BOSTON -- U.S. standardized tests are contributing to the decline of student achievement in math and science because the exams emphasize rote memorization skills instead of conceptual, hands-on abilities, a new study suggests.
Teachers, afraid of a poor showing by their students that will result in negative evaluations for themselves or their schools, spend an inordinate amount of time teaching concepts and methods geared specifically to what the study concludes are poorly designed tests.
The tests foster "a very oppressive 'drill and kill' approach" to teaching, and have "a negative impact on learning," said George F. Madaus, director of the Boston College Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.
Mr. Madaus said the impact is particularly egregious for minority students.
This "teaching for the test" approach decried by curriculum specialists is "much more prevalent in the minority classrooms," said Mr. Madaus, who led the study done for the National Science Foundation. The results were released yesterday.
"When you interview the teachers, they tell you they would like to teach other things, but they feel they have to" emphasize preparation for test taking, he said.
In some of the tests studied, "approximately 95 percent of the questions measured low-order skills, rote facts. They are not using problem-solving skills, conceptual skills, hands-on skills," Mr. Madaus said. "You get a rather depressing picture."
The study found the same failings in the chapter-by-chapter tests found in the most-used science and math textbooks, adding to the damage that such testing practices cause.
"That's a really common problem," agreed Douglas Zook, professor of science education at Boston University. "You run into that all the time -- people are teaching to the tests, not teaching for any deeper purpose."
Mr. Zook said that development of new, more creative science teaching curricula will have to go hand in hand with new ways of testing.
Current tests "have nothing to do with being excited and knowledgeable about science." That should be the object of science education, Mr. Zook said.
"Just because you can name all the parts of a microscope doesn't mean that you could use a microscope," said Maryellen Harmon, one of the study's authors.
While some educators advocate doing away with standardized tests, the study's authors are more cautious, backing tests that go beyond multiple choice and into problem-solving and experimentation.
The Bush administration is developing a national assessment tool for math and science, as well as other subject areas. While that test is still being designed, some educators fear it will be another multiple-choice offering of the sort criticized in the study.
The study focused on tests and textbooks used in fourth and eighth grades and selected high-school science courses.
The researchers also interviewed 200 science teachers and 100 administrators, and surveyed 2,229 math and science teachers through mail-in questionnaires.
Their report quoted science teachers who lamented the pressure they felt to teach less creatively than they would otherwise.
"Teaching to the test leaves little time to bring in things, connect things," said one math teacher in an urban school with primarily African-American and Hispanic students.