Volume 2, Number 2, July 2006
SECONDARY STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF FACTORS EFFECTING FAILURE IN SCIENCE IN PORTUGAL
Jesuína M. B. Fonseca Joseph E. Conboy
ABSTRACT. High rates of failure in secondary level science classes are a problem worldwide. Effective teaching and efficient management of schools requires information as to the causes of failure. One approach to acquiring this information is to improve our understanding of what the students themselves perceive as the causes and antecedents of school failure. In this article, we analyze the perceptions of the factors of academic failure among grade-ten, science-tracked students. Students from eight schools in southern Portugal (N=346) participated in the study. The major factors of failure in 10th grade science courses, according to students, are quality of teaching and previous student preparation. One third of the students did not think that secondary science education prepared them for life in a scientific-technological society. A culture of high expectancy on the part of teachers, parents and administrators may be key to influencing rates of success.
KEYWORDS. Failure, Management Practices, Secondary Science, Student Perceptions, Teaching.
INTRODUCTION Failure rates are high and deficient learning in science is commonplace at both the middle and the secondary school levels in Portugal (Fonseca, 2003; GAVE, 2000, 2001; OECD, 2004). Among the 40 countries involved in the 2000 and 2003 PISA studies, Portuguese students rank among the lowest in science performance (GAVE, 2001; OECD, 2004). These shortcomings in science achievement are evident in spite of successive reforms in science education-a frequent phenomenon consistent with what has been observed in other international studies (Davies, 2003; Kozoll & Osborne, 2004; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2003). The poor results in science achievement reflect a general panorama of poor academic performance. Portugal has the highest school abandonment rate among 26 countries studied by the European Union (European Commission, 2000). In 2001, among those 18 to 24 years of age, 45% had abandoned school without completing the 12th grade. In the same age range, one fourth had abandoned school without completing the 9th grade (Ministério da Educaçăo, 2002). By 2003, about one third of the students in the 6th through 9th grades had experienced some form Copyright © 2006 by MOMENT ISSN: 1305-8223
Eurasia J. Math. Sci. & Tech. Ed. / Vol.2 No.2, July 2006
of school failure. The percentage is even higher in the secondary grades. As a result, only 20% of the active population in Portugal had a high school diploma in 2005 (“Insucesso escolar,” 2004; Dâmaso, 2005). In southern Portugal, science performance of 15-year-olds is among the lowest in the country (GAVE, 2001) and the failure rate for all secondary students in the region is most prominent at the tenth grade level (Carreira & André, 2000). The Portuguese educational system includes area-specific tracking after the ninth grade. Upon entering tenth grade, students must choose which major subject area they will pursue—for instance sciences, humanities, social sciences, or technology. Students who select the science track are required to enroll in eight disciplines, five of which are in the sciences: Physics/Chemistry, Biology/Geology, Mathematics, and two disciplines in Laboratory Techniques (in Physics/Chemistry and Biology/Geology). However, even among the sciencetracked students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, failure rates continue to be high, particularly in Physics/Chemistry and Mathematics. Because of the high levels of school abandonment, the students who enter tenth grade are already a select group. Within this select group, the students who choose the science track represent an elite in terms of academic performance and motivation. Even so, many do not enjoy success in secondary education, particularly in the 10th grade. This leads to a series of important questions for science educators and other educational leaders and policy makers: We ask first, why should this be the case? What are the factors students identify for the high failure rate? Are there relations between the factors identified by the students and other variables? And what implications for teaching, curriculum, and school organization can we infer? The literature provides some possible answers to these questions. A number of psychosocial, organizational, teacher and student variables seem important in influencing success or failure: Parenting practices and parental involvement with the school explain much of the variation in school performance according to Desimone (1999). Student perceptions of meaningfulness, challenge, choice and appeal of class activities have been associated with motivation and learning (Raineri & Gerber, 2004; Gentry & Springer, 2002). And the science teacher has been found to be the most important factor in improving student achievement in schools (Ballone-Duran, Czerniak & Haney, 2005). Anthony (2000) reported a study of perceptions of factors influencing success in mathematics and emphasized the role of motivation. Students and lecturers agreed on the importance of motivation, however their opinions diverged in relation to factors such as importance of active learning, help-seeking and student effort. Lecturers emphasized controllable student characteristics, while students were more prone to blame failure on course design and teaching quality. Easton (2002) interviewed students from an alternative residential high school in the USA in order to determine perceptions of learning needs. Students identified the need for self-
Fonseca and Conboy
esteem, personal accountability, and personalized learning. They talked about the need for teachers who care and also about active learning. They further mentioned the need to feel emotionally safe, the need for high expectancy on the part of the school and the need for selfdirected learning/learning by choice. In analyzing student-generated solutions to enhance the academic success of AfricanAmerican youth, Tucker, Herman, Pedersen, Vogel and Reinke (2000) found that both academic preparation of students and positive peer influences would enhance academic success and that praise and encouragement by teachers and parents is needed to facilitate student school work and achievement. They further affirm that student achievement seems to be associated with occupational aspirations. Similarly, Wong, Wiest and Cusick (2002) state that student perceptions of teacher behaviors that promote the development of student autonomy, parent involvement, competence and self-worth were predictors of motivation and achievement. Factors such as age and gender may also be related to attitudes concerning factors of achievement. So concluded Whitelaw, Milosevic and Daniels (2000) while cautioning that the relations are complex and require further study. In Portugal, studies conducted in schools that had confronted and reduced failure rates highlight the importance of variables such as (a) school organization, including a collaborative environment with parental involvement; (b) relevant curriculum and classroom activities; and (c) the quality of science teaching, including teacher support and expectancies (Fonseca, 2003). While many strategies may be put forward to reduce high failure rates, at a primary level it is important for science educators and other educational leaders and policy makers to recognize what the students themselves perceive as the causes and antecedents of school failure in order to better comprehend students’ academic needs. A better understanding of student perceptions of the factors that lead to failure can provide one way of informing the science education community about what should be done if we want to increase academic success and reduce the risk of school abandonment. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to analyze student perceptions of the factors involved in academic failure in science disciplines (including Physics/Chemistry, Biology/Geology and Mathematics). The tenth grade was chosen due to its high incidence of failure.
METHOD Participants The study included 346 tenth-grade, science-tracked students, from eight state sponsored schools in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. In each school, two class groups were selected to participate.
Eurasia J. Math. Sci. & Tech. Ed. / Vol.2 No.2, July 2006
Materials Based on the relevant literature, a data collection instrument was developed that included variables related to achievement, teacher expectancies, support mechanisms and parent involvement. The questionnaire also asked about student views on the importance of school (for instance, if the students felt that secondary school prepared them for life); if they felt it was important to finish grade 12 and why; and if science disciplines are useful for their future. Three summative scales included in the questionnaire (parent involvement--six items; importance of the sciences for the future--seven items; and student aspirations--six items) displayed moderate reliability (a = .734, .775 and .742, respectively). Six variables (school organization, school physical conditions, quality of teaching, previous student preparation, outside interests and the difficulty of the subject matter) were proposed to students as possible failure factors in the 10th grade. Each was presented as a possible cause of (a) failure in general, (b) failure in mathematics and (c) failure in science. These individual items were combined in summative scales measuring the tendency to attribute failure to the six specific causes. Each scale was composed of three items measuring the combined attributional tendency for failure in science, mathematics and academic failure in general. We observed good reliabilities for these scales (school organization, a = .90; previous preparation, a =. 80; physical conditions of the school, a = .83; teaching quality, a = .80; outside interests, a = .91; difficulty of the material, a = .80).
Procedure Student participants completed the responded to the data collection instrument individually,Data were collected in group settings at the end of the school year. Prior to the field phase of the study, the data collection instrument and procedures were piloted in two other secondary schools in the same region.
RESULTS Sample characteristics The study included 214 girls and 132 boys with a median age of 16. Of the students, 13% reported nationalities other than Portuguese (in the Algarve state school system there are students from many different countries, particularly Eastern Europe and Africa). Of all the students, 11.3% had previously failed the tenth grade at least once. Mean tenth-grade science and mathematics classifications for the sample were typical for the Algarve. On a scale that varies from 0 to 20, with 10 representing a passing grade, mean scores were 12.5 in Physics and Chemistry (PC), 11.5 in Mathematics (Math), and 13.4 in Biology and Geology (BG). About
Fonseca and Conboy
25% of students reported failing grades in PC; about 34% in Math and 9% in BG. The great majority of students lived with at least one parent (331, of whom 255 lived with both parents). Almost all of the students (98%) affirmed that it was important to finish secondary school. When asked why it was important to finish high school, 90% of these indicated, “in order to continue studies” and 92% specified, “to get a good job”. Figure 1: Boxplots for six student-rated failure factors
Note: Each Boxplot shows the Median (heavy horizontal line), Interquartile range, Mean (M), theoretical minimum and maximum scores as well as the number of outliers.
Failure factors Students were asked to rate the importance, as causes of academic failure in science, of six factors identified in the literature. Each factor was rated on a five-point scale, anchored at the extremes as Very Important (5) and Not at all Important (1). Figure 1 shows expanded box-plots of the central tendency and dispersion of the responses. The Quality of Science Teaching (M= 4.55; sd = .68) and Previous Student Preparation (M= 4.53; sd = .71) were rated the most important causes of failure followed by Difficulty of Academic Content (M= 3.83; sd = .97),
Eurasia J. Math. Sci. & Tech. Ed. / Vol.2 No.2, July 2006
Physical Conditions of the School (M= 3.62; sd = .97), School Organization (M= 3.56; sd = .95), and conflicting Outside Interests (M= 3.31; sd = 1.07). Table 1: Pearson Correlations among Principal Variables 1 1. Parent Involvement 2. Teacher expectancy 3. Perceived Support 4. Science Achievement 5. Attribution to Difficulty 6. Science Related Vocation * p (2-tailed) < .05. ** p (2-tailed) < .01. r N r N r N r N r N r N -346 .204** 321 .165** 342 .150* 287 -.029 340 .195** 308 -321 .103 319 .239** 267 -.053 315 .114 287 -342 .023 285 -.007 336 .093 306 -287 -.265** 282 .170** 262 -340 -.055 303 -308 2 3 4 5 6
Intercorrelations of the Principal Variables Table 1 presents Pearson correlations among the principal variables in the study. Parent involvement and teacher expectancies. Small but significant correlations support the following conclusions: Students reporting higher parental involvement also may tend to believe (a) that their teachers expect them to work hard and learn a great deal (r= .204; p