Science Scores Rise for 4th and 8th Grades

But 12th graders showed no progress on latest NAEP

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Students in the 4th and 8th grades are showing more mastery of science, but high school seniors’ scores on the assessment known as “the nation’s report card” stayed flat from 2009.

The results released this morning from the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress also found that while large gaps remain between black and Hispanic students and their white peers in science, those gaps are narrowing, as is the gender gap in 8th grade.

The tests measure students’ knowledge in the areas of physical science, life science, and Earth and space science in grades 4, 8, and 12. States’ participation in the assessment is voluntary. It’s offered to public and private school students as well as U.S. Department of Defense school system students. In 2015, more than 237,000 students from 46 states and Defense Department schools took the exam.

The average scores for students in both the 4th and 8th grades went up 4 points, to 154, compared with 2009. That’s on a scale of 1 to 300.

During a conference call with reporters, U.S. Secretary of Education, John B. King Jr., called the results encouraging.

“All of this means that more students are developing skills like thinking critically, making sense of information, and evaluating evidence,” said King. “More students are prepared to become innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers and inventors. And more students are learning how to become the problem solvers who can tackle our most pressing challenges.”

Average Science Scores for 8th Grade Students, by Race/Ethnicity

Improving test scores for black and Hispanic students are helping to close racial/ethnic achievement gaps in 8th grade science.

“Our nation’s future is inextricably linked to how well we educate our students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” he added.

The executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, David Evans, also called the higher scores a sign of progress.

“For the younger students, I think we’re just beginning to come out of a time when there has not been a lot of emphasis on teaching science at the younger grades,” said Evans. “By and large, only English/language arts and mathematics have been tested in the younger grades for quite a few years now. That has really led to a loss in the amount of time and effort that’s gone into teaching science for those younger students. The fact that there’s a gain at all is something that I think we should be encouraged by.”

Score Differences for Boys and Girls

Gender gaps in science remain steep at 12th grade.

In contrast to the 4th and 8th graders’ scores, the average scores for high school seniors have remained flat since 2009, at 150.

The 2015 NAEP findings come as more states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, which de-emphasize rote memorization of facts and terminology in favor of scientific inquiry and hands-on learning. The NSTA helped write the standards, which have now been adopted by more than one-third of states.

In light of the fact that the science standards have only been out for 3½ years, Evans said he’s not surprised to see that scores for 12th graders were stagnant from 2009 to 2015.

“At the high school level, we have a long way to go even in those states where new standards have been adopted,” said Evans.

Despite the progress made among the 4th and 8th graders, all three groups remain well below the “proficient” level. Only 38 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders were proficient in science. The numbers were even worse for 12th graders, with only 22 percent of them scoring at or above that level.

But during a conference call with reporters, Bill Bushaw, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the achievement levels, said it was important to keep the cutoff levels for determining proficiency in context.

“They are set at high levels, demanding levels even by the definition of ‘proficient,’ ” said Bushaw. “We don’t interpret this as being grade level. We don’t interpret this as being a pass rate. It’s interpreted as what students know and can do and what our experts have shared with us should be considered proficient.”

Shrinking Racial, Ethnic Gaps

Gaps between African-American students and their white peers have been narrowing among students in the 4th and 8th grades, according to the latest NAEP results. In 2009, white 4th graders scored 36 points higher than black students on average. In 2015, that span narrowed to 33 points. Among 8th graders, the divide between black and white students has narrowed from 36 points in 2009 to 34 points in 2015. There was not a significant reduction in the gap at the 12th grade level.

The gap between Hispanic students and white students is also decreasing. White 4th graders scored 32 points higher than Hispanic students on average in 2009. By 2015, that had narrowed to 27 points. For 8th graders, the gap between white and Hispanic student scores went from 30 points in 2009 to 26 points in 2015. The gap remained virtually unchanged at the 12th grade level.

“The fact that it’s narrowing because minority students are gaining is notable,” said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. “Nobody should be happy about where we are, but people should be pleased that we’re making progress.”

At the 4th grade level, there was no significant difference between the average scores of girls and boys. For students in the 8th grade, boys scored on average 3 points higher than girls. That’s down from a 5-point gap in 2011. There was not a significant difference between 2009 and 2015, where the gender gap is concerned, among 12th graders.

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Students in a handful of states made gains that are higher than the national average of 4 points, but none was higher than Tennessee’s whose students in the 4th grade raised their scores by 8 points and those in the 8th grade increased their scores by 9 points.

Other states surpassing the national scores in the 4th grade were: Arizona, where students upped their scores by 11 points; Georgia, up 8 points; and Department of Defense schools, up 7 points.

In the 8th grade, students in Utah also had greater gains than the national average at 9 points, and Nevada students saw a 7-point gain.

Vol. 36, Issue 11, Page 6

Published in Print: November 2, 2016, as Science Gains Seen at 4th, 8th Grades
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