No Excuse Left Behind

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

Thanks to the actions of U.S. government officials, we will soon get a chance to discover whether ignorance really is bliss. According to the August 9th online edition of Newsweek, American students will no longer participate in the international Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The collective feeling of relief among public officials is palpable: the U.S. will be spared a science and math come-uppance, at least for now.

The decision to withdraw from TIMSS was made quietly by bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) a full year ago. Despite the fact that American high school seniors scored an abysmal 19th out of 21 countries the last time they took the test in 1995 (outperforming only Cyprus and South Africa), NCES Commissioner Mark Schneider denies the pull-out was due to poor performance. Instead, Schneider cites the withdrawal of
other countries, along with
“scarce resources,” as justification for the decision to keep us in the dark about how American students stack up internationally.

Given the fact that we fork out hundreds of billions of dollars annually for public education, Schneider’s defense is a bit hard to believe. It also begs the question: when in the world did the education bureaucracyever decide to stop doing something due to cost?

Clearly, “scarce resources” aren’t holding the federal government back when it comes to more programs. At the same time federal testing dollars are allegedly drying up, funding for science and math education is abundant. Congress recently passed legislation to funnel $43.6 billion to science education and research. Never mind the fact that the Academic Competitiveness Council recently found, “Despite decades of significant federal investment in science and math education,
there is a general dearth of
evidence of effective practices and activities in STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics) education.” In a nutshell, then, we don’t know what works, we don’t want to know how students perform, but let’s spend anyway!

Closer to home, the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center is hoping to improve student performance in these subjects in public schools around the state. Start-up money for the program comes courtesy of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, but future government funding is expected. These programs come just ahead of the new 2008 End of
science tests. It’s unlikely these tests will introduce meaningful feedback on science achievement, though. State tests are developed by the North Carolina Department of Instruction, the very agency that stands to benefit from test outcomes. Moreover, test results will only compare North Carolina students to their peers statewide.

What’s the answer? We must steel ourselves to face the facts. Sure, not knowing how kids are really doing may save us from international embarrassment in the short term. But what about competing in our global economy? What we don’t know just might hurt us there.

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.