proficient in English develop improved understanding of science. Students’ direct interactions with natural phenomena often require less formal academic language than does reading a textbook or other forms of science instruction. In addition, small-group laboratory experiences can provide structured opportunities for developing language proficiency in a more comfortable environment than speaking in front of the whole class (Lee and Luykx, in press).

Special Educational Needs

In addition to being more racially and linguistically diverse than previous generations of students, today’s students also vary more widely in terms of special educational needs. The fraction of students served by federally funded programs for children with disabilities rose from 8.3 percent in 1976-1977 to 13.4 percent in 2001-2002 (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). Some of the rise since 1976-1977 may be attributed to the increasing propor-

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

tion of students identified as learning disabled, whose share of those with disabilities increased from 21 percent in 1976-1977 to 44 percent in 2001-2002. In 2001-2002, most students with disabilities were those with learning disabilities (44 percent), speech or language impairments (17 percent), mental retardation (9 percent), and emotional disturbance (7 percent). Smaller percentages of students received services for visual, hearing, orthopedic, mobility, or other disabilities.

Mainstreaming of these special needs students has increased in response to federal law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (P.L. 105-17, most recently amended on December 3, 2004), other federal and state laws, and a substantial body of case law give students with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education (National Research Council, 1997). The law requires that this education be tailored to individual learning needs, and that each student have an individualized education program stating educational objectives and identifying strategies to attain those objectives. In compliance with the legal requirement to educate disabled students in the “least restrictive environment,” more disabled students are in regular classrooms. Between 1988-1989 and 1999-2000, the percentage of students with disabilities spending at least 80 percent of their time in a regular education classroom increased from 31 to 47 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002).

The provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requiring that students be placed in the least restrictive setting apply to science laboratory facilities and experiences. In order to provide disabled students with access to laboratory experiences, schools may provide accommodations in laboratory instruction, in the physical design of the laboratory or classroom, or in the ways in which students demonstrate their knowledge of science (Keller, 2002). The level of student involvement in various laboratory activities and the types of accommodations required are often best determined in discussions between the individual teacher and student (Center for Rehabilitation Technology and IMAGINE Group, 2004).

For example, students with learning disabilities may be provided with the course syllabus in advance, may receive extended time for completion of laboratory reports, or may be seated close to the teacher. A student with hearing impairment may be helped by the use of visual aids, while accommodations for students with visual impairment include large lettering, a magnifying glass, and a large notebook (Center for Rehabilitation Technology and IMAGINE Group, 2004). Laboratory experiments modified for students with disabilities are available online (Center for Rehabilitation Technology and IMAGINE Group, 2004), and other resources are available to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities (see for example, Turner, 2004; Miner, Swanson, and Woods, 2001).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

Although research on effective approaches to science education for diverse students—including those with limited English proficiency, minority students, low-achieving science students, and students with learning disabilities—is growing, meeting the needs of individual students remains a great challenge for teachers and schools. Chapter 3 discusses promising approaches to laboratory instruction that appear to enhance learning among all students, including those with limited English proficiency, minorities, and low-achieving students.

POLICIES INFLUENCING HIGH SCHOOL LABORATORY EXPERIENCES

Over the past 20 years, the states, the federal government, school districts, and the scientific community have launched an array of efforts to improve science education that may influence high school laboratory experiences. State education policies, including requirements for high school graduation and college admission, science standards, and assessments may affect laboratory instruction. Scientific professional associations, agencies, and research institutions have also developed science education programs and policies, some of which focus specifically on high school laboratories.

State High School Graduation Requirements

High school graduation requirements are one “policy driver” influencing the extent to which high school students enroll in science courses and participate in science laboratory experiences. Between 1982 and 2000, most states increased the number of science courses required for graduation; in response, a growing percentage of high school students completed science courses beyond general biology (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004a). Because most high school science teachers engage students in laboratory experiences at least once per week (Smith et al., 2002), the trend toward taking more science courses translates to an increase in the amount of time the average high school student spends in laboratory experiences (see Chapter 4).

Some states specifically require students to complete laboratory science courses in order to graduate. In 2004, 13 states explicitly mentioned enrollment in a laboratory science course as part of the regular high school graduation requirement (Table 2-1). Of these, five states—Florida, Indiana, New York, South Dakota, and Virginia—required more than one laboratory science course. In addition to these 13 states, 3 states (Arkansas, Kentucky, and Rhode Island) required labs only for an optional college preparatory curriculum or advanced diploma.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

TABLE 2-1 State Science Laboratory Requirements for High School Graduation in 2004

State

Laboratory Requirement

Arkansas

College prep only—3 lab courses

District of Columbia

1 lab course

Florida

2 lab courses

Idaho

1 lab course

Indiana

2 science courses (state standards indicate all science courses are to include laboratory activities)

Kansas

1 lab course

Kentucky

College prep only—1 lab course

Maine

1 lab course

Maryland

1 lab course

New Mexico

1 lab course

New York

2 lab courses

Pennsylvania

1 lab course

Rhode Island

College prep only—1 lab course

South Dakota

2 lab courses

Virginia

3 lab course (4 lab courses for college prep)

Washington

1 lab course

SOURCE: Compiled from Sommerville and Yi (2002); Council of Chief State School Officers (2002); state web sites.

State Requirements for Higher Education Admissions

College and university entrance requirements influence the high school curriculum in general and may also influence individual students’ decisions about enrolling in science courses, including laboratory science courses. Public and private colleges and universities have varying entrance requirements, but many states have established somewhat uniform standards for entrance into state-supported institutions of higher education. In 2002, 30 states had established the minimum number of courses that students must complete in each discipline to gain admission to public four-year institutions, and 29 required students to have completed at least 2 years of science. Among these 29 state higher education systems, 21 required that at least one of the science courses be a laboratory course (Sommerville and Yi, 2002). Among the 21 states that did not require any specific science courses for admission to higher education, many did require a high school diploma, with its attendant requirements for science courses, sometimes including laboratory courses.

Over the past three decades, the number of high school graduates going directly on to higher education has grown. By 2001, an average of 62 percent of all high school graduates entered colleges or universities (National

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

Center for Education Statistics, 2004b). In light of these increases, it is interesting to compare state science requirements for high school graduation with state requirements for higher education admission. Data from a study of requirements as of 2002 revealed a mismatch in the number of states requiring laboratory courses for high school graduation (9) and the number of states requiring laboratory courses for college entrance (20).3 Five states (Florida, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, and Washington) were matched in that at least one science laboratory course was required at both levels. But even within this group, only two states (Florida and Idaho) were perfectly matched in the number of required laboratory courses, while in the remaining three states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington) high school graduation required one laboratory course while college entrance required two. In the four states without this match (Kansas, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia), a laboratory course was required at the high school but not at the college level.

Notably, most states that require a laboratory course for high school graduation or college entrance do not, within those requirements, define what constitutes a laboratory science course. This lack of definitions is one reflection of the larger issue discussed in Chapter 1: researchers and educators do not agree on how to define high school science laboratories or on their purposes in the high school science curriculum.

Science Standards and Assessments

State education policies often focus on identifying clear and specific science standards and creating assessments to measure student attainment of those standards in order to guide improvements in science teaching and learning. However, the goals embodied in state science standards and the ways in which those standards are implemented and assessed do not reflect the full range of educational goals that laboratory experiences may help students attain. These goals include:4

  • Enhancing mastery of subject matter.

  • Developing scientific reasoning.

  • Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

  • Developing practical skills.

  • Understanding the nature of science.

  • Cultivating interest in science and interest in learning science.

  • Developing teamwork abilities.

3  

The lack of alignment between high school graduation requirements and college entrance is apparent in other content areas as well and has been noted in other studies (The Education Trust, 1999).

4  

In Chapter 3, we discuss each goal in greater detail.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

Current state science standards and assessments are derived in part from the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (National Research Council, 1996). The standards for grades 9-12 include seven elements, several of which are quite similar to the goals of laboratory experiences identified by the committee: (1) science as inquiry, including abilities to conduct scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry; (2) physical science; (3) life science; (4) earth and space science; (5) science and technology; (6) science in personal and social perspectives; and (7) history and nature of science.

By 2003, most states had adopted science education standards and curriculum frameworks derived at least in part from the NSES (National Research Council, 1996) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) benchmarks (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). In the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, the federal government strengthened—and added requirements to—existing state educational standards and assessment systems. Among other provisions, the law requires states to administer assessments of science achievement beginning in school year 2007-2008. The law requires that states assess science achievement once each year in each of three grade bands. In order to comply with this federal law, as well as to guide schools and teachers in implementing state science standards, many states have begun to develop and administer annual assessments of students’ science learning.

State Science Standards and the Goals of Laboratories

Throughout the history of U.S. science education, educators and scientists have debated the relative importance of exposing students to many science subjects versus engaging them in deeper study of fewer subjects or concepts. In recent years, state science standards have embodied the former approach, including a broad range of science topics (Duschl, 2004; Massel, Kirst, and Hoppe, 1997). In addition to listing topics, many state standards also call for students to engage in laboratory experiences and to develop understanding of processes of scientific investigation. In theory, state standards could be used as flexible frameworks, guiding integration of laboratory experiences with the teaching of science concepts, in order to progress toward all of the science learning goals identified by the committee. In reality, this rarely happens. Instead, state and local officials and science teachers often see state standards as requiring them to help students master the specific science topics outlined for a grade level or science course. When they view laboratory experiences as isolated events that do not contribute to that mastery of subject matter, and science class time is limited, they may devote little class time to laboratory experiences.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

The lists of science topics included in state science standards, when viewed in this way, can conflict with other elements of state science standards that call for students to engage in laboratory experiences. For example, California state science standards for high school students include standards for investigation and experimentation (California State Board of Education, 2004). Modeled on the NSES inquiry standards for grades 9-12, the California standards call for students to develop questions and perform investigations, select and use appropriate tools, identify and communicate sources of error, identify possible reasons for inconsistent results, formulate explanations, solve scientific problems, distinguish between hypothesis and theory, and achieve other goals related to laboratory learning.

However, California state standards also require students to learn about many science topics, limiting the time they have available to engage in laboratory experiences that might help them attain the investigation and experimentation standards. When one school district official added up all the science topics to be covered in grades 8 through 10 and divided them by the number of school days, she found that the teachers would have only three days to introduce chemistry students to the methods used in calculating the quantities of reactants and products in a chemical reaction (Linn, 2004).

State Science Assessments and the Goals of Laboratories

Current state science assessments are not well suited to assessing student attainment of the goals of laboratory experiences for two reasons. First, state assessments are not always fully aligned with state science standards (Lawrenz and Huffmann, 2002; Webb et al., 2001). Specifically state science assessments are not always aligned with those elements of state standards that call for laboratory experiences and for attainment of laboratory learning goals during the high school years.

Second, current state assessments emphasize mastery of a broad spectrum of science topics and do not measure progress toward such other goals as developing scientific reasoning, understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, and developing practical skills. Many are primarily composed of selected-response (multiple-choice) tasks. Such assessments can test student knowledge of many items in a relatively short time, can be scored by computer, are relatively inexpensive, and provide a reliable (or consistent) view of student knowledge (National Research Council, 2002).

Although they are well suited to measuring mastery of science subject matter, current state science assessments may not be appropriate for measuring student attainment of the other goals of laboratories (e.g., scientific reasoning, understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, and understanding of the nature of science). A recent study of three science exams, which are used widely in many states and consist entirely of selected

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

response items, revealed uneven, scant coverage of most of the goals related to student understanding of the processes of science in the NSES (Quellmalz and Kreikemeier, 2004).

Although performance assessments may be used as a supplement to selected-response items in state science assessments, they present new challenges. Generally, performance assessments require test takers to demonstrate their skills or content knowledge in settings that resemble real-life settings. In comparison to assessments composed of many selected-response items, performance assessments present students with fewer, more realistic tasks. But with fewer tasks, performance assessments are often less reliable or consistent in measuring students’ science achievement. In addition, because they generally require more time to develop, test, and administer and because they must be scored by humans using detailed scoring rubrics, performance assessments are generally more subjective and more expensive than selected-response tests (Mislevy and Knowles, 2002). Research shows that student scores on traditional selected-response assessments have little correlation with student scores on performance assessments (Shavelson and Ruiz-Primo 1999).

Current science performance assessments have been influenced by earlier generations of hands-on laboratory practical examinations (Duschl, 2004). They can be delivered by pencil and paper exams, by computer, or in a hands-on laboratory format. Pencil and paper tests may include tasks that ask students to explain how they plan and conduct experiments, gather and organize data, interpret data, and communicate results and conclusions (Quellmalz and Moody, 2004).

The experience of the NAEP science achievement test illustrates some of the challenges of using performance tasks to measure the full range of goals of laboratory experiences. The test framework calls for measuring students’ conceptual understanding, scientific investigation abilities, and practical reasoning in the fields of earth, physical, and life science (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004c). Within scientific investigation abilities, the framework calls for assessing students’ ability to acquire new information, plan scientific investigations, use scientific tools, and communicate results of investigations. About 60 percent of the test items are performance tasks, and 40 percent require a selected response. In 1996, all students conducted a single hands-on task using a uniform kit of science materials to perform an investigation, make observations, record and evaluate experimental results, and apply problem solving skills. However, distributing the kits and training experts to score the hands-on task was a logistical challenge, and in 2000 and 2005, only half of the students in each school conducted a hands-on task.

Although its framework and inclusion of a performance task would suggest that the NAEP science achievement test is capable of measuring student

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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attainment of the goals of laboratory experiences, the test focuses mostly on mastery of science subject matter. A National Research Council (NRC) committee concluded that the 1996 test items and tasks and the accompanying scoring rubrics failed to capture the more complex aspects of the framework and noted that “technology for using performance-type measures in science via the current large-scale survey assessment clearly has serious shortcomings” (National Research Council, 1999, p. 133). Because of such challenges, few states have implemented hands-on performance tasks as part of their state science assessments (see Box 2-1). The states are, however, forming consortia to share expertise and costs as they develop science achievement tests in response to the mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act and consider the possibilities for including written, hands-on, or computerized performance tasks. These consortia may draw on online collections of performance tasks and other data banks of science test items (Quellmalz and Moody, 2004). Guidance is also available from a recent NRC study of test design for science achievement (National Research Council, 2005).

Implementing State Standards

Although state science standards often embody goals related to mastery of subject matter, they sometimes include at least some of the other goals of laboratory experiences, and some state science standards specifically call for students to participate in laboratory investigations. Studies of local implementation of state science standards indicate that these policies primarily affect coverage of science content and have less influence on teaching methods, including decisions about when and how to include laboratory instruction.

The extent to which the goals of state science standards, including the goals related to laboratory experiences, are implemented depends on local agents and agencies. One important agency is the local school district. Numerous studies, in states from Maine to California, suggest that district policy makers, teachers, and school administrators not only heed state policies but also work hard to implement them (Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990; Finnigan and Gross, 2001; Firestone, Fitz, and Broadfoot, 1999; Hill, 2001). A study of the local response to state mathematics and science standards in Michigan in the mid-1990s concluded that school district policy makers and teachers paid close attention to state policy, especially the assessment component and the sanctions that state policy makers had attached to them (Spillane, 2004). According to district policy makers, state sanctions were especially influential in motivating them to develop or revise their instructional policies. Other studies, in Maryland, Washington, and Chicago revealed similar patterns of close attention to state standards and accountability systems (Koretz et al., 1996; Lane et al., 2000; Stecher et al., 2000; Finnigan and Gross, 2001; Kelly et al., 2000).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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BOX 2-1 Hands-On Performance Assessment of Laboratory Learning: The Experiences of New York and Vermont

New York. In recent years, New York has increased the number of science courses required for high school graduation. The state now requires all high school students to complete three science courses, including one Regents science course that incorporates 1,200 minutes of laboratory activity in order to graduate (Champagne and Shiland, 2004). To assess laboratory learning in these Regents science courses, the state has for many years administered a Regents Examination in each subject consisting of both a written test with tasks related to laboratories (such as items asking about laboratory techniques and design of experiments) and a laboratory performance test. However, state science teachers and education officials grew concerned about the validity and reliability of the performance tests and their alignment with the state laboratory science standards.

In 2002, state officials convened four design teams to develop new performance assessments of laboratory learning as part of the Regents examinations in earth science, chemistry, biology, and physics. The planned new Physical Setting/Earth Science Performance Test included hands-on tasks to be completed at six stations in a secure laboratory classroom. Students were to be tested on their ability to identify minerals, locate an earthquake epicenter, measure atmospheric moisture, determine the density of different fluids, collect and analyze data on the settling of particles in a column of fluid, and construct and analyze an elliptical orbit (DeMauro, 2002).

Initial plans called for introducing the new Physical Setting/Earth Science Performance Test in June 2004. The planned tests posed a challenge to schools and teachers with their requirements for dedicated laboratory testing space and scheduling of students and test administrators. In addition, further research was needed to determine the validity and reliability of the test and to ensure security of test items (Champagne and Shiland, 2004). Because of these challenges, implementation of the new tests has been postponed until 2007.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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Vermont. Vermont has chosen a slightly different approach to performance assessment of laboratory learning. The state joined the Partnership for the Assessment of Standards-Based Science (PASS) in 2000. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the PASS is an assessment system designed to allow states and districts to measure students’ scientific literacy, as defined by the AAAS Benchmarks (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) and in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996). The PASS assessment includes four components (WestEd, 2004):

  • Hands-on performance tasks,

  • Constructed-response investigations,

  • Open-ended questions, and

  • Enhanced multiple-choice questions.

A 1999 content analysis by a group of scientists and teachers identified a close alignment between Vermont state science standards and the NSES. Following the decision to join PASS, the state and WestEd worked together to modify the test to ensure it would accurately measure attainment of Vermont state standards. The modified test for grades 9 and 11 was designed to measure specific aspects of the national standards for science inquiry.

After administration of the PASS test began in 2000, teachers sought more information about how to design and implement laboratory learning (Carvallas, 2004).

Because the performance assessment components of the PASS assessment were administered in regular classrooms using kits of hands-on materials, the test presented fewer logistical challenges and did not include the costs of providing secure laboratory classroom space that was required in New York. However, the test was expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to administer, and it was discontinued after the 2002-2003 school year. Vermont is currently joining forces with two neighboring states (New Hampshire and Rhode Island) to seek economies of scale in performance assessment (Pinckney and Taylor, 2004).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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However, a number of studies suggest that the response to state policy at the school district and classroom levels often involves surface changes focusing on content coverage (mastery of subject matter) rather than the broader and more substantive shifts called for in the NSES and in some state standards (Spillane, 2004; Firestone et al., 1996; Spillane and Zeuli, 1999). This is a particularly serious concern with regard to high school science laboratories, because, as we discuss in Chapter 5, using laboratory experiences to advance the science learning goals identified by the committee requires deep and substantial shifts in teaching strategies.

Some research indicates that school districts respond to state standards by focusing primarily on only one of the goals of laboratory experiences—enhancing mastery of science subject matter. For example, the analysis of nine Michigan school districts found that district policies provided strong and consistent support for state policy with respect to coverage and sequencing of topics. District policies’ support for other aspects of the state’s mathematics and science standards was not nearly as prominent or as faithful as their support for topic coverage and sequencing (Spillane, 2004).

Despite considerable effort by district officials, district policies in six of the Michigan districts provided relatively weak or low support for the mathematics and science standards. Only four districts, for example, provided strong or high support for the more complex changes in mathematics and science education advanced by standards, such as the types of changes required to help students attain the full range of the goals of laboratory experiences. These patterns were repeated at the classroom level in the nine school districts; teachers attempting to implement the reform taught in ways that diverged fundamentally from the intent of the designers (Spillane and Zeuli, 1999).

In a study of teachers’ responses to state policy in Maine and Maryland, Firestone and his colleagues found similar patterns with state policy having considerable success in aligning what subjects were taught but less success in changing instructional strategies (Firestone et al., 1999). Similarly, in a study of Kentucky and North Carolina, McDonnell and Chossier (1997) found that while teachers adopted new teaching strategies in response to state policy, the depth of their content and teaching did not change in meaningful ways.

This growing body of research on local implementation of state science and mathematics standards indicates that state standards appear to affect teachers’ decisions about coverage, while having less influence on instructional strategies (Hill, 2001; Spillane and Zeuli, 1999). Instructional strategies include the particular materials and methods (which may include laboratory experiences, creating instructional groups, lecturing, leading discussions, etc.) that teachers use to engage students with subject matter.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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A recent observational study of a national sample of K-12 mathematics and science lessons involving 364 teachers in 31 schools provides further evidence of the limited impact of state science standards on teachers’ instructional strategies (Weiss et al., 2003). Trained observers rated science lessons in terms of design, implementation, content addressed, and classroom culture, and they also conducted detailed interviews with teachers about factors that may have influenced the content and methods used in the observed lesson. The teachers indicated that state and district curriculum standards were especially influential in determining the content covered, influencing more than 7 of 10 lessons observed nationally. With respect to teaching strategies, however, these policy documents were much less influential: only 5 percent of the teachers in the study reported that state or district curriculum standards or frameworks were influential. Teachers reported having a great deal of autonomy in choosing teaching strategies: in 9 of 10 lessons observed, the teacher indicated his or her own knowledge, beliefs, and experiences as the most salient influence.

Effective laboratory teaching that helps students master subject matter, develop scientific reasoning, and progress toward the other goals we identify requires not only deep knowledge of science content but also pedagogical knowledge. The research outlined above suggests that current state science standards do not yet successfully support the deeper changes in teaching strategy necessary to help students attain the educational goals of laboratory experiences.

The uneven local response to state science standards is in part a problem of uneven support for teachers rather than local resistance to change. State standards that press complex changes departing radically from extant practice—such as those calling for laboratory experiences and for attainment of a range of laboratory learning goals—are unlikely to succeed in changing classroom practice unless teachers are supported in developing new understandings about science, teaching, and learning (see Chapter 5).

The Influence of Curriculum on Science Instruction

In contrast to state science standards, science texts and curriculum packages appear to have a greater impact on teaching methods. In about 7 of 10 lessons observed, the teachers interviewed in the observational study discussed above said that textbooks or curricular programs (or both) had influenced their teaching strategies (Weiss et al., 2003). In response to a larger national survey conducted in 2000, science teachers indicated that, in 95 percent of their most recent science classes, they had used commercially published textbooks and related materials (Smith et al., 2002). Since textbooks, along with teachers’ own knowledge and beliefs, strongly influence their instruction, the way these texts treat laboratory experiences appears important.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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The TIMSS conducted in 1995 provides information about how laboratory experiences are treated in textbooks and state curriculum frameworks. As part of TIMSS, experts gathered information about curriculum standards and textbooks in almost 50 countries for 13-year-old students (8th graders in the United States) and for students in their final year of secondary education. The final-year students included “generalists,” those who were in vocational programs, and “specialists,” those taking advanced courses in physics.

The study sampled curriculum guides and textbooks in the participating countries. Curriculum guides were defined as official documents that most clearly reflected the intentions, visions, and aims of curriculum makers. In the United States, where national guides are not available, state guides were analyzed.5 Importantly, any lab manuals provided with a textbook were included in the analysis. Guides and textbooks were selected to represent those in use with at least half of the students in the targeted grade.

The TIMSS researchers developed a common framework to analyze the science curriculum materials across all countries. The framework included performance expectations, some of which are clearly relevant to laboratory experiences:

  • theorizing, analyzing, and solving problems;

  • using tools, routine procedures, and science processes; and

  • investigating the natural world.

The researchers found that, although U.S. state curriculum guides for 8th grade science education referred to each of the three expectations, less than 10 percent of textbook content was devoted to helping students develop these laboratory-related abilities. They found textbooks in most other countries studied devoted a similarly low level of attention to these performance expectations, except for Germany, Hong Kong, and New Zealand, where coverage was slightly greater (21-40 percent of textbook content).

For 12th grade students taking advanced physics in the United States, no information was available from state curriculum guides, and only 10 percent of the content of textbooks addressed these three performance expectations related to laboratory experiences. This degree of coverage was similar to that in other countries. These results suggest that textbooks and the materials accompanying them give little attention to the learning goals of laboratory experiences, even though they may be identified as a priority in state science standards and curriculum guides.

The lack of attention to laboratory experiences in curriculum guides and textbooks may reflect state policies emphasizing coverage of a broad range

5  

The study examined curriculum guides used by the states in 1992-1993, prior to release of the National Science Education Standards.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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of science content. TIMSS found that grade 8 textbooks in the United States covered 65 science topics compared with about 25 topics typical of other TIMSS countries. The authors note that (Valverde and Schmidt, 1997, p. 3): “U.S. eighth-grade science textbooks were 700 or more pages long, hardbound, and resembled encyclopedia volumes. By contrast, many other countries’ textbooks were paperbacks with less than 200 pages.”

Another study, focusing on high school biology texts, indicated that the most widely used texts provided little support for student learning through laboratory experiences. AAAS developed and applied a detailed protocol to 10 widely used biology curricula, including 4 developed with NSF support. AAAS found that all of these curricula (which included kits of laboratory materials) did a poor job in terms of two criteria that might reflect laboratory experiences: (1) engaging students with relevant phenomena and (2) helping them to develop and use scientific ideas (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000).

A panel convened by NSF to review its middle school science curricula gave the texts generally high marks (3 or higher on a 5-point scale) and found that they were consistent with the NSES. However, the panel noted a lack of attention to one of the goals of laboratory experiences—enhanced understanding of the nature of science—in these curricula (National Science Foundation, 1997). In a subsequent review of a sample of NSF-funded curricula for elementary, middle, and secondary mathematics and science, experts gave the science curricula high marks (on a 1 to 5 scale) on several criteria that reflect the goals of laboratory experiences, including:

  • Do the materials provide sufficient activities for students to develop a good understanding of key science concepts? 4.5

  • Do the materials accurately represent views of science as inquiry? 4.4

  • To what extent do the materials provide students the opportunity to make conjectures, gather evidence, and develop arguments to support, reject, and revise their preconceptions and explanations? 4.3

In this evaluation, the panel found that, although the content of the curriculum materials (including laboratory kits) was generally high, dissemination was limited. Often, curriculum materials were adopted by a single teacher, rather than a school or a school district. Most large textbook publishers chose not to develop commercial versions of NSF-funded materials (Tushnet et al., 2000). The panel also found that teachers and administrators were unaware of the full range of materials available, and teachers were often unprepared for the changes in instructional strategy required to successfully implement the curricula.

In conclusion, curriculum materials appear to influence science teachers’ teaching strategies, including decisions about when and how to engage

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

students in laboratory experiences. The limited evidence available suggests that some curriculum materials are available to support teachers and students in effective laboratory experiences, but these materials are not widely used. The most widely used science texts and accompanying laboratory materials do not reflect the science learning goals of laboratory experiences. Involving teachers in the design, selection, and implementation of curriculum materials and providing professional development aligned with those materials appear essential for successful implementation (Tushnet et al., 2000).

The Role of the Scientific Community

Policies and programs initiated by the scientific community may also influence high school laboratory experiences. NSF evaluates research proposals and provides funding based not only on intellectual merit but also on “broader impact” (including impact on education), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) requires that a small percentage of funds for each large space mission be set aside for public outreach, including education. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy also support programs aimed at improving high school science education. Many scientific societies, including the American Chemical Society, the American Physiological Society, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, are also working to improve science education. Congress provides a stream of funding for partnerships between scientists and educators through the Math-Science Partnerships programs, and private agencies, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), also support efforts to improve school science education. In addition, many individual scientists, companies, universities, teachers, and schools are working together to improve high school science courses, including laboratory teaching and learning. To date, however, there has been no systematic effort to assess the scope of these diverse activities and their impact on the science achievement of high school students.

The committee identified several types of efforts by the scientific community that may influence high school laboratory experiences, including programs designed to (1) provide laboratory-centered curricula for use in high schools, (2) provide laboratory facilities and equipment to schools, (3) provide research internships to students and teachers, and (4) provide undergraduate education and professional development to prospective and current science teachers. Here we briefly discuss efforts focused on schools and students; the scientific community’s role in teacher education is discussed in Chapter 5.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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Providing Laboratory-Focused Curriculum

Scientific agencies and professional societies support development and dissemination of high school science curricula. For example, NSF has supported the American Geological Institute, the American Chemical Society, and the American Institute of Physics in developing and disseminating high school science curricula that incorporate laboratory experiences (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, 2001). Unlike traditional texts that may be accompanied by a separate laboratory manual, these curricula integrate laboratory experiences into the flow of instruction. The American Geological Institute is also producing a series of DVDs for use in schools that encompass the U.S. Geological Survey’s Global Geographic Information System database (Smith, 2004). The Association for Biology Laboratory Education publishes an online Labstracts newsletter that provides a variety of laboratory exercises (Association for Biology Laboratory Education, 2005). Although many of these laboratory exercises are provided by undergraduate educators, they can be used by high school teachers as well. Other scientific and teaching societies, in each of the science disciplines, are engaged in similar efforts.

Providing Laboratory Facilities and Equipment

One concrete way in which the scientific community can support high school laboratory experiences is through providing laboratory facilities and equipment. A few such efforts are described here.

San Mateo, California, high school teacher Ellyn Daugherty developed the San Mateo Biotechnology Career Pathway program at San Mateo High School with the help of many local biotechnology companies and foundations. Support from biotechnology firms helped in converting a shop classroom into a large, modern biotechnology classroom and in providing necessary equipment and supplies. Currently, 20 industry partners provide internships to advanced high school students enrolled in the program (Daugherty, 2004). These firms often hire graduates of the high school program, either directly after high school or after two to four years of further biotechnology or biology education.

With support from federal, state, and private agencies, scientists at higher education institutions in several states have designed and equipped mobile laboratories to serve students in schools that lack adequate science facilities (see Chapter 6). For example, during the 1999-2000 school year, the chemistry department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) developed a mobile chemistry laboratory to help rural teachers and students respond to Virginia’s science standards and assessments, called the Standards of Learning (SOL). The chemistry department convened meetings of teachers from rural high

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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schools in Appalachia and southern Virginia to design and evaluate a series of laboratory experiments aligned with the chemistry SOLs. The following summer, a team of VPI staff, including two chemistry teachers, a lab technician, and an administrative assistant, led the first of a continuing series of summer workshops to train teachers on the experiments and instrumentation available on the van. The VPI team also developed kits of chemistry experiments that did not require advanced instrumentation and began mailing them to rural schools.

Chemistry teachers and students at 19 rural Virginia high schools and two inner-city Richmond schools conducted the experiments included in the mobile van four times during the academic year and also received four to six chemistry kits for each of three years, beginning in the 2001-2002 school year. During the summers, more than 63 teachers were trained in leading the experiments included on the van. Before the mobile van program was initiated, students in these 19 schools performed on average 15.6 percent lower than the state average on the chemistry SOL. In 2003, the average among these 19 schools was 1.2 points above the state average, with particularly large gains in two inner-city Richmond schools with large minority populations. Attendance also improved on the days the mobile van was present, but without a comparison group it is not possible to know whether the mobile van or other factors may have accounted for the improvements in test scores and attendance (Long, 2004). However, the Virginia Tech program, which relied on a combination of federal, corporate, private, and university grants—could not be sustained and was ended in the summer of 2004.

The Virginia program was modeled on the Science in Motion program of Juniata College that serves rural schools in Pennsylvania. An independent evaluation of the Juniata program conducted in 1999 found statistically significant gains in biology and chemistry achievement test scores among students served by the program when compared with students in schools without access to the program (Mulfinger, 2004).

Providing Student Internships

Scientists have provided laboratory internships to high school students for many years. One scientist who involved high school students in a 1955 summer program in the departments of biochemistry and physiological chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, described them as “enthusiastic, hard-working and intelligent laboratory assistants—well worth the time and cost of training” (Pardee, 1956, p. 725). Scientific agencies and foundations, as well as individual science departments, support such programs. For example, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute provides funding for high school students and teachers in the Montgomery County, Maryland, public

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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schools to study and work in laboratories at the NIH alongside some of the world’s leading biomedical scientists. Students who participate in this research program present their results at an annual symposium at HHMI headquarters. In addition to hosting these interns, NIH provides supplements to research grants for the purpose of providing internships to underrepresented minorities. The National Human Genome Research Institute of NIH also provides summer internships to high school students. Such internship opportunities are not restricted to large, government laboratory settings such as NIH. The Noble Foundation supports summer research internships in applied agriculture and plant science for high school students in Oklahoma (Noble Foundation, 2005).

Laboratory internships are often designed to encourage disadvantaged or minority high school students to choose science careers. The American Chemical Society’s Project SEED provides students with summer research internships guided by scientist-mentors. Students who are eligible and qualified may participate in Summer I internships before their senior year, in Summer II internships in the summer following graduation, and they may receive first-year college scholarships to study chemistry (American Chemical Society, 2005). Studies indicate that having personal contact with a scientist affects students’ preference for and persistence in science careers, and that minority students may be especially encouraged to persist in science studies by contact with minority scientists and engineers (Hill, Pettus, and Hedin, 1990; Barton, 2003).

SUMMARY

Most people in this country lack the basic understanding about science that they need to make informed decisions about the many scientific issues affecting their lives. Neither this basic understanding—often referred to as scientific literacy—nor an appreciation for how science has shaped society and culture—is being cultivated during the high school years. For example, over the 30 years between 1969 and 1999, high school students’ scores on the science portion of the NAEP remained stagnant.

State policies regarding student laboratory experiences, including graduation requirements, higher education requirements, state science standards, and assessments, do not always support effective laboratory teaching and learning. Although state science standards could be used as flexible frameworks to guide schools and teachers in integrating laboratory experiences with the teaching of science concepts, this rarely happens. Instead, state and local officials and science teachers often see state standards as requiring them to help students master the specific science topics outlined for a grade level or science course. State science standards that are interpreted as encouraging the teaching of extensive lists of science topics in a given grade

Suggested Citation:"2 The Education Context." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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may discourage teachers from spending the time needed for effective laboratory learning.

Some state science standards call for students to engage in laboratory experiences and to attain other goals of laboratory experiences, such as developing scientific reasoning and understanding the nature of science. However, assessments in these states rarely include items designed to measure student attainment of these goals. Current large-scale assessments are not designed to accurately measure student attainment of all of the goals of laboratory experiences. Developing and implementing improved assessments to encourage effective laboratory teaching would require large investments of funds.

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Laboratory experiences as a part of most U.S. high school science curricula have been taken for granted for decades, but they have rarely been carefully examined. What do they contribute to science learning? What can they contribute to science learning? What is the current status of labs in our nation�s high schools as a context for learning science? This book looks at a range of questions about how laboratory experiences fit into U.S. high schools:

  • What is effective laboratory teaching?
  • What does research tell us about learning in high school science labs?
  • How should student learning in laboratory experiences be assessed?
  • Do all student have access to laboratory experiences?
  • What changes need to be made to improve laboratory experiences for high school students?
  • How can school organization contribute to effective laboratory teaching?

    With increased attention to the U.S. education system and student outcomes, no part of the high school curriculum should escape scrutiny. This timely book investigates factors that influence a high school laboratory experience, looking closely at what currently takes place and what the goals of those experiences are and should be. Science educators, school administrators, policy makers, and parents will all benefit from a better understanding of the need for laboratory experiences to be an integral part of the science curriculum�and how that can be accomplished.

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