Published Online: February 1, 2011
Published in Print: February 2, 2011, as Mastery of Science Eludes Most Students, NAEP Scores Indicate

Mastery of Science Eludes Most Students, NAEP Scores Indicate

Fewer Than a Third Overall Deemed ‘Proficient’

The timing was surely coincidental, but only hours before President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address emphasized the importance of education—with special attention to math and science—to the nation’s economic well-being and global competitiveness, the United States received what most observers depicted as more bad news about the knowledge and skills of American young people, this time in science.

Most U.S. students at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades are not performing at a level deemed “proficient” in the subject, based on the results issued last week on a revamped national exam. The starkest results came at the 12th grade, where only one in five were at least proficient in science on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.”

Meanwhile, 34 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders were rated proficient or better in science.

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, in 2005.

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 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].”

‘Out-Educate’

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. In his State of the Union speech Jan. 25, President Obama once again raised concerns about the quality of science and math instruction in the United States and pointed out other nations that are stepping up in that regard.

“Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world,” he said. “And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies.”

He added: “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”

The new data also arrive nearly two months 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. ("High Achievers Scarce in Math, Science in U.S.," Jan. 12, 2011.)

Mr. Friedman highlighted his concern about achievement among both high and low performers on the NAEP science exam. Only 1 percent of 4th and 12th graders earned an “advanced” score, and 2 percent did so at the 8th grade. Meanwhile, 40 percent of seniors were below basic, compared with 37 percent of 8th graders and 28 percent of 4th graders.

“The fact that we have so few students at the top end of our ranking and so many below basic is really a problem,” he said. “Basic is pretty simple; it’s sort of the minimum things you would expect students to know at these grade levels.”

In a statement last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also made note of the paucity of high-achievers. “When only 1 or 2 percent of children score at the advanced levels on NAEP, the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, and engineers,” he said.

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 of 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.

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.

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Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va., noted that the state results reveal some sharp contrasts and real trouble spots, such as Mississippi. In that state, 59 percent of 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 scored below basic.

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

Achievement Gaps

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.

“Quite clearly, low-income students and students of color are not given the same opportunities” to learn science, said Daria L. Hall, the director of K-12 policy at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. “What’s important is not to just be alarmed but to take action, and that starts with asking hard questions about why we see these achievement gaps exist.”

Vol. 30, Issue 19, Pages 10-11

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