Science Proves a Big Mystery To U.S. Pupils

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After a five-month delay, the nation finally got its report card grades in science last week. And the marks were none too stellar.

Among 4th and 8th graders who took the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress test in science, not quite three in 10 students, or 29 percent, were deemed to be at or above "proficient," meaning they had "competency over challenging subject matter."

Known as the nation's report card, the federally run NAEP produced even worse news for 12th graders about to leave high school for work or college. Just 21 percent, or about one in five, reached the proficient or "advanced" level on the national assessment in science, which tested knowledge in earth, physical, and life sciences.

Forty-three percent of 12th graders could not reach even the "basic" level of achievement, which indicates partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills. Fully one in three 4th graders performed below basic, and 39 percent of 8th graders did so.

Overall, students performed roughly the same as they did on recent NAEP subject tests in reading, mathematics, and geography, and better than they had on a 1994 test of history knowledge.

Because the science assessment is a new one, there is no way to draw conclusions about trends in student achievement based on past performance. The results from these first tests will serve as a baseline from which to judge future progress.

At the report's release here, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley stopped short of declaring the results bad or good. But he did say the new and demanding benchmarks for science are important because, together with the voluntary national science standards released two years ago, "we have a ... road map for how to move science education forward."

"The real key is to move as many students as we can into the proficient level," Mr. Riley said.

Benchmarks 'About Right'

Because the science standards came out so recently, "it's too early to use [the NAEP results] as an evaluation of the degree to which the standards are influencing the K-12 system," said Rodger W. Bybee, the executive director of the center for science, mathematics, and engineering education at the National Research Council in Washington, which oversaw the creation of the science standards.

Mr. Bybee said the national assessment's benchmarks for science achievement were set "about right." But, he said, the test asked students to perform hands-on experiments, even though "many students probably haven't had experiences with hands-on experiments and how to think and reason based on evidence they might gain from an experiment." The national science standards call for such instruction instead of relying solely on rote learning.

AEP is the only ongoing, nationally representative survey of student achievement in core academic subjects. It is mandated by Congress and has been given since 1969. A total of 22,616 public and private school students took the science exam last year. In addition to national data, last week's report presents state-level results for 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Maine, Montana, and North Dakota had the highest percentage of students reaching the proficient level--41 percent--and the District of Columbia had the lowest--5 percent. In the national public school sample, 27 percent of students performed at or above proficient. The state figures include only students in public schools.

The report follows one released last May by the Department of Education that detailed the average student scores on the NAEP science test, but lacked the now-customary achievement levels or performance benchmarks that explain how good the scores were. NAEP is a project of the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

Race, Gender Gaps

The delay in the descriptions of how students performed was a decision of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, a citizens' panel that sets policy, as well as the performance levels, for NAEP.

Governing-board members had decided to wait before making judgments about how well students did because, with a new test, they said they wanted to be careful especially in deciding how good was good enough. ("NAEP Assigns No Grades on Science Exam," May 7, 1997.)

Under the performance benchmarks set for 4th graders, 76 percent of the pupils deemed proficient could correctly identify the shapes of ripples created by a stone tossed into a pond as being concentric circles. For 8th graders, proficient achievement meant being able to look at a chart of data and draw conclusions from it.

Given circumstances such as determining whether two jars held saltwater or freshwater, seniors were expected to be able to plan a scientific test and explain how the test would work. Students at the basic level were likely to provide a method for the experiment, while students at the proficient level could also provide its results.

The NAEP report found that significantly more 4th grade boys than girls reached or exceeded the proficient level; for seniors, the gender gap showed across achievement levels. But the difference disappeared among 8th graders. The well-established 12th grade gap has been attributed to boys' being more likely to take science courses in high school.

As with previous NAEP results, black and Hispanic students lagged far behind white students in all grades.

Last week, experts speculated that the gender gap in the 4th grade may stem from elementary teachers' maintaining order with a large class by allowing above-average students--those likely to score proficient or above--to pursue individual interests, freeing boys to busy themselves with something scientific. In the 8th grade, Mr. Bybee suggested, the middle school emphasis on cooperative and group learning may help erase gender differences.

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