NAEP Reveals Shallow Grasp of Science

By Nora Fleming — June 19, 2012 5 min read
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Elementary, middle, and high school students failed to demonstrate a deep understanding of science concepts when they performed activity-based science tasks and investigations, concludes a study released today from the first national assessment of both hands-on and interactive computer-based science activities.

The hands-on tasks, which required students to use materials and laboratory equipment to perform science experiments, and the new, interactive computer tasks, which simulated an environmental or laboratory setting and asked students to solve scientific problems, were administered as part of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. The report follows on the heels of the 2011 traditional pencil-and-paper science NAEP results released last month.

Both the hands-on and computer tests asked students to predict what might happen in a particular scientific scenario, make observations about what occurred in the scenarios, and explain the findings of the experiments or investigations they launched. These questions examined how well students could conduct and reason through “real life” science situations and grasp the scientific concepts of what occurred in their investigations, according to the report from the National Center on Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education division that administers NAEP.

About 2,000 students at each grade level were given each test and asked to complete two, 40-minute hands-on tasks or three interactive computer tasks, 20 to 40 minutes in length. In an 8th grade interactive computer task, for example, students could have been asked to plan a new, simulated recreation area for a town using part of an existing wildlife area, evaluate the impact different locations for the recreation space could have on local wildlife, and determine which space would be best to build on.

“Increasingly, graduates are called on to do things in today’s world that require more than rote memory and how to follow instructions,” Alan J. Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, said during a conference call yesterday about the tests. “There was no way to memorize for this test and no amount of rote drill and practice that could prepare students for it; these tests test what students can do in more complex environments and the richness of what students can do with real stuff.”

On average, the students were able to accurately report what was happening in scenarios with limited data, but were challenged by manipulating multiple variables and making decisions as part of running an experiment, according to the findings. Additionally, the numbers of students able to draw the right conclusions in experiments was much higher than the the numbers of students who were able to provide an explanation or justification for their answer based on the findings.

Seventy-one percent of 4th graders could accurately select how volume changes when ice melts, for example, but only 15 percent could explain why that happened using evidence from the experiment.

The findings were fairly consistent across grade levels, other than 12th grade students’ scoring some 15 percent lower than the younger students on the interactive computer tasks. Differences in test results were more pronounced instead between race, class, and gender groups. Disadvantaged and minority students performed lower than white and Asian students on both tests, and females performed better than males on hands-on tasks, but lower on the pencil-and-paper 2009 tests.

“While I’m happy to see the vast majority of students [tested] were able to make straightforward observations, I’m not particularly happy to see a smaller number know what data to collect in an experiment,” Jack Buckley, the NCES commissioner, said during the briefing. “This points to something we need to work on in the future.”

In 2014, a technology and engineering-literacy NAEP is also expected to be administered.

New Standards

Last month, NAEP also released the results of its 2011 science tests, which found fewer than a third of 8th graders performing at “proficient” levels in science. Though there were small improvements in performance for all groups from the previous administration in 2009, on average, disadvantaged, black, and Latino students performed below basic level.

The new results from the interactive science tests and 2011 results arrive as state and other education leaders work on finalizing a set of voluntary, national science standards aimed at improving the quality of science education in the United States, with the goal of shifting from rote memorization of subject matter to building students’ deeper understanding of core science concepts, how they connect, and how they can be applied to the real world.


Just last month, a draft of the new standards, which are being developed by a cadre of 26 states and a team of writers led by Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit, were released to the public for comment. Focused around scientific and engineering practices, cross-cutting concepts across science disciplines, and core subject matter in physical, life, earth, and space sciences, and engineering and technology, the standards are expected to be finalized by early next year.

According to Mr. Friedman, the findings of the science-activity NAEP are right in line with what the new standards aim to improve: depth versus breadth in the understanding and practical application of science.

“The new tests are tailor-made to the types of skills listed in the new [draft] science standards,” he said. “We’re in a really good position to be models for assessments and provide the kind of information called for by the new standards.”

Nancy Butler Songer, a professor of science education and learning technologies at the University of Michigan and a longtime researcher on improving science education, said that while the NAEP results were disappointing, the future is not completely dismal.

Ms. Butler Songer, who is also one of many advisers providing feedback on the development of the new national science standards, said she finds it promising that NAEP and national organizations like Achieve are continuing to recognize the need to change science education and build “fused knowledge,” or content knowledge plus science practices. These current efforts are part of the necessary “pieces coming together” to improve science education, she said, which include professional development to help teachers teach science better, curriculum and standards to guide teaching, and tests to measure how well students are understanding these concepts.

“We’ve maintained a misconception in what it meant to know science,” she said. “While it’s taken awhile to uproot this idea, what we know now is that you can’t get to a deeper level of understanding in science without working in science in a sophisticated way. You have to use models or gather and apply evidence from experiments to that concept in order to really know science. It’s no longer enough to settle for memorizing facts.”

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