I recently received an e-mail Ken Parejko, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stout. He described his experiences in taking the PRAXIS II Content Exam in science. He points out that the exam is overwhelmingly based on the facts of science, with no attention paid to science as a process. I think he raises some important points, and I have posted below the fold, with his permission, a letter he sent to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on this subject.
I have some experience with training future elementary and secondary mathematics teachers, and can report some of the same frustrations Parejko describes. In addition to the difficulties posed by having to teach to the test, which tends to emphasize content over process, it is very difficult to persuade students who have spent their whole lives thinking of mathematics and arithmetic as the same thing that there is more to the subject than that. The trouble is that these people then teach mathematics in the simplistic way they have always thought of it, which leads to the next generation of students coming to college with the same misconceptions. It is very hard to dispell that notion in a semester-long course. It’s a vicious cycle that I have not figured out how to break.
Now for Parejko’s letter:
I’m a biology professor at UW-Stout. The School of Education here has asked us to help them be sure our science curriculum is adequately preparing their students to teach, and to pass the licensing exams. As part of that effort this Saturday I took the Praxis II Middle School Content Knowledge exam, to see what concepts, level of understanding, etc., is expected of our students.
As I’m sure you know, scientific knowledge is rapidly expanding. Those of us who design and implement college-level science curricula, for non-majors especially, have a difficult time deciding what to include in our courses, and what to leave out. As we learn more and more about the world, through science, we end up leaving out more and more. Consequently, the emphasis in recent reforms in science education has been towards science as a PROCESS. That is, the scientific method, by which we come to understand the world: observation, inference, hypothesis, hypothesis testing, interpretation of data, critical thinking, etc. All recent efforts by the National Science Foundation, AAAS, and other scientific organizations emphasize process. It IS necessary to understand the concepts of science at a certain level. I think the Praxis did a pretty fair job at testing those concept issues, though in a somewhat random fashion having chosen, e.g., 10 questions on biology out of all possible content areas. But the Praxis did not adequately address the process of science. The TIMMS exams, offered internationally, in my opinion do a much better job of assessing the test-taker’s ability to deal with science as a process.
I really don’t think the science portion of the Praxis II exam adequately reflects what I consider a middle school teacher should know about science. To me, the exam was mostly a random selection of questions about science topics, which were not very thought-provoking but mostly at the memorization level of understanding. As such, they didn’t get at the real issue of what science is – that is, the PROCESS skills. If we have no idea whether the teacher understands science as a process, we have no idea that he or she can educate their students on science as a process. The ability to collect and appropriate data, to critically analyze alternative hypotheses are skills NOT addressed in the Praxis II, but the fundament of what science is. To me it is much more important that I can have faith that a middle school teacher understand how science works (not addressed in the Praxis) than that they can read a weather map to predict the direction of winds (one of the questions.) In fact I think the Praxis is inappropriate to be used as the standard for whether a teacher should be allowed to teach in Wisconsin’s middle schools or not.
I’m not sure what to do, since ETS’ Praxis exams are used nationally as standards for licensing. I visited their webpage but could find no clear way to contact them regarding their test, which I would like to do.