Assessment

8th Grade Scores Inch Upward on National Science Assessment

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 15, 2012 6 min read

Fewer than one-third of American 8th graders are proficient in science, but most students are improving, and achievement gaps are closing between students who are black or Hispanic and their white peers, a special administration of the test known as “the nation’s report card” shows.

The National Assessment Governing Board released findings last week on earth, life, and physical sciences mastery on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. The average 8th grade score rose from 150 in 2009 to 152 last year; that’s a statistically significant increase, but well below 170, proficiency on the test’s 300-point scale.

“We would like to see more students in the proficient and advanced levels,” Cornelia Orr, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent Washington-based board that sets policy for the NAEP, said in a briefing with reporters last week. “I think there is still a lot of work to be done, but it’s good to see the needle moving in the right direction.”

She noted that Hispanic students, for example, have shown improvement in other NAEP tests, such as mathematics and reading, which could suggest achievement gaps are narrowing all around for that population group.

Stopping STEM ‘Leakage’

Middle school is typically considered the start of “leakage” in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career pipeline, and the glacial improvement pace is one of the biggest challenges to the science field, according to Jim Gentile, the president and chief executive

officer of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Research Corporation of Science Advancement.

“In that middle school area, that’s where science starts to become a little more complicated and it’s a little more important for kids to have highly qualified teachers to work with them,” Mr. Gentile said. “If you don’t get enthused about science, it’s going to be pretty boring and difficult stuff. It’s the wonderment of science, not the details of science, that gets students to do it.”

An analysis that accompanied the NAEP’s release seemed to back up that perspective. Students who reported doing science-related activities on their own time, not just for schoolwork, performed on average more than 10 points higher on the science test than those who disliked doing any science they weren’t required to do. Students who attended more-interactive science classes performed better, too: 8th graders who did hands-on science activities at least once a week in class scored 5 to 14 points higher than those who did fewer.

“For me, a teacher, the more important aspect of these data is how students are engaged in doing hands-on activities in class,” said Hector Ibarra, a member of the NAEP governing board and a middle school science teacher at the Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, located at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

“There are many ways students can be exposed to science; some are more effective than others,” he said. “The question we need to ask is, ‘Are we creating a learning environment that truly challenges students’ skills and boosts achievement?’ ”

Results of a separate NAEP science test of students’ skills in hands-on experiments and computer-based simulations will be released next month, according to Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP.

“We’re very, very interested in tasks that look more like real science,” he said.

In Perspective

NAEP tested a nationally representative sample of 122,000 students in 8th grade from 7,290 public and private schools.

If students’ overall science expertise remains lackluster, there was at least minimal improvement across most student groups. The scores of students in the bottom quarter rose faster than those of other groups, though students at all ability levels except for the most advanced improved. Likewise, students living in poverty improved faster than their wealthier peers, with average scores rising from 133 to 137 from 2009 to 2011. That gain still leaves a gap of 27 points between poor and wealthier students.

White students’ average score rose by a point, to 163, while black students’ performance increased by 3 points, to 129, and Hispanic students’ average score grew by 5 points, to 137.

“Five points in general on NAEP is meaningful, but when you are talking about getting that much closer to the governing board’s ‘basic’ level, that’s particularly relevant,” Mr. Buckley said in the briefing.

However, Gerry Wheeler, the interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va., countered in an interview: “That’s not earthshaking. The fact is, the changes are so miniscule that we really shouldn’t be celebrating.” To put the scores into perspective, the average white 8th grader performs at the high end of basic knowledge on the assessment, which categorizes student performance as “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” based on the numerical score. He or she can probably draw a conclusion from fossil evidence and recognize factors that contribute to the success of one species over another, but that student likely can’t understand the magnetic properties of common objects or analyze data to describe the behavior of an animal.

The average black or Hispanic 8th grader performs below basic achievement. Students below basic would not be likely to correctly answer questions about the concepts just cited for white students, but they would be able to recognize, for example, how plants use sunlight.

For 8th graders with disabilities and English-language learners, the picture was gloomier: Neither group saw any growth from 2009 and 2011. Last year, the average score for 8th graders with disabilities was 124, and for ells, it was 106—that is farther below basic science competency than “basic” is below the NAEP cutoff for proficiency.

State Improvements

This 2011 administration was the first time all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the schools run by the Department of Defense Education Activity took part in the science NAEP.

In the states “where there has been change, it has been uniformly good news,” said Mr. Buckley, the NCES commissioner. Average scores increased from 2009 to last year for 16 states—Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming—and no state saw its average score decrease.

The NAEP results came in the same week as the release of a draft set of voluntary state science standards, developed by 26 states based on a framework set out by the National Research Council last summer. (“Public Gets Glimpse of Science Standards,” May 16, 2012.)

Several states, including Massachusetts and Texas, have added stand-alone STEM academies and additional science enrichment activities in recent years, but these have leveled off as state budgets shrunk, Mr. Wheeler said.

“The economic times being what they are, science has gone into the background,” Mr. Wheeler said. “The challenge has been getting the resources to teachers.”

The national assessment typically tests science in grades 4, 8, and 12 every four years, but the off-year testing is part of a study linking NAEP to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which tested 8th grade students in 48 countries. The National Center for Education Statistics plans to use the linkage study to give individual states international comparisons to accompany future NAEP scores.

The TIMSS results and the findings from the alignment project will be released in December, and NAEP and TIMSS for science will be administered on the same cycle from now on.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as 8th Grade Scores Inch Upward on National Science Assessment

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