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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
  Table of Contents     Figures     Tables     Appendix Tables     Presentation Slides  
Chapter 1:
Student Performance in Mathematics and Science
Mathematics and Science Coursework and Student Achievement
Curriculum Standards and Statewide Assessments
Curriculum and Instruction
Teacher Quality
Teacher Induction, Professional Development, and Working Conditions
Information Technology in Schools
Transition to Higher Education

Elementary and Secondary Education

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Curriculum Standards and Statewide Assessments

State Curriculum Standards and Policy on Instructional Materials
Accountability Systems and Assessments

One response to evidence of disappointing achievement by U.S. students has been the movement—accelerating since the early 1990s—to define and implement higher standards for student learning. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) issued and revised mathematics standards in 1989 and 2000 (NCTM 1989 and 2000), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) published Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993), and the National Research Council (NRC) issued the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (NRC 1996). These standards documents recommend that schools cover fewer topics in greater depth, use inquiry-based methods, and focus on understanding of concepts in addition to basic skills. During the 1990s states used such guiding documents to develop their own standards and curriculum frameworks, to create new assessment instruments, and to reform teacher education.

This section reports on state curriculum standards and testing and accountability policies.

State Curriculum Standards and Policy on Instructional Materials top of page

The NCLB Act requires states to immediately set standards in mathematics and reading/language arts, and to set standards in science by academic year 2005. In 2002, 49 states and the District of Columbia had content standards for mathematics (as well as for English/language arts), and 47 states had standards for science (CCSSO 2002). Many states have recently revised or are in the process of revising their standards, curriculum frameworks, and instructional materials. By 2002, exactly half the states had set a regular timeline for reviewing and modifying their standards (Editorial Projects in Education 2003).

Standards documents vary greatly in detail, degree of focus, specificity, clarity, and level of rigor. Evaluations of standards have used different criteria and methods (Achieve, Inc. 2002b; AFT n.d.; and Finn and Petrilli 2000). States also prescribe instructional materials to varying degrees. In spring 2002, 21 states had no policy prescribing textbooks and another 4 had a policy of local choice. Of states that restricted textbook choice, eight produced a list of approved books and materials for local choice, five selected textbooks, and nine combined selection and recommendation (CCSSO 2002).

Accountability Systems and Assessments top of page

Assessment Programs in Mathematics and Science

Building on the testing requirements included in the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the NCLB Act requires all schools to conduct mathematics and reading assessments during academic year 2002 in at least one grade of three different grade spans (grades 3–5, 6–9, and 10–12). By academic year 2005, states must test students in grades 3–8 in these subjects every year and must test all students once during the grades 10–12 span. States must also conduct science assessments in one grade of the same grade spans by academic year 2007. The act prescribes rigorous assessments aligned with state standards but does give states wide latitude in setting school performance standards. The NCLB Act also requires states to participate in the NAEP assessments for the subjects in which the state tests in order to provide policymakers and the public with common benchmarks for judging the rigor of their own state's standards, assessments, and performance requirements.

By 2002, many states had already developed and administered tests based on their curriculum standards and frame-works. For example, in academic year 2002, 19 states and the District of Columbia required students to take mathematics and reading tests in the grades identified by the NCLB Act (Doherty and Skinner 2003).

The NCLB Act requires states to publish achievement data and other indicators of performance (such as attendance and completion rates) at the school level, and disaggregated by key demographic characteristics such as income, race/ethnicity, and English proficiency status. A total of 29 states and the District of Columbia rated all schools or identified all low-performing schools in academic year 2002, but only 12 states relied solely on student test scores for these evaluations (Editorial Projects in Education 2003). The other 17 states and the District of Columbia used test scores along with other information such as attendance rates, graduation rates, and coursetaking data.

Consequences and Sanctions

Recently implemented state accountability systems differ from previous waves of reform in that they specify consequences for poor school and student performance. For students, consequences may include using test scores to determine grade promotion or retention and award high school diplomas. For districts and schools, states have developed a range of rewards, supports, and sanctions based on student test scores. In academic year 2002, 27 states and the District of Columbia provided assistance to low-performing schools (for example, funds for tutoring and additional teacher professional development) and 17 states financially rewarded schools that meet, or make sufficient progress toward, high achievement goals (Editorial Projects in Education 2003). State officials may impose sanctions on low-performing schools in 22 states and the District of Columbia. These include reconstitution (18 states and the District of Columbia), allowing students to transfer to other schools (11 states and the District of Columbia), and school closure (11 states). However, only three states permit withholding funds from schools. States do not necessarily exercise their authority to apply sanctions against schools and staff; they generally try to raise achievement in a low-performing school by first providing additional support such as targeted professional development, new instructional materials, and tutoring. Of the 30 states that identified low-performing schools in 2002, 27 provided some form of assistance to these schools (Achieve, Inc. 2002a).

Implementation Issues in Assessment

The role of standardized testing in accountability systems is controversial. Proponents of testing say it can improve achievement in at least two ways. First, it can provide information about how well educational systems are functioning and insight into where changes may be warranted. Second, accountability for test results can create incentives for students, teachers, instructional material developers, and school administrators to alter their behaviors in ways that facilitate achievement. Critics worry that, in implementing testing regimes, school systems will rely on tests that are insufficiently aligned with their standards and curricula. Such tests would measure school and student performance poorly, and strong incentives to perform well on these tests would undermine curricular priorities.

One indicator of alignment is whether tests were customized, or specifically designed for a state's standards and curricula. Customization provides opportunities for alignment, although it does not guarantee it. In the 2002 academic year, 31 states used only customized tests, 12 used a mix of customized tests and tests purchased from commercial publishers that develop tests for a national market, and 7 used tests that were not customized (GAO 2003). Customization will increase over time because the NCLB Act requires states to either develop tests aligned to their standards or augment commercial tests with aligned questions.

Critics also doubt that assessments, especially multiple choice examinations, will effectively measure higher-order thinking and conceptual understanding, which are key emphases in national mathematics and science standards. In the 2002 academic year, 12 states used tests composed solely of multiple-choice questions, while 36 states used tests that combined multiple-choice items with a limited number of written-response questions (GAO 2003).

Definitive data on the effects of enhanced accountability measures do not exist, but the limited studies available suggest that under some circumstances, these measures may improve student achievement (Carnoy and Loeb 2002; Raymond and Hanushek 2003; Roderick, Jacob, and Bryk 2002).

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