Science-Reform Goals Elusive, NAEP Data Find

By Robert Rothman — April 01, 1992 7 min read

In addition, it found no relationship between the amount of teachers’ science education and student performance in the subject.

Nearly a decade after national reports sounded the alarm about the state of science education in the United States, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that those reports’ calls for equal opportunities and excellence in the subject are “just as pertinent’’ as in 1983.

In a report issued here last week, based on a 1990 assessment of 19,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12, NAEP found that few students were able to perform at high levels of proficiency in science.

Even among high-school seniors, who are about to enter postsecondary education or the workforce, the report found, fewer than half demonstrated the ability to apply knowledge to interpret graphs and tables, evaluate and design experiments, and show detailed knowledge of scientific information.

In addition, the study found that there were substantial gaps in performance between white and Hispanic and black students, and that males outperformed females in 8th and 12th grade.

And, in what observers called a disturbing finding, the report also pointed out that the racial and gender gaps widened the more science coursework the students took, a fact that suggests that minorities and women may be receiving watered-down curricula at higher levels.

The study also found that, despite calls for curricular reforms that emphasize “doing’’ science, lectures and textbook use continue to dominate science instruction, and many students lack exposure to experimentation. Fully one-fourth of the 12th graders, it found, reported that they never conducted science experiments.

“This report card paints a sad picture of what happens in science classrooms,’' Eve M. Bither, the commissioner of education in Maine, said at a press conference here.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander suggested that the relatively low levels of performance reflect the low priority the United States places on science.

Fewer than half of the 4th graders, and fewer than one-third of the 12th graders, attended schools that placed a special priority on the subject, the NAEP report found.

“When we put a priority on it, and make a commitment to it, and make it interesting,’' Mr. Alexander said, “they will learn it.’'

New Test Framework

The report issued last week, “The 1990 Science Report Card,’' is the second by the Congressionally mandated project that was based on the 1990 assessment. Last June, NAEP issued a report on the math assessment, which included the first-ever state-by-state results; in May, it is expected to release the results of the reading assessment.

The data on which the new report is based differ from those in a separate study, released last fall, that showed the trends in science achievement from 1969 to 1990.

The 1990 assessment used a substantially different framework than the earlier tests, including a reduced reliance on multiple-choice questions. About one-sixth of the test items in 1990 required students to write responses or draw figures, NAEP officials said.

The report found that, over all, most students showed basic knowledge and understanding of science. But smaller proportions of students could apply their knowledge, analyze data, or integrate information.

Some 85 percent of the 4th graders, 94 percent of the 8th graders, and 99 percent of the 12th graders, it found, demonstrated an understanding of science principles, such as rudimentary knowledge of the structure and functions of plants and animals.

But fewer than two-thirds of the 8th graders could consistently apply simple scientific information, the report states, and only small percentages could perform at higher levels, despite curriculum reforms calling for the development of reasoning skills typified by performance at those levels.

Moreover, it states, “considering the technological needs of today’s society, a disproportionately low percentage of [12th graders] possess in-depth scientific knowledge or the ability to accomplish even relatively straightforward tasks requiring application or thinking skills.’'

The report also found large gaps in performance between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students. White 8th graders, it found, outperformed black 12th graders and performed at the same level as Hispanic high-school seniors.

And, although there was no gender gap at grade 4, the gap grew as children moved through school.

“These results suggest,’' the report states, “that black and Hispanic females may be at a particular disadvantage as they leave high school to attend college, enter the workforce, or join in other daily pursuits typical of our technological society.’'

‘That Must Not Continue’

The report also found that the gaps between high- and low-performing groups were larger for students who had taken science coursework in high school than for those who had not. And, although the data are not included in the report, the study found that the gaps were wider on the performance-based items than they were on multiple-choice questions, according to Lee R. Jones, an author of the report.

These findings, the report notes, support research showing that minority and female students have fewer experiences with science equipment, are called upon less often in class, and are expected by society to have lower science achievement.

Parris C. Battle, a computer-education specialist for the Dade County, Fla., public schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, called these findings “disturbing.’'

“What this may mean,’' he said at the press conference here, “is that even though students take the same courses that have the same name, the content of the courses and the standards and expectations that they face are not equivalent.

“That must not continue,’' Mr. Battle said.

Low Priority

The study also found substantial evidence that schools and students place a low priority on science.

Some 28 percent of the 4th graders, it found, reported having science instruction once a week or less, and only half said they had it every day. Yet, the study found, those who received science instruction more frequently consistently outperformed those who received it less often.

In addition, the study found that students’ affinity for the subject decreased as they got older. At grade 12, it found, fewer than two-thirds of the students reported liking science.

These attitudes may reflect the way the subject is taught, according to Ms. Bither.

“This is an odd case of, the more you know, the less you like it,’' she said. “That should give all of us pause.’'

In an attempt to find out about students’ experiences in the subject, NAEP asked students if they had participated in experiments or projects involving plants or animals, electricity, chemicals, rocks or minerals, a telescope, and a thermometer or barometer.

Only 15 percent of the 4th graders, 35 percent of the 8th graders, and 55 percent of the 12th graders said they had used at least five of the materials, and there were significant disparities--particularly among 8th graders--between whites’ and blacks’ experiences with such materials.

In addition, the study found that 60 percent of the 8th graders and 46 percent of the 12th graders said they read a textbook in class “several times a week or more,’' and nearly all 8th graders attend classes where teachers place heavy emphasis on knowing science facts, rather than understanding concepts.

Mr. Alexander said that it need not be costly to provide materials for interesting science experimentation. He noted that he had recently visited an elementary school in a low-income area in Fresno, Calif., where students enthusiastically dissected cow eyeballs.

“I don’t imagine cow eyeballs cost a lot,’' he said.

Teacher Backgrounds

But Secretary Alexander also noted that the report suggests that a substantial investment in training for science teachers may be needed. He noted that the Education Department and the National Science Foundation have recently launched an effort to boost federal teacher-training programs.

A survey of 8th-grade teachers, conducted as part of the assessment, found that 88 percent of students are taught by teachers who were certified in science, and that most were taught by those who had been teaching the subject for 12 years.

But, it found, only 13 percent of the 8th graders’ teachers had spent 35 hours or more in inservice training during the previous year, and one-third had not participated at all in such training.

In addition, it found no relationship between the amount of teachers’ science education and student performance in the subject.

“It seems pretty clear that simply having teachers take more courses is not enough to do the job,’' Boyd W. Boehlje, the president of the Pella, Iowa, school board and a member of NAEP’s governing board, said at the press conference.

“But having teachers who know more--and, yes, can show it on a test--may be well connected,’' he said.

For information on ordering the report, write: Education Information Branch, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20208-5641; or call (800) 424-1616.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Education Week as Science-Reform Goals Elusive, NAEP Data Find