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Science Expert Critical of Tests

Ohanian Comment: Telling, isn't it, that the views of the National Academy of Science President get such low-key media play?

PRINCETON BOROUGH - National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts said last week that science education is on the decline in America, largely because of standardized testing.

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's Leadership Program for Teachers, Alberts cited an introduction from a Princeton Review study guide, "Cracking the SAT II Biology Test," as evidence.

" `We'll show you that you don't really have to understand anything,' " Alberts quoted. " `Whether or not you understand your answer, the scoring machines at Educational Testing Services will think you did. Their scoring machines don't look for brilliant scientists and they don't look for understanding . . . stick with us and you'll make the scoring machines very happy.' "

Alberts' comments came during a program called "Exploring the Tree of Life: Teaching Genomics, Medicine and Evolution." His audience primarily was teachers in an event co-sponsored by The Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton.

Alberts said the current testing attitude is a result of the recent emphasis educators and legislators have put on standardized testing. He was critical of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform, which will require standardized testing in science nationwide by 2007-2008. He referred to it as the "accountability movement."

"Everyone wants accountability, but it's easier to test for facts than for understanding," Alberts said.

Alberts was far more complimentary of kindergarten education, which he praised for giving children the opportunity to explore the world around them.

"Every kindergarten class is a science class," he said. "You don't have to include kindergarten (in reforms) - it's perfect."

However, as a child progresses through elementary school, science classes are reduced to "memorizing 30 different kinds of whales and then spitting out that information." He added that it "turns students off (to science) by the eighth grade."

Alberts said the decline in science education can be countered by giving teachers greater influence in education policy. He also advocated a greater partnership between scientists and science teachers.

Dr. David Botstein, Lewis-Sigler Institute director, said biology instruction has changed a great deal as knowledge of genomics increases, and teaching methods must catch up with the trend.

"If you can't teach a computer, can you teach students?" he asked the audience, citing certain confusion created by biology teachers.

"Biologists would rather share a toothbrush than share a gene name," he said, quoting biologist Michael Ashburn. To illustrate, Botstein described a gene that in yeast is called one thing but in a fly is known as something completely different.

Botstein added that students who like science but hate math will no longer be able to find refuge in biology because the rise of genomics has led to a greater use of databases and math functions. In genomics, Botstein said, much of the work has shifted from mapping to applying the knowledge gained, which has led to a greater interconnectivity between biology, computers and math.

He also favors what he said was an engineer's approach to math, "teaching from the computer" rather than a theoretical approach. "I would drop theoretical everything," he said when asked about theoretical calculus. "Computers should do the math."

Botstein said he created a new course with no prerequisites and no consideration of high school courses or advanced placement tests, which teaches biology along with other sciences and disciplines. He chooses to do things this way, he said, because of opposition from authorities in higher education who are against changing science curricula as a whole. "It's for students who don't mind a little adventure and a little risk," he said.

— Jon Vucolo
Science Expert Critical of Tests
July 27, 2003


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