NAEP Science Scores Essentially Flat Except at 4th Grade Level

By Sean Cavanagh — May 24, 2006 6 min read
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At a time when educators, elected officials, and corporate leaders are fretting over American students’ weak science skills, new test results show that the nation’s middle schoolers made no progress in that subject over the past five years, and that high school performance actually fell over the past decade.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released today, may generate more optimism about children’s abilities at the elementary level, where scores climbed from 2000, the previous time the science test was administered.

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The State of Science Education

The new scores from NAEP, a heavily scrutinized test known as “the nation’s report card,” are likely to draw broad scrutiny, as a multitude of public officials, including President Bush and congressional leaders, have recently joined business leaders in identifying improved math and science education as a key to the nation’s long-term economic vitality.

At the 8th grade level, average scores remained flat, at 149 on a 300-point scale, from 2000 to 2005, when the most recent test was given. Fifty-nine percent of 8th graders scored at the “basic” level of achievement—which generally suggests only partial mastery of knowledge or skill—the same percentage as in 2000. The proportion scoring at or above the “proficient” level—which demonstrates competency over challenging subject matter—fell slightly, from 30 percent to 29 percent in 2005.

Science Trends

NAEP science results for three grades show middle schoolers made no progress over the past five years, while high school performance actually fell during the past decade.

* Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Science Trends

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Among high school students, meanwhile, scores also remained mostly stagnant over the past five years—though they have fallen from the mid-1990s. From 2000 to 2005, 12th graders’ scores rose from 146 to 147. But high school students’ performance has dropped since 1996, from a score of 150. The proportion of students who reached at least the basic and proficient levels also fell from 1996 to 2005.

Fourth graders, by contrast, saw their average test scores rise from 147 to 151 from 2000 to 2005. Sixty-eight percent of students in that grade met at least the basic achievement level for science, an increase from 63 percent in 2000. Just 29 percent reached at least the proficient level, an increase from 27 percent five years earlier.

NCLB Links?

Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, speculated that the gains in elementary school scores could be linked to K-12 attempts to improve math and reading. Gains in both of those academic areas, he said, were likely to have an effect on students’ understanding of science and the recent performance on NAEP.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act has led schools to launch new efforts to improve skills in those subjects, though he said direct links between the law and the science results would be difficult to quantify.

“If the kids can’t read, and they can’t do basic math, they’re going to have a hard time in science,” Mr. Winick asserted in an interview. “We’ve got truly better performance in elementary school.”

Some educators have questioned whether the law has forced schools to narrow their curriculum—and possibly cut back on science teaching to make room for math and reading. But Mr. Winick said that nothing in the new NAEP results “suggests there’s been less teaching of science in elementary school.”

Michael J. Padilla, the president of the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, also said that the gains at the elementary school level were noteworthy, especially because the assumption has been that science is being taught less often at early grade levels in recent years. He said that better teacher training and professional development is needed to prepare instructors to lead classes covering more rigorous science material in middle school and high school. “We need to find out what’s working, and why it’s working,” Mr. Padilla said.

Scores among minority students varied by grade level, though African American and Hispanic students made especially strong gains at the 4th grade level. Fourth-grade scores for Hispanic students jumped from 122 to 133, while African American 4th graders’ scores increased from 122 to 129. White students’ scores at that age group rose more slightly, from 159 to 162.

Mr. Padilla believes increases in scores among Hispanics, in particular, could be attributed in part to teachers working on vocabulary and reading skills as they cover scientific topics. “More schools are encouraging science teachers to work on English as they teach science,” he said.

By contrast, gains among Hispanic and African American 8th graders were relatively small. Among high school seniors, Hispanic students’ scores remained stagnant, and African American students’ scores fell slightly.

The test scores were released at a time when interest in math and science issues at the federal level is especially high. Earlier this year, the Bush administration proposed to try to improve teaching and learning in those subjects through a number of steps, including the expansion of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in those subjects and through a program called “Math Now,” an effort to have the federal government identify effective strategies for teaching math and promote them in the nation’s schools. Numerous members of Congress, at the urging of business leaders and others, have also introduced legislation aimed at raising students’ math and science skills.

While the president’s proposal so far has focused primarily on math instruction, administration officials say the attention paid to science will increase soon. “We intend, after ‘Math Now,’ to do science next,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told federal lawmakers at a hearing last month.

Science Accountability Proposed

Corporate leaders have raised particular concerns recently about students not entering engineering and technical fields. Mr. Winick noted that the NAEP showed a decline in students’ average scores on questions dealing with physical science—a subject that provides a foundation for many technical professions—for both 8th graders and high school seniors. In addition, student scores in all three areas of science that were broken out in the NAEP results—earth, physical, and life science—fell at the 12th grade level.

“We’re not doing well in the physical sciences,” Mr. Winick said. “I would not think that those results would comfort the business community.”

The NAEP scores also come as states and school districts face approaching deadlines to test students in science—albeit without the pressure of potential penalties for poor scores, as is the case for reading and math. The No Child Left Behind law requires states to test students in science at least once annually in each 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 grade span, beginning in the 2007-08 school year.

Unlike with reading and math, the law does not require states to use science scores to determine if students are making “adequate yearly progress,” the threshold that determines whether schools face penalties.

Some advocates, however, are pushing for the federal government to make the same demands of states and schools in science testing as in reading and math. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., has introduced the “Science Accountability Act,” which would require that science-test scores count against schools making AYP, beginning in the 2008-09 academic year. A year later, under the bill, states would be required to test students annually in grades 3-8 and hold schools accountable for those scores.

Jon Brandt, a spokesman for Mr. Ehlers, said the legislation addresses a core concern of many science advocates: If students and schools are not compelled to score well on science tests, that subject will not be taught as often or as well as reading or math.

“Science sometimes becomes a poor stepchild in relation to the two other subjects,” said Mr. Brandt. “We’ve got to change that.”

While the lawmaker hopes the legislation would make progress as soon as possible, it is also possible that Congress could address the issue as it begins its reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Brandt said. That process is tentatively scheduled to begin next year.

Mr. Ehlers’ bill has the backing of the National Science Teachers Association, a 55,000-member advocacy group, as well as the American Chemical Society, a membership organization primarily made up of industry professionals and college researchers.


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