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 Thursday morning 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 still well below 170, science proficiency on the test’s 300-point scale.
NAEP tested a nationally representative sample of 122,000 students in 8th grade from 7,290 public and private schools.
“I’m disappointed,” said Gerry Wheeler, the interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va., in an interview. “Two points is certainly nothing to cheer about. If these kids can’t do better in science, our nation is in trouble.”
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 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’ 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,” Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, said in a conference call with reporters.
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 between 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.
“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 board that sets policy for NAEP, said in the briefing on Tuesday. “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.
This 2011 administration was the first time all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the schools administered 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 come on the eve of 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.
A study released in December by Change the Equation, a Washington-based science education coalition, concluded that state science standards were “all over the map,” and that 15 states had set their proficiency standards at a level of rigor found to be below NAEP’s cutoff for basic science knowledge.
The national assessment itself beefed up the rigor of its science content for the 2009 administration of NAEP. It now asks students to identify and use science principles, and to use scientific inquiry and technological design.
An analysis of characteristics of schools participating in the 2011 NAEP shows that students who did hands-on science activities at least once a week in class scored 5 to 14 points higher than those who did fewer hands-on experiments.
“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, Mr. Buckley said.
“We’re very, very interested in tasks that look more like real science,” he said.
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.
“It will be an interesting comparison, and maybe it will be a wake-up call, but we’ve had these wake-up calls before, and nobody’s really doing anything about science education,” Mr. Wheeler of the science teachers’ association said. “If we don’t do anything different, we shouldn’t expect different results.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week