Assessment, Curriculum, Leadership, Policy

Science Takes a Back Seat

An unintended consequence of prioritizing literacy and numeracy achievement

Any medication is packaged with a litany of disclaimers from the pharmaceutical company identifying potential side effects, or unintended consequences beyond the intended effect of the drug. Similarly, government policies and initiatives can also have “side effects” that are neither planned, nor positive.

In education, studies have identified negative impacts of high-stakes testing on “low-stakes” curricular subjects.1 In Ontario, where we have been practitioners, educators and researchers of science education for over 23 years, we’ve discovered that province-wide initiatives aimed at improving literacy and numeracy outcomes on high-stakes provincial tests are having negative impacts on the quality of science education in elementary schools. We first drew this conclusion through extensive observations and discussions with preservice and practicing elementary teachers. We were told, for example: 

“I have to teach science in a portable without a sink or running water . . . the school I’m in has little if any equipment or resources to teach basic science.”

“I rarely saw inquiry-based or hands-on activities during my practicum. Most science in my school was taught out of the textbook.”

Hearing these and similar stories from elementary teachers over the years, we began to suspect that science education was taking a back seat in schools, regardless of the fact that it was a mandated curriculum subject. The recent release of international science testing data for elementary schools in Ontario provides additional evidence to support our claim.

Large-scale assessment in science

Many jurisdictions mobilize significant resources and implement policies to foster improvement in large-scale assessment scores for specified curricular areas. For instance in Ontario, since the late 1990s literacy and numeracy priorities and related accountability policies have had a significant impact on the educational landscape.2 However in this province, science (and technology)3 is not assessed using province-wide accountability tests.

Many jurisdictions around the world have implemented educational initiatives and made policy decisions to improve student achievement scores as measured by large-scale assessments in language, mathematics, and science.4 In Canada, The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) is the only national cyclical test of student achievement for 13- and 16-year olds in science (also mathematics and reading). It provides provinces and territories with a basis for examining their curriculum and improving assessment strategies for middle and secondary schools.

Canada also participates in international comparison tests for elementary students. For science education, it’s the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessment. This assessment has measured trends in mathematics and science achievement at the fourth and eighth grades on a regular four-year cycle since 1995.5 This data can be used to monitor changes over time in educational systems and the results can often stimulate discussion for analyzing education policies in order to improve students’ achievement outcomes. In Canada, the last iteration occurred in 2011. The assessment was only administered to Alberta, Ontario and Quebec students, as these provinces were considered benchmarking participants for this cycle of testing. Over 74 jurisdictions around the world took part in this latest international measure.

Results of TIMSS in Ontario

Over 9,000 Grade 4 and 8 students from Ontario participated in the 2011 international TIMSS assessment, with results released in December 2012.6 Overall, the average test scores in science among Ontario’s Grade 4 and 8 students was at the Intermediate benchmark7 with, on average, 13 jurisdictions worldwide achieving higher than Ontario in science. Comparing within Canada, Ontario is found to be below science scores in Alberta for 2011 and on par with Quebec.

When we look at trends over time, the picture becomes worrying. Since 2003, over two successive testing cycles, there has been a decline in Ontario’s science achievement with respect to students reaching or exceeding the international benchmarks established by TIMSS (see Table 1).


While there’s been improvement in results since the inception of the TIMSS assessment in the mid-1990s, for 2011 the average test scores are significantly lower than they were in 2003 for Grades 4 and 8 (see Figure 1).


The trend is clear: science achievement has been decreasing over the last decade. What are possible reasons for this downturn in science achievement?

The erosion of science education

In the 1930s, distinguished sociologist Robert K. Merton advanced the theory of “unintended consequences”8 of social action, with particular reference to social policies and priority initiatives implemented by governments. His theory is a useful framework for examining educational policies and initiatives. Over the last decade, the TIMSS results in Ontario, alongside our deliberations with elementary teachers, suggest that the subject of science is being unintentionally undermined by educational accountability initiatives in literacy and numeracy. We believe that one palpable consequence of these initiatives is the negative impact on science achievement by elementary students.

This undermining of science manifests itself in elementary schools through reduced instructional time for science, curtailed learning opportunities which are resource intensive and promote higher-order thinking (e.g. scientific inquiry and technological design), and the reduced hiring of, and support for, highly qualified science teachers prepared to confidently teach science in elementary schools. Elementary teachers we have spoken to offered many concrete examples of these issues:

“I saw science taught twice in 40-minute intervals during a six-day cycle.”

“In the primary division of the school we had an itinerant science teacher who taught science on a cart. She came around to the primary classrooms and provided planning time for the homeroom teacher.”

“In the middle school I was in, the teachers were required to teach their own science program, whether they have a science background or not.”

Furthermore, as described in an interview with a Grade 5 teacher:

“I need a rationale for implementing any new science program . . . if I find that I can’t connect it to my literacy or my mathematics, I may not implement it.”


We believe that decisive steps are now required to build on earlier success in science observed at the beginning of the 21st century. Below are some recommendations for reprioritizing science education in elementary schools:

  1. Although international measures document important changes over time in educational systems, more local and specific data collection is required to create a more accurate picture of what’s going on in elementary schools with respect to science education. Research aimed at collecting both aggregate and case-specific data on the enactment of science curriculum in schools and districts is needed.
  2. School districts have autonomy to design pedagogical innovations and promote science leadership within their district. In collaboration with community stakeholders, students’ science outcomes can be improved through leadership and instructional resource development.
  3. Highly successful school systems around the world invest in their teachers. Promoting science teacher education and development practices that are collaborative and practice-oriented are essential for supporting science education.
  4. Parents and students must be advocates for science education in schools. Valuing science education and engaging in discussions with school practitioners on how to improve science outcomes for all students will help reprioritize science education.

As we go forward into the second decade of the 21st century, it is indisputably important that students possess a deep understanding and appreciation of science. We must act to limit the current erosion of quality science education. Re-evaluating the high-stakes accountability ethos in schools, resulting in subject hierarchies, and establishing a more equitable approach where science and other subjects are similarly valued is an important enterprise. Recognizing the unintended consequences of educational initiatives is the first step to ensure that students achieve in all subject areas.


First published in Education Canada, June 2013

1  John S. Wills, “Putting the Squeeze on Social Studies: Managing teaching dilemmas in subject areas excluded from state testing,” Teachers College Record (2007): 1980–2046.

2 Educational Quality and Accountability Office, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), 2011: Ontario Report, (Toronto: Educational Quality and Accountability Office, 2012). http://www.eqao.com/pdf_e/12/TIMSS_Ontario_Report_2011.pdf.

3  In Ontario, “Technology” refers to structures, mechanisms and design problem-solving learning expectations, and is subsumed under the “Science & Technology” curriculum policy. For brevity purposes, we will use “science” throughout the article.

4 Michael Fullan, Great to Excellent: Launching the next stage of Ontario’s education agenda, (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education, 2012). http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/fullan.html.

5 Andy Hargreaves, and Shirley Dennis. “The International Quest for Educational Excellence: Understanding Canada’s high performance.” Education Canada 52, no. 4 (2012).

6 Educational Quality and Accountability Office, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011: Ontario Report..

7 TIMMS establishes four descriptive benchmarks (advanced, high, intermediate, low) based on a single scale value (e.g. 625 is considered advanced) allowing for broad reporting of science achievement, alongside the mean scale scores. This reporting method helps to facilitate comparison and analysis among jurisdictions and cycles of assessment.

8 Robert K. Merton, “The Unintended Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” American Sociological Review 1, no. 6 (1936): 894-904.

Meet the Expert(s)


Xavier Fazio

Xavier Fazio is an Associate Professor at Brock University in the Department of Teacher Education. He teaches pre-service secondary science teachers and conducts research in schools that promote scientific inquiry, environmental education, curricular integration, and innovative science teaching.

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Douglas D. Karrow

Douglas D. Karrow is an Associate Professor at Brock University in the Department of Teacher Education. He teaches pre-service elementary teachers in science and environmental education and conducts research on environmental education.

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