Progress Lacking on U.S. Students’ Grasp of Science

By David J. Hoff — November 28, 2001 6 min read
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At the end of a decade of an extended drive to improve science learning, the scores of the nation’s public school students remain essentially flat.

On the federal science exam given last year, high school seniors’ scores fell from four years earlier, while those of 4th and 8th graders remained the same compared with 1996, according to results unveiled last week.

“Despite the urgent need for science literacy, the ... results provide alarming evidence that most of our students are not being prepared for the challenges ahead,” George D. Nelson, the director of science education for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said at a press conference held here to release the scores.

“The Nation’s Report Card: Science Highlights 2000,” is available from the National Center for Educational Statistics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) NCES also provides additional data and information based on the 2000 science results.

“The vast majority of our students today are learning very little science,” he asserted. “They are taught to memorize some facts and vocabulary, but almost never to connect the knowledge into a coherent picture of how the world works and how we have come to know it.”

While the news that elementary and middle school science achievement remains steady is disappointing, seniors’ slipping scores are disheartening, Secretary of Education Rod Paige said at the press conference.

“After all, the 12th grade scores are the scores that really matter,” he said. “They’re the final product at the end of the line.”

For the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science, 240,000 students took portions of the tests to arrive at a national score and scores for the 40 participating states. About half the questions were multiple-choice; the others include short answers, essays, and lab work.

In the national sample, 29 percent of 4th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level—unchanged from 1996, the only other time NAEP has conducted the science assessment. Sixty-six percent of 4th graders ranked above the “basic” level, 1 percentage point lower than four years ago—a change that is not statistically significant. The 4th graders scored 150 on NAEP’s 300-point scale, as they did in 1996.

In 8th grade, 61 percent scored above basic both in 2000 and in 1996. The number of those at or above proficient rose slightly, from 29 percent to 32 percent. The 8th graders scored 151 points, only 1 point more than in 1996.

But just 53 percent of high school seniors were above basic, a statistically significant decline from 1996 of 4 percentage points. Only 18 percent were at or above proficient, compared with 21 percent four years earlier. The overall score fell 3 points, from 150 to 147, a statistically significant drop.

The science scores are sobering compared with the results of the 2000 NAEP mathematics test. In math, 4th and 8th graders gained between 1996 and 2000, continuing progress since the math exam was first given in 1990. Seniors lost some ground between 1996 and 2000, but still scored higher than in 1990. (“Math NAEP Delivers Some Good News,” Aug. 8, 2001.)

Like the national results, most states’ 8th grade science scores stayed about even. Kentucky, Missouri, and Vermont had statistically significant increases, as did the Department of Defense schools. Scores for California and Maine dropped slightly. The remaining 34 states that participated in the 8th grade test scored at about the same level as in 1996. Wisconsin also participated, but didn’t give the exam to enough students for its score to be reliable.

The 2000 exam collected statewide scores for 4th graders for the first time. Of the 40 states that had valid samples of 4th graders, Massachusetts, Maine, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, and Vermont recorded the highest scores. Mississippi, California, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa ranked the lowest.

Behind the Numbers

While the news was disappointing for science education advocates, they say the results hint at how to improve NAEP scores.

“To improve science education, our schools must teach more science and have more science teachers who know their subject well,” said Edward Donley, a former chairman of Air Products and Chemicals Inc. and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets NAEP policy.

Accompanying surveys provide just such information. The more science courses that students take, for instance, the better they perform on the NAEP test, according to a comparison of student scores and questionnaires the test-takers filled out.

Eighth graders who had not enrolled in a science course scored at 117 on NAEP’s 300-point scale. Students in life-science courses scored at 142, and those in earth science, integrated science, physical science, or general science scored between 152 points and 156 points.

Seniors who had taken a physics class in high school scored 26 points higher than those who had not. Those who had completed biology scored 24 points higher than those who hadn’t. The difference between those who had taken chemistry and those who hadn’t was 29 points.

By comparing results from teacher surveys with student test scores, NAEP found that 8th graders whose teachers had an undergraduate major in science education scored higher than those whose teachers had majored in education—whether it was general, or focused on either elementary or secondary education.

An analysis of data not published in the report did not show a significant difference in achievement by students of science majors compared to those of education majors, according to Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of assessment for NCES.

Another section of the surveys found that seniors who used computers to help engage in critical thinking performed better on NAEP than those who didn’t.

Students who analyzed data with computers at least monthly scored 16 points higher than those who never did, and 6 points higher than those who did so less than once a month. Both differences are statistically significant.

Likewise, the more often students measured speeds, time, and weights with electronic devices, the better they performed on the test.

Scores were higher for 4th graders who played scientific-learning games on computers, but not for those who used the machines for drill and practice, scientific simulations, or data analysis. For 8th graders, however, the use of computers for data analysis and simulations was associated with higher NAEP scores.

Students’ scores rose with increased computer use regardless of the economic makeup of the school, according to an analysis of the data conducted by using the National Center for Education Statistics Web site, Plan of Action.

Mr. Nelson and others cited the survey findings as pointing the way to needed changes.

“Those teachers who are in classrooms have a poor science background because they’ve had a poor science education,” said Mr. Nelson, who heads the AAAS’ Project 2061—one of the contributors to science education standards for students published in 1995.

The place to address that problem, he said, is in universities that prepare prospective teachers by offering them programs that are filled with science courses.

School districts also must set “coherent learning goals,” Mr. Nelson said, that ensure students learn science beyond random facts.

Others said that schools also can help improve the quality of teachers by offering professional development to help them aid students with “inquiry-based teaching.” Teachers also need planning time to work on projects with colleagues, they said.

“These are luxuries for most science teachers,” Harold A. Pratt, the president of the National Science Teachers Association, a
53,000-member group based in Arlington, Va., said. “But they must become the norm.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Progress Lacking on U.S. Students’ Grasp of Science


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