This chapter explores the implications of science education for various groups of students who presently are underrepresented in science classes and science-related careers, do not achieve highly in science, have difficulty getting access to appropriate learning environments for science, or may not match current stereotypes of students who are interested in science. In addition, the chapter considers the needs of students from groups who have traditionally done well in the sciences in the United States and attempts to assess how science reform might affect them.
The chapter's purpose is threefold: to describe, discuss, and analyze equity in K-12 science education in American schools; to predict how reform might impact current barriers to equity and how, in turn, barriers to equity might affect efforts in science reform; and to make recommendations for both short- and long-term planning that will help science education reform achieve its aim, namely science literacy for all Americans.1
The Current Status: Demographics and Trends in Science Education
Although Americans are committed to the principles of fairness, equality of opportunity, and justice that are at the heart of democracy, that commitment exists alongside clear evidence that some groups of Americans are more likely to participate and be successful in science than others. To put it bluntly, discrimination is alive and well in education, despite the best intentions. Although this chapter provides examples of problems (stereotyping, lack of resources, etc.) specific to one group or another, most of these examples represent more general issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve equity in science education. Groups do differ and, moreover, individuals within groups may not fit the group pattern. However, similar problems and possible solutions often apply to many different groups.2
Gender. There is ample evidence that females are less likely than males to study and to enter occupations related to applied mathematics, physical science, and engineering. These gender differences become noticeable in high school and are clearly apparent during the college years. For example, although the percentages of bachelor's degrees awarded to women in engineering and physics have increased over the last decade, women are still significantly underrepresented in these fields. Social forces and personal beliefs play major roles in perpetuating these disparities.
Black Americans. Over the last 10 years, Black American students, as well as Hispanic and American Indian students, have had greater increases in science and mathematics achievement scores than White and Asian students. However, the increases have been small, and a significant gap remains between the groups.
Hispanic Americans. The term "Hispanic" includes a variety of peoples of Spanish-speaking heritage, ranging from Mexican Americans who have lived in the United States for generations and may speak only English, to refugees recently arrived from countries such as El Salvador who may speak no English and may have had little exposure to formal schooling. Hispanics are the fastest growing group in the United States. In the last decade, although there has been some growth in the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to Hispanics in science, mathematics, and engineering, their proportion relative to other groups has remained unchanged, and they continue to be seriously underrepresented in science-related fields.
American Indians/Alaskan Natives. Although American Indians
and Alaskan Natives account for only 1% of the U.S. population, they include
more than 500 tribes and 200 languages. The high school drop-out rate for
American Indians/Alaskan Natives is higher than for any other group. Their
rates of poverty and severe health problems (alcoholism, suicide, and accidents)
are among the highest in the country. American Indians score significantly
lower than Whites and Asian Americans but higher than Black Americans and
Hispanics on most achievement measures of science and mathematics in grades
K-12. Only a small percentage of American Indians and Alaskan Natives go
on to receive undergraduate degrees in science fields.
Asian Americans. Asian Americans have been described as a "model minority" for their academic performance in general and have been stereotyped as "math or science whizzes" in particular. But as is the case with many groups, the use of an encompassing term, such as "Asian Americans," masks the fact that the group includes substantially different subgroups, such as Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, South Asian and other Asian ethnic subgroups. There are significant differences among these groups in mathematics and science performance. The achievement of second and third generation Asian American students is much the same as Whites. The 1990 U.S. Census data indicate that Asian Americans account for about 3% of the overall U.S. labor force, but make up about 7% of natural scientists and engineers, and are as highly represented in these professions as their White counterparts.
Students With Disabilities. The term "disability" includes the following categories: learning disabilities; speech/language impairments; mental retardation; serious emotional disturbance; and hearing, visual, orthopedic, and other health impairments (including attention-deficit disorders, disabilities related to parental drug abuse, and disabilities acquired through trauma or illness). Currently, about 12% of American school children have an identified disability-which translates into nearly 5 million students. That number is growing as identification processes develop. Students with disabilities are frequently divided into two larger categories that can overlap. One group-about 1%-consists of individuals with physical impairments (for instance orthopedic, visual, or hearing disabilities). The remaining 99% of students with disabilities are those who manifest cognitive, social-personal, or intellectual difficulties that affect their ability to perform in regular classrooms.
All students with disabilities do have potential in science. A major obstacle to their achievement is the tendency of educators and the public to believe that persons with disabilities lack intelligence. For example, persons with disabilities who do not express themselves well are assumed to be unable to understand and do science. Future technological advances and other accommodations are likely to improve the academic performance of children identified with disabilities. Currently, however, 50 to 60% of students with disabilities fail in one or more subjects, and their relative performance in science and mathematics is lower than in other subjects. These results are also reflected in lower SAT scores and other achievement measures. The gaps are not insurmountable, however, because about 8% of all undergraduates report having disabilities. While there are wide disparities in kind and extent of disability that may or may not affect academic achievement, it is clear that many students with disabilities are able to excel in school and go on to higher education.
English Language Learners. A category that cuts across gender, ethnicity, and disabling conditions is "proficiency in English." The nearly six million children who are learning to speak English face challenges when they make the transition from the English-as-a-second language (ESL) or bilingual classroom into the mainstream and cope with the demands of academic English. Nearly 75% of Hispanic and Asian children come from homes where a non-English language is spoken. For many Asian languages, few teachers are available for bilingual classes. And very few teachers can both speak the languages of American Indian/Alaskan Native children and teach science. Thus, bilingual students encounter particular difficulties in science courses.
The advantages of being bilingual in today's world are often overlooked when English-language learners are considered. Rather than repeating earlier mistakes of extinguishing first languages in favor of English, schools can provide opportunities for students to build on the advantage of speaking more than one language. The ability to speak English and a second language, combined with strong skills in mathematics and science, will provide unlimited opportunities-a fact that should be made more clear to English-language learners as they work to succeed in school.
Class/Socioeconomic Status. Ethnic groupings and operational definitions such as "students with disabilities" reflect only some aspects of what a student brings to the science classroom. Gender, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and proficiency in English language all interact with and have an impact on both the student's performance and the school's expectations of that student. Of these variables, socioeconomic status (SES) may be the single most powerful factor in determining who succeeds in American schools. Research suggests, for example, that only 12% of boys born in the bottom quarter of income rose as adults to the top quarter, while 69% remained in the lower half (Kahlenberg, 1995). This stubborn intransigence is echoed in other areas of achievement and progress, resulting in persistent gaps among various groups in mathematics and science education.
When considering group differences in science achievement, three points are central:
Needed Changes: Implementing Science Reform
Social Forces Affecting Schooling
There is a gap between the public's support for principles of equality and its support for policies designed to help bring equality about. Complicating this issue is the long-held American commitment to the notion of rugged individualism-the expectation that anyone, no matter how dire the circumstances, can bootstrap his or her way to success. Although group-level barriers are acknowledged, many Americans endorse the idea that such barriers can and should be overcome by individual efforts.
Consequently, if individuals do not seem to "take opportunities," their failure to achieve may be seen as their "fault." They may be viewed as not trying hard enough or as not having what it takes to succeed. This attitude plays itself out in science education. For instance, there is a well-documented tendency for Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students to take fewer courses in science and mathematics; Whites and Asian Americans take more (National Science Foundation [NSF],1996). Awareness of this problem has grown along with the commitment to the need for science for all and the recognition of the importance of gateway courses such as algebra and chemistry for future academic success.
Social attitudes, stereotyping, and discrimination are root causes of most inequities in science. It would seem difficult, if not impossible, to remedy underachievement and underrepresentation through reforms as long as such beliefs are at the core of what to do about "the equity issue." We would like to propose a different view to serve as the basis for reorienting the discussion.
For the moment, assume that the basic premises of the reform movement in the sciences are correct-that the curriculum, as currently constituted, is full of disconnected facts, organized in ways that interfere with how people learn and that it is focused on out-of-date knowledge that has little relevance to participatory democracy and everyday life, including spheres of work. Assume that instruction repeatedly covers the same low-level content and provides students with few (or no) opportunities to make sense of what they are encountering. Any reasonable person might disengage from the activities that are so offensive-not read the materials, not participate in class activities, ignore the teacher, talk to others, and undertake more meaningful activities. Not surprisingly, if tests were given, these individuals would perform badly. What is more, they might simply stop taking science courses.
If the above is a reasonable reaction to the inadequacies of school science, then the question is: Who, among students, is most likely to behave in this way? The answer is precisely those groups who are underachieving and underrepresented in science-related courses and careers-many low-income students; Hispanic, Black American, and American Indian/ Alaskan Native students; persons with disabilities; some females; and some students with exceptional ability (these categories are not, of course, exclusive). Instead of being stereotyped as not possessing scientific knowledge, being apathetic, or being deficient in some other way, maybe these students have been reacting in an understandable manner to what the reform movement has recently realized.
If the above analysis is even partly correct, it suggests at least three things. First, the discourse surrounding underachievement and under-representation needs to be expanded, if not changed entirely, because underachievement may be an early warning of the sad state of school science in general. Second, research needs to better address what features of a particular group might explain why these young people sense and react as they do. Third, the reform in science education needs to begin with those students who have resisted earlier school-based efforts to learn sciences. These students are likely to be the best judges of whether the reform efforts have it right: Does the curriculum allow for sense making? Is the curriculum connected to the world in ways that are similar to the goals of scientific literacy? Does instruction really build on what students already know and understand? Is science a part of all students' lives?
If it is true that bias, stereotyping, and restriction of opportunity covertly or overtly influence who takes science courses, who succeeds in these courses, and who goes on to a career in a related area, then education designed to eliminate these negative forces ought to demonstrate very different results. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that this is the case. For example, the extraordinary successes of women who graduate from all-female colleges and of Black Americans who graduate from historically Black colleges and universities are well-documented. The outstanding achievement of educators such as Jaime Escalante and Uri Treisman (1990) are proof that high expectations combined with strong content, mentoring, and attention to individual needs and cultures are effective. Casserly's work (1980) with high-achieving females in science identified approaches that can be effective for all students: recruiting promising students, negating bias in course placement, providing explicit encouragement in class by teachers, forming a critical mass of students, and forming nurturing social groups around academic science interests.
World View and Culture
Students enter school and encounter school science with experiences, knowledge, and beliefs that are part of their cultural heritage. Differences in cultural and world views are not limited to students who have recently arrived in the United States. For example, while teachers might explain scientifically the causes for hurricanes and tornadoes, students may hold on to alternative explanations for these phenomena rooted in religious beliefs or fairy tales. There is thus a lack of "cultural continuity" between the science taught in the schools and the beliefs that guide the lives of people.
These observations on culture and world view have several implications. Children's cultures and backgrounds provide the starting point for learning science. For example, many students from other countries have an understanding of the metric system, and can offer ideas about scientific problems in other countries. Where scientific approaches to phenomena conflict with students' values, it is important that teachers better understand those conflicts and take steps to address them. Finally, it will be necessary for science education reformers to clarify their views on cultural pluralism and how it relates to the idea of science for all.
Allocation of Educational Resources
There are vast differences in available resources across the country as one compares rural, urban, and suburban schools. School funding varies significantly across regions of the country and even within a state, affecting the resources (certified and qualified science teachers, professional development opportunities, curriculum materials, supplies and lab equipment, and technology) available to K-12 science students. These differences in conditions are exacerbated in science education because it is highly resource-dependent.
The costs of implementing science education reform will be substantial. To the extent to which science education reform is dependent upon resources, opportunities to learn science-especially for low-income schools and students-will be further stratified unless something dramatic is done. The situation is further compounded by the crisis in some urban schools, which are perceived as unsafe, unsound, and locked into permanent decline. Changing science education in some urban schools, even when money is available, may prove difficult to impossible because the structure of urban school systems allows them to swallow reforms and resources, simply incorporating them into the ineffective status quo. With a few exceptions such as the Coalition of Essential Schools, James Comer's schools, and the Accelerated Schools program, the restructuring of urban education has proven thus far almost totally resistant to remedy. These programs seem to produce positive changes on a school-by-school basis, rather than by system-wide change (see Blueprints' Resources for descriptions of these programs).
Instructional Materials and Technology
It is fair to say that no one knows what it will cost to outfit a school to teach reformed science. The costs will vary dramatically depending upon the extant resources within a given school. The argument has been made that, in order to produce equitable outcomes in science across groups, it may be necessary to have unequal inputs for some students-more resources for underrepresented or low-income students. While this may be true, one would be pleased if, initially, all schools were simply provided the same resources as affluent schools currently have.
Money Matters if You Spend it Right
In 1989, as part of a court-ordered desegregation case in Austin, Texas, 16 elementary schools were given $300,000 per year for five years to improve achievement. At the end of the five years, two of the schools, Zavala and Ortega Elementary, were among the city's highest in attendance and achievement; the others showed no improvement. Both schools continued to draw students from the city's poorest neighborhoods, but somehow they achieved something extraordinary. The money made a major difference because of the way it was spent.
In 14 of the schools, the money was spent to reduce class size, but little was done to change what happened inside the classes. As one administrator put it, ".they had 10 students in class, but.two rows of five students, and the teacher would still be sitting up there in the front of the room, and still using ditto sheets."
At Zavala and Ortega, class size was also reduced but as a part of a more comprehensive program. At the beginning of the year, the principal asked parents to read aloud the scores of the school's students on the statewide test. After their initial anger subsided, parents and teachers decided to adopt the reading and math curriculum that the district used only for gifted and talented children. Money was spent on professional development to help teachers learn the new curriculum and manage classes containing special-needs students. Health services were brought to the schools and parents became involved in the governance of the schools, including sitting on hiring and budget committees.
The answer these two schools discovered was to focus on one goal rather than trying to attack all fronts simultaneously. Once the goal of higher standards for achievement was set, the other components became manageable and supported that vision.
From Richard J. Murnane & Frank Levy, "Why Money Matters Sometimes," Education Week, September 11, 1996.
A sound understanding of the principles of technology is essential to science literacy, and wide spread use of computers in science classrooms is important to learning. Yet many White and Hispanic girls have not had the same interest in computers as boys, and teachers have compounded the problem by viewing computers as a male technology with little meaning for the future careers of girls. In addition, the new CD-ROM technologies are marketed primarily for boys, and the preponderance of Internet users are male. There have been similar trends for Black Americans, whose use of home computers lags behind that of Whites and Asians.
Current empirical research on the role of tracking in science education is in short supply. There is some older research, however, from which these general conclusions are relevant to the discussion of equity in science education reform: students in lower track classes are disproportionately more likely to be students of color (except Asian Americans), low-income students, and students with disabilities; they get fewer resources and experience science education very differently from students in higher track classes; and they achieve somewhat less well than their counterparts in heterogeneously grouped classes (Oakes, 1985). Variations in the selection of gateway science and mathematics courses (chemistry, geometry, etc.) for underrepresented groups result in these students being locked out of upper level courses, limiting their opportunities to pursue science, mathematics, and engineering careers.
Many of these problems may be solved simply by eliminating tracking; something that many schools are beginning to do. Students who are ready and motivated to go beyond the thresholds set by Benchmarks for Science Literacy ([Benchmarks] American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) and National Science Education Standards ([Standards], National Research Council, 1996) seem to have much to gain and little to lose in a de-tracked arrangement, especially if school organization patterns loosen lock-step grading practices. New technologies hold promise for opening many opportunities for students who are ready for more advanced work. Moreover, because the benchmarks are organized in grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12) that successively build knowledge and skills, a student who masters the concepts in a given band early can proceed to the next band. Dissolution of traditional, rigid age/grade science holds promise also for students other than the high achievers-some students with disabilities would be served well if they were allowed to progress more slowly.
The science curriculum differentiation in schools reflects both desired student outcomes and perceived limitations of teachers' and students' potential for understanding science (Oakes, Gamoran, & Page, 1992). The curriculum represents the science knowledge that scientists, teachers, community leaders, business leaders, legislators, and parents deem worthy and accessible for students in schools today. Science curriculum is thus embedded in the culture and cannot be separated from its myths, customs, taboos, and history. Curriculum developers face the difficult challenge of taking into account multiple frames of reference and different ways of viewing the world. Benchmarks and Standards provide the basis for addressing these issues, leaving open to the local school district how to teach the curriculum and creating the opportunity to design instruction that is relevant to community needs and concerns. At the same time, mastery of the benchmarks and standards can assure that the children of the community have the kind of sound and broad, nonidiosyncratic grounding in science that will allow further participation at the college and university level.
As new curriculum materials are developed, it is crucial that they not rely solely on print media that require expert reading ability. Children who are poor readers, English-language learners, and students with learning disabilities can learn science and demonstrate their understanding of concepts only if they have opportunities to do so with curricula that are not totally dependent on reading and writing. One can only wonder how many children with disabilities are lost in an educational system that insists that they communicate their science understanding only via the written word.
Science Teacher Preparation and Professional Development
Apart from selecting better and more diverse teacher candidates, what can be done to better prepare teachers to teach science to all? A handful of teacher education programs require that new teachers learn about teaching diverse students and specify a degree of familiarity with special education regulations. However, a survey of special education teachers revealed that (a) 42% received no training in science, (b) 38% of children in self-contained special education classes did not receive any instruction in science, and (c) among special educators who did teach science, nearly half devoted less than 60 minutes a week to science, and nearly 60% depended upon a textbook for science instruction (Patton, Polloway, & Cronin, 1986).
Federal regulations mandate that all students be educated in regular classrooms unless it can be demonstrated that an alternative placement is necessary. School districts need professional development programs that provide teachers with the necessary support and training to help students with disabilities succeed in the regular classroom. Although there has been some progress in greater use of technology, little has been done to help general classroom teachers understand their responsibilities in meeting the needs of all students. Interventions such as creating and using adaptive materials, modifying lessons and strategies, modifying the laboratory environment to allow full participation, and adapting evaluation to students with disabilities are still perceived as responsibilities left for special educators.
A similar situation exists for science instruction for English-language learners. ESL and bilingual education teachers may be required to teach science to English-language learners, but often have little knowledge of science content or pedagogy. On the other hand, science teachers who have English-language learners in their classrooms usually have no training in second language instruction. Moreover, students are often released from ESL or bilingual education programs and mainstreamed as soon as they learn basic interpersonal communication skills. But cognitive/academic language proficiency takes from five to seven years to develop even when students have some basic literacy skills in their first language (Cummins, 1980). This means that most children will experience a gap between entering the mainstream and achieving well in traditional science. However, children taught context-rich, problem-based science in their first language can do excellent work as soon as they enter the mainstream (Fradd & Lee, 1995; Rosebery, Warren, & Conant, 1992). If teachers can connect science with students' home languages and cultures, they can teach science to these students. The challenge is to figure out how to adapt such successes for the monolingual English teacher whose students have many different language backgrounds and varying proficiencies in English. There are, of course, some basic strategies such as simplifying oral and written language, grouping students so that they can discuss science with one another (if not the teacher), translating materials into students' home languages, and coordinating instruction so that science and bilingual or ESL teachers are working together, rather than separately or at cross purposes. Additional research is needed to better understand these challenges and how to meet them.
Even in America's increasingly diverse science classrooms, students of color and females have difficulty finding role models that look like them. Schools need more teachers of color, more bilingual teachers, and teachers who can work with students with disabilities-and all of these teachers need to know science. But the issue is more than one of role models; it is a matter of finding teachers who understand the cultures and communities of their students (Banks, 1991). Successful teachers use knowledge and understanding of their students' home cultures and backgrounds to structure the norms for classroom behavior and discourse. For example, teachers should encourage students to communicate in the classroom following the rules that they learned at home for interacting with adults.
Most teachers are, to a certain degree, sensitive to the cultural values of their students in setting expectations, leading to differential treatment of students. The dilemma is that it is difficult to know whether differential treatment has positive or negative effects, because students may interpret the action as affirming or condescending. While it is possible to document patterns of differential treatment by gender and ethnicity, it is harder to know what to do about it. It is essential that schools hire and support teachers who not only are committed to science for all, but who are also willing to examine their teaching practice and to engage in professional development activities that support effective science teaching for students from all backgrounds.
The most effective strategies for teaching science to diverse learners support students in constructing their own understanding in activities that are hands-on and relevant to their lives and cultures. Science educators should recognize that the success of hands-on, inquiry-based lessons is somewhat dependent upon the prior experiences of the child, his or her readiness to make inductive leaps, and opportunities for students to reflect on their hands-on experiences.
There is some, but not a great deal, of research on validated methods for teaching science to English-language learners. For preparing science teachers to teach English-language learners, Spurlin (1995) recommends the following activities:
Equitable Science Classrooms
Merely providing hands-on activities and group-work is insufficient for an equitable classroom environment. Rather, teachers must be vigilant and actively involved in creating classroom dynamics that allow all students to learn how to use equipment, operate computers, develop and test their ideas, and discuss observations and results. Girls participate more frequently and achieve better when teachers use noncompetitive teaching strategies, give extended examples of science in applied fields such as medicine, stress the creative components of mathematics and science, and provide extensive hands-on learning experiences.
Attention to equity issues should also be included during student teaching and in teacher evaluation systems within the school district. The kinds of changes in attitudes about gender and science that are necessary to achieve the goal of science literacy for all-for girls as well as boys, for students of all ethnic backgrounds, and for students with disabilities -require a major commitment of school district personnel. It seems somewhat incongruous to include a "soft" recommendation such as needing more "caring science teachers," but it is one that must be made. Science education needs more science teachers who care about their students and who define their jobs as teaching science to all students.
Assessment, Evaluation, and Grading
Although assessments are potentially dangerous and damaging when they are misused, they also present opportunities to better understand and improve science education for those who have been bypassed by science education in the past. Documents like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Assessment Standards (1993) and the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards (1996) are to be lauded for their attention to the instructional uses of assessment, their emphasis on what students know and can do, and their explicit attention to equity. Yet educators should not fool themselves. Assessment has been used primarily to classify and to track students, to diagnose what is wrong with their knowledge, and in general, to grant legitimacy to practices that constrain opportunity to learn. Assessment in science reform will need to walk a fine line between this traditional use of assessment and the new uses envisioned by reformers. Schools are conservative and will be tempted to retrofit current practices to new assessments. For instance, there will be pressure to track students along the new lines of ability that are revealed through more authentic forms of assessment. Safeguards to prevent these sorts of actions have simply not been developed.
There is a great deal of hope that changing assessment to more "authentic" forms will reduce the stubborn ethnic and gender gaps in mathematics and science achievement measures-that new assessments may be less dependent upon background knowledge, experiences, and reading skills-and therefore, less biased. Each of these assumptions requires more empirical exploration. The expectation that alternative assessments can be used to leverage improved curriculum and teaching is counteracted by fears that initial increases in student disparities will be used to legitimize draconian consequences for students of color. For example, some fear that open-ended tasks will be so culturally biased as to stack the deck against some children, or that programs to enhance educational opportunity will be improperly monitored or discontinued.
The development, administration, and scoring of open-ended assessment tasks are ripe for bias. For example, an early version of the California mathematics assessment contained an item on which a student from High School X believed that she was sure to be accepted to college because College A and College B each accept half of that school's graduating class. The task was to explain what was wrong with this reasoning. Although the task called on mathematical reasoning, it also was biased: half or more of the students who take the California assessments will not go on to college and as a result are unlikely to really care about this question.
Written items may also contain subtle bias. For example, students who speak languages other than English may be able to do the tasks, but have difficulty writing their results in English. These students may need more time to fully develop and edit their responses than is available for standardized tests. Many scoring rubrics purposefully confound written expression with science performance. This is partly because it is very difficult-some think it is impossible-to separate the two; some people cite substantive reasons for not separating them (Fradd & Larringa-McGee, 1994). The typical test-development strategy is to discard items that seem biased or fail to predict overall student performance. One alternative might be to develop multiple tasks that require similar kinds of competence but are set in different contexts. Students would be expected to select one or more items from a menu. Another strategy is to diversify the persons who write and develop assessments.
Assessment results can and should be used to hold both students and schools accountable for learning and teaching science. As states have begun to publish school-level assessment results, schools have been able (and in some cases, encouraged) to exclude students. To affect their average test scores, schools may only administer the tests to those who will score adequately. Students with disabilities, English-language learners, and Black Americans from educationally needy environments may be asked not to attend school during testing days (Darling-Hammond, 1991; Lacelle-Peterson & Rivera, 1993). This is often done under the guise of not wishing to embarrass a student. But because these students are frequently taught science by the least qualified teachers (special education and ESL/bilingual education teachers with little background in science, or the weakest science teachers), one wonders who is being saved from embarrassment. If the teacher doesn't assess student progress in some meaningful way, how is he or she to know what the student is actually learning? In turn, how would one know if the curriculum is effective or suitable? States publish each school's performance relative to other schools that are similar in terms of student social class and other background variables. The reason for these practices is to hold schools accountable only for those things that they are believed to be able to affect. A student's entering language proficiency, special needs, and social class are among those things over which schools are assumed to have little control. Yet, practices that exclude low-performing student populations can result in inflation of a school's apparent performance.
Many students with disabilities are unable to demonstrate their true
level of understanding and competency in science under traditional testing
conditions. Using the same measures for students with disabilities as the
non-disabled students with no adjustment in the conditions of testing or
the reporting mechanisms could result in discouraging scores, rather than
a valid assessment of what actually has been accomplished.
Ironically, although some students have had opportunities to learn denied them due to assessments that assigned them to lower tracks and inferior instruction, it is also true that assessments such as advanced placement exams and the SAT open doors to students. Increasing numbers of females and students of color are taking these tests, using them to gain access to further education.
Assessment can, in the long run, have other positive effects. Assessment reports might emphasize changes in test scores from baseline data, rather than reporting heterogeneous group means, or disaggregate data for students who are learning English, have learning disabilities, or are receiving Title I funds (low-income children). These reports could assuage the community's worries about whether all segments of the student population are progressing and learning. Reports could also help target areas that need special attention. If school reform is spurred by assessment results, then it would be desirable to chart the science progress of students with disabilities, for instance, rather than ignoring these students in science assessment.
Students, Families, and Communities: Attribution Theory
Equity issues begin with the individual student, but each student is, in turn, the developing product of his or her entire community. In discussing a student's progress toward science literacy, as well as the unique skills, abilities, attitudes, and beliefs each child brings to the science classroom, we must equally consider the society, culture, community, and family that help to form that child's constellation of individual characteristics.
Among equity issues, gender and science education has recieved the greatest research attention in the past. Gender issues affect all ethnic groups and every socioeconomic stratum, albeit differentially. Lately, we have begun to see how generalizations about gender and science education that may be true for a White middle class population may operate differently for other ethnic groups or in various socioeconomic strata.
Jacque Eccles and her colleagues at the University of Michigan have built and tested a model that explains how social forces act on young women's decisions to study science. They have researched psychological and social factors influencing long- and short-range achievement goals and behaviors, such as career aspirations, vocational and avocational choices, course selections, persistence on difficult tasks, and allocation of effort across various achievement-related activities (Eccles, 1992).
Drawing upon the theoretical and empirical work associated with decision-making, achievement theory, and attribution theory, Eccles and her colleagues have elaborated a model of achievement-related choices. This model links educational, vocational, and other achievement-related choices to two sets of beliefs: the individual's expectations for success and the importance the individual attaches to the various options perceived to be available. The individual's beliefs are formed by cultural norms, experiences, and aptitudes. The psychological processes underlying individual choice are socialized processes that grow out of years of experiences at home, in one's community, and at school. Consequently, society is just as responsible for disparities in these processes as it is responsible for inequities in the experiences provided at school.
Young people of all abilities, ethnicities, and backgrounds will be less likely to participate in math and science if they express low confidence in their abilities to master mathematics and science and to succeed in careers requiring these skills; if they value success and participation in these fields less than they value success and participation in other fields; if they do not enjoy mathematics and science; and if they experience a nonsupportive environment for learning mathematics and science, either in school or at home. Therefore, it is particularly important to remedy these conditions for groups that are already underrepresented in mathematics and science.
Equity issues are among our society's most challenging. They simultaneously demand acknowledgment and response and foster resistance because no one is defined solely in terms of group membership, but rather as an individual who is complexly situated in terms of gender, ethnicity, social class, ability or disability, language and other attributes.
Science education reform can be characterized by the title work of Project 2061: Science for All Americans. The danger, of course, is that this credo can be diluted and weakened to the extent that it becomes just another slogan that people see as political rhetoric, virtually impossible to realize. Consequently, our first recommendation is that science education increase its profile regarding equity issues.
data in this chapter are from Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education
1995 (National Science Foundation, 1996), 1995 Digest of Educational Statistics
(National Center for Education Statistics, 1995), and The Condition of Education
1996 (Department of Education, 1996).
2The chapter uses the terminology of the federal government in referring to the many ethnic groups. For example, the term "Black Americans" is the inclusive category rather than "African Americans" because many Caribbeans and Africans identify themselves according to their country of origin, and the term "Hispanics" includes the many different origin countries and cultures. Nevertheless, we recognize that it is important to refer to individuals and groups according to their own wishes, rather than imposing labels. The terms used here are for convenience, and not an attempt to lump groups together who have important individual characteristics.
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Copyright © 1998 by American Association for the Advancement of Science