Cause of an unpleasant shiver

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Wynne Harlen reports on the results of the Third International Maths and Science Study and assesses how Scottish pupils can improve their performance.

Two years ago, Her Majesty's inspectors in Scotland reported a largely optimistic view of secondary science education. They noted that during the Nineties the numbers of pupils taking science had been rising, and that more of them passed Standard grade (the 16-plus examination) with higher marks.

Similar trends were reported for Higher grade science (taken one or two years later). The HMI report also commented favourably on the quality and relevance of the science experience of secondary pupils.

So the recent science results from the Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) cause an unpleasant shiver down the Scottish spine. When pupils were tested in S1 and S2 (the first two years of secondary school in Scotland), the S1 pupils came 25th out of 38 countries, while S2 came 25th out of 40. Could these results signal a threat to the good health of secondary school science? As those pupils proceed to their Standard grade exams, will their performances reverse the trend for higher levels of performance?

To answer such questions, we must know whether the performance of pupils in S1 and S2 has declined or whether the change is just in Scotland's position relative to other countries, or whether what was measured by the TIMSS tests gives a valid indication of the aims and values of Scottish science education.

One relevant measure of trends at S2 is provided by the Assessment of Achievement Programme surveys carried out every three years in rotation in maths, science and English. It is too early for the 1996 science results to be available, but between 1990 and 1993, according to the Scottish Office, there was "no clear pattern of rising or falling performance levels over time".

Even if performance has not changed in Scotland, it has in other countries. The mean score of S1 pupils was significantly below that of 21 countries and that of S2 pupils significantly below that of 14, with pupils for England above those in Scotland at both grades.

But it is important to recognise that Scottish pupils are on average younger than their English counterparts at the same grade level and that the S1 pupils tested in April or May 1995 would have had only two terms in secondary school. So what was being tested for the lower age group particularly was the impact of primary school science. The better performance at S2 (in terms of scores rather than rank order) suggests that the secondary school was making up for a slow start.

Primary science in England and Wales has been a compulsory part of the curriculum since 1989, but the position in Scotland is different. Science is a component of the national guidelines for environmental studies 5-14, but although these were issued in 1993, they were not significantly implemented until 1995-96.

Nor had they had much impact on secondary schools by 1995. Up to that time teachers' energies had been channelled into implementing changes in the English language and maths curriculum. So as far as science is concerned, the results of pupils tested in TIMSS reflected the Eighties curriculum.

Other research supports this picture. In 1993, at the start of a two-year Scottish Council for Research in Education project investigating primary teachers' understanding of concepts in science and technology, a national sample was surveyed about their confidence in teaching science and technology.

Science ranked below all other subjects except technology and music. This reflected the position of primary teachers in England who were surveyed by Bennett, Wragg and Carre in 1989, but when their survey was repeated two years later, science had risen to third position in teachers' perceived competence, behind only English and maths.

By contrast, when the Scottish survey was repeated earlier this year, the position of science had not changed. But levels of confidence had increased. The English researchers ascribed the dramatic change they found to the increased resources for primary science and national curriculum specifications.

The SCRE project also investigated the effect that confidence and understanding had on teaching and found that those with low confidence andor understanding avoided teaching the subject. They kept to topics where confidence was higher, stressed process outcomes rather than conceptual development outcomes, relied on prescriptive work cards, underplayed questioning and discussion, and kept to the simplest and safest practical work.

Primary teachers with minimal science in their own education (two-thirds of the sample had no O grades in science) and little added in their initial teacher education, are hardly to blame.

The research suggested optimistically that many teachers had a great degree of latent understanding of science concepts and were willing to increase their knowledge.

Meanwhile, Scottish pupils are entering secondary school with a restricted experience of science which does not reflect the goals of the new 5-14 curriculum. We hope that when 5-14 has been fully implemented and resources are provided to help teachers, the performance in S1 and S2 will reflect pupils' capabilities better and will show Scotland in an improved international position.

Wynne Harlen, director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education.

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