Published Online: January 25, 2011

Proficiency Eludes U.S. Students on Science NAEP

Most American students are not performing at a level deemed “proficient” in science, results issued today for a revamped national assessment show, with 12th graders posting the weakest scores compared with their elementary and middle-level peers. Only one in five high school seniors scored at least proficient on the exam.

Meanwhile, 34 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders were deemed proficient or better in science on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.”

Because of recent changes to update the framework guiding the NAEP in science, the new findings are not considered comparable to the results last reported from 2005.

“The 30,000-foot result is that we’re not doing all that well in science,” said Alan Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, and a former director and chief executive officer of the New York Hall of Science. “We’re shortchanging [our children].”

The results come at a time of strong and growing concerns about the lackluster academic performance overall of U.S. students in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Many experts, as well as political leaders, including President Barack Obama, argue that strengthening education in the STEM fields is critical to ensuring continued economic leadership by the United States in the world.

Stuck in the Basics

Large percentages of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders fell below basic on the latest administration of the national assessment in science

The new data also arrive about a month after the United States got its latest results from a prominent international assessment, which show American 15-year-olds performing about average among leading nations in science, and below average in math. In science, the U.S. score on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, fell short of the averages posted by more than a dozen participating nations, including South Korea, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. (“U.S. Rises to International Average in Science,” Dec. 7, 2010.)

Mr. Friedman said he was especially alarmed to see so many children performing below the “basic” level, which represents partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for proficient academic work in science. The figure was highest at the 12th grade, where 40 percent were below basic, compared with 37 percent of 8th graders and 28 percent of 4th graders.

“That’s also distressing,” he said. “That means that a double-digit percentage of our students are just nowhere: They’re uncomfortable with science, they don’t understand it, they can’t do it, and they probably don’t like it.”

Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va., also highlighted the high rates of students who did not reach even basic.

“When you look at those numbers, I don’t know anybody who would say that that’s what they would want to be striving for,” he said.

Stepping back, Mr. Eberle said of the overall NAEP results: “There’s not much here to celebrate.”

‘Applied Science’ Priority

The science framework, which describes the knowledge and skills to be measured on NAEP, was recently updated to reflect new advances in science and research on science learning, as well as components drawn from prominent international assessments, according to materials released with the report. The assessment seeks to measure students’ knowledge and abilities in physical science, life science, and earth and space sciences.

Mr. Friedman from the National Assessment Governing Board said one critical element of the new framework is “a big shift toward problem-solving and inquiry and applied science.”

The changes mean a greater emphasis on “what can you actually do with your knowledge, and not just how many words and equations have you stored in your brain,” he said.

Because of the significance of the changes, the trend line for the science exam has been broken, so the results are not comparable to recent years.

“We try to maintain the trend, but every once in a while, the changes really require [it to be broken],” said Mr. Friedman.

The 2009 assessment was given to 156,000 4th graders, 151,000 8th graders, and 11,100 seniors. Results are also available for nearly all states at the 4th and 8th grade level. No state-level scores are available for the 12th grade because the sample was too small.

The top performers at the 4th grade level were New Hampshire, North Dakota, Virginia, and Kentucky.

At the 8th grade, the leaders were Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Mr. Eberle noted that the state results also reveal some trouble spots, such as Mississippi. Fifty-nine percent of its 8th graders scored below basic. And in California, 52 percent were below that level. By contrast, in Massachusetts and Minnesota, two strong performers, about one-quarter of students fell below basic.

Achievement Gap

Also, the new NAEP data once again reinforce findings about the persistent achievement gaps among U.S. students based on race, ethnicity, and income level. These were evident at all three grade levels tested.

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At the 4th grade, for example, 47 percent of white students scored proficient or above, compared with 11 percent of African-American and 14 percent of Hispanic students. Meanwhile, only 15 percent of 4th graders eligible for a free lunch and 25 percent for a reduced-price lunch scored proficient or higher on the exam, compared with 48 percent of 8th graders ineligible for either.

Another issue Mr. Friedman highlighted in an interview was that hardly any American students reached the “advanced” level on NAEP, which represents what the report calls “superior performance.”

Only 1 percent of 4th and 12th graders earned an advanced score, and 2 percent at the 8th grade.

“I find that really a matter of great concern,” he said. “Now it’s true that advanced indicates a high level of mastery and is difficult to attain,” he added. “But the fact that only one or two students out of 100 reach this level is disappointing and dangerous for our future.”

Results from the recent PISA assessment also sparked concern about whether the United States is producing enough top-performers. (“High Achievers Scarce in Math, Science in U.S.,” Jan. 12, 2011.)

With 9.2 percent of American students meeting the two highest levels on PISA, the United States was about average among the 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, trailing more than one-third of those countries, including Finland, Germany, Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

Vol. 30, Issue 19

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