Real learning lost in chase for test scores

September 10, 2009

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CERTAINLY ALL our students need a sound scientific education if they are to understand the world around them and the effects of technology on their lives (“Science MCAS stymies many,’’ Page A1, Sept. 3). But the current state policy, which focuses on chasing an arbitrary score on a standardized science test, derails efforts to engage students in the processes and prospects of science and technology.

Scientific achievement is not standardized. The natural world is diverse, and productive human inquiry takes many forms. The chemistry needed to synthesize antibiotics is different from that used to assess their effects on bacteria. Understanding glacial motions requires different mathematics than that used to calculate asteroid trajectories. Scientific advances depend on nurturing the full spectrum of human intellectual diversity.

That is not what’s happening. Under current education policy, hands-on experience-based learning has been replaced by a “What’s the right answer?’’ syndrome. As always, test scores tell us a great deal about disparities in students’ wealth and backgrounds, but little about how to help all students channel their curiosity about the natural world into productive scientific work and study.

We need to set aside high-stakes exams and give all students access to inquiry-based, hands-on science experiences instead of scripted, shallow test prep.

Jonathan King
The writer is a professor of molecular biology at MIT.

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