Science-Achievement Levels On Test ‘Distressingly Low’

By Robert Rothman — September 28, 1989 7 min read

Washington--American students’ “distressingly low” levels of achievement in science may signal the need for fundamental changes in the way the subject is taught, according to a study released last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The study showed that, despite gains over the past four years, particularly among minorities, a majority of high-school students “are poorly equipped for informed citizenship and productive performance in the workplace.”

And, it said, only 7 percent have the knowledge and skills necessary to perform well in college-level science courses.

In addition, the study found that almost half of the 13-year-olds tested lacked a grasp of the basic elements of science, and that nearly 30 percent of the 9-year-olds--representing 1 million students--"have not yet developed some understanding of scientific principles and a rudimentary knowledge of plants and animals.”

“The data in this report present a situation that can only be described as a national disgrace,” said Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, director of the science- and engineering-education directorate of the National Science Foundation, at a press conference here.

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone understands anything at all about science and technology,” added the author and astronomer Carl Sagan, who attended the briefing at the invitation of naep. “This is clear prescription for disaster.”

“Excellent grades on future national report cards in science,” he said, “are more central to our national security than half a dozen strategic weapons systems.”

Others at the press conference noted that while most of the news in the report was bad, there was a “silver lining” in the improved performance of student groups considered “at risk” for potential school problems, including blacks and Hispanics.

But Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, noted that “we should not take this slight increase as something to applaud.”

The achievement of these groups, the report states, remains substantially behind that of their peers around the country. And the historical gender gap in science appears to be increasing in the early grades.

Moreover, it states, “projections for the future do not appear to be bright.”

“Unless conditions in the nation’s schools change radically,” the report concludes, “it is unlikely that today’s 9- and 13-year-olds will perform much better as the 17-year-olds of tomorrow.”

“I think the conclusion to draw from the naep results is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we approach science in our schools,” Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.

To reform science instruction, the report urges that policymakers go beyond traditional remedies, such as added graduation requirements, and restructure classrooms to allow students to “use the tools of science to better understand the world that surrounds them.”

The nation has the “capacity” to implement such reforms, Mr. Shakhashiri said. “The question is whether we have the will to deal with these issues in a meaningful way.”

Gains and Declines

The report, “The Science Report Card: Elements of Risk and Recovery,” was based on a 1986 assessment of 11,046 students in grade 3; 12,142 students in grade 7; and 11,744 students in grade 11.

Naep is a Congressionally mandated assessment that tests students every two years in reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects. It is currently administered by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the Education Department.

The 1986 science assessment--the fifth naep has conducted since its inception in 1969--found that student achievement had improved over the previous four years, after steady declines in the 1970’s, but that the improvements had yet to offset those declines.

Among 17-year-olds, it found, average scores, on a scale of 0-500, rose from 283 in 1982 to 288 to 1985. In 1970, naep estimates, 17-year-olds’ average score was 305.

The 13-year-olds’ average score rose slightly over the past four years, from 250 to 251, but remained below the 1970 estimated average of 255.

Unlike the older students, 9-year-olds matched their 1970 performance. Their average score rose from 221 to 224, equalling their 1970 average.

Within these age groups, black and Hispanic students showed “substantially larger gains,” the report points out. In fact, it notes, black 17-year-olds, unlike their white and Hispanic peers, surpassed their 1977 scores.

But despite these gains, it says, black and Hispanic students at ages 13 and 17 “still appear to perform, on average, four years behind their majority counterparts.”

In addition, it notes, while the science proficiency of females in 1986 remained below that of males, continuing a pattern from earlier assessments, the gender gap appears to be widening at younger ages.

The performance gap between 13-year-old males and females, for example, has doubled since the 1970’s.

Facts, Not Reasoning

The report also notes that the gains over the past four years “were largely the result of students’ increased knowledge about science, rather than increased skills in scientific reasoning.”

Virtually all students demonstrated knowledge of everyday science facts, the study found, and a large proportion of 13- and 17-year-olds understood simple scientific principles.

But only 53.4 percent of the junior-high-school students were able to apply basic scientific information, a finding the report calls “quite disturbing.”

Moreover, it states, “the 19 percent of 17-year-olds that did not reach this level may have great difficulty as they begin their adult lives, since they lack a core understanding of scientific principles.”

The performance levels dropped sharply on more complex tasks, and did not show any improvement over time, the study found.

Some 3.4 percent of 9-year-olds, 9.4 percent of 13-year-olds, and 41.4 percent of 17-year-olds were able to analyze scientific procedures and data, a skill level that the report contends “may be characterized as the sort of scientific literacy one might expect to be universally held by members of society.”

“The fact that a majority of 17-year-olds failed to reach [this level] is quite alarming,” it continues, “and suggests that school science is not helping students learn to use their knowledge of scientific facts and principles in evaluating the appropriateness of procedures or in interpreting results.”

The small percentage of students who could perform at the highest level, which requires the integration of specialized scientific information, is “particularly troublesome,” the report states.

Students performing at that level, it says, “are likely to represent the pool from which future scientists are drawn,” and the 7 percent of high-school students who reached that level “seems to be substantially smaller than that needed for the future workplace.”

Quantity and Quality

In addition to testing students’ knowledge and skills, the assessment also surveyed teachers and students to determine possible explanations for their performance.

As expected, the study found that students who had taken more science courses performed better than those who had less exposure to the subject.

But it also found that 11 percent of the 3rd graders, 6 percent of the 7th graders, and 41 percent of the 11th graders reported taking no science in 1986, and that, among those taking science classes, the amount of instructional time appeared to be limited.

Moreover, it found, the quality of such instruction was generally ineffective in developing students’ proficiency.

“While innovative instructional approaches appear to be related to science proficiency, and many science educators encourage the use of hands-on activities,” the report states, “responses from students in all three grades indicate that science instruction continues to be dominated by teacher lectures and textbooks.”

This finding is “not surprising,” it adds, since less than half of the 7th- and 11th-grade teachers surveyed reported having access to general-purpose science laboratories.

But in what the report calls a “positive sign,” the survey also found that most junior-high-school and high-school science teachers hold the highest certification available for their grade level, and that the overwhelming majority of all science teachers consider themselves “adequately prepared” to teach science.

Poor Attitudes

The report also found that the extent of out-of-school science activity and home support for science instruction, as well as positive atti4tudes toward the subject, are related to performance on the assessment.

But only about a third of all students said they had gone to a science museum with someone at home, and fewer than a fourth of the 17-year-olds reported that someone at home helped them with their science homework.

In addition, relatively few students at any age said they considered science useful or relevant to their lives. And these positive attitudes appear to decline as students progress through school.

“Less than half the 7th graders, and even fewer 11th graders, perceived that science would help them earn a living, be important to them in life, or be used in many ways during adulthood,” the report states.

Copies of the report are available for $14, including shipping and handling, from the Nation’s Report Card, P.O. Box 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08451-6710. A 50 percent discount will be applied to orders of three or more copies.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as Science-Achievement Levels On Test ‘Distressingly Low’