NAEP Scores Show Few Budding Scientists

By Sean Cavanagh — June 02, 2006 6 min read
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A broad cross section of elected officials and corporate executives agree: The United States needs to raise the quality of mathematics and science education in its schools. The goal, some say, is not only to boost overall student achievement, but also to cultivate enough top-tier high school graduates capable of pursuing college majors and careers in those subjects to invigorate the nation’s economy.

No Mastery

While more than half the students who take the science exam at each grade level attain the basic standard, very small proportions master the material.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: No Mastery

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

But accomplishing the second of those objectives could prove especially difficult, judging from the results of the most recent test of American students’ ability in science.

The latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released last month, reveal gains in science achievement at only one of three grade levels tested, the 4th. And those improvements were limited mostly to students scoring at no better than a “basic” skill level, while the scores of higher-achieving students remained stagnant—and even declined by some measures.

“It’s not terribly promising,” said Senta A. Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, in Arlington, Va. “We’ve had some success with low-performing students, but we haven’t had as much success with high performers,” said Ms. Raizen, who recently directed the revision of the design for the next NAEP science test. “The question is, how well prepared are students to continue their education, in either a job or a formal setting?”

NAEP, often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” was given in science in 2005, the first such exam in that subject since 2000. It was administered to 300,000 U.S. students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades.

Overall, 4th grade science scores increased from 147 to 151, on a 300-point scale, over that five-year span. But achievement remained flat among 8th graders, as it did among 12th graders—though scores actually fell for seniors since 1996, the previous testing year.

Compatible Goals?

But even at the 4th grade level, the largest gains occurred among students in the lowest, or 10th, percentile, while the scores for students in the top two percentiles, or 75th and 90th, remained mostly flat. Scores for students in the top percentiles in the 8th and 12th grades were also stagnant. Similarly, the percentage of 4th graders reaching the two highest levels of achievement—“proficient” and “advanced”—remained flat. The percentage of students scoring at or above the advanced level actually dipped slightly in 8th grade from 2000 to 2005; the percentage of seniors reaching at least the proficient and advanced levels in 12th grade also fell from 1996 to 2005.

Norman R. Augustine, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corp., was not surprised by the overall modest gains on naep or the lack of progress among high performers.

The 2005 National and State Science Assessment Results are avaliable from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Mr. Augustine last year chaired a congressionally chartered panel of scientists and business leaders that produced an influential report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” that recommended numerous steps for improving K-12 math and science education as a way to sustain the United States’ long-term economic competitiveness.

Like many observers who looked at the naep scores, Mr. Augustine sees a need to raise the skills of both low and high achievers, and he sees the two goals as compatible. Boosting overall achievement is necessary to maintain a qualified workforce, he said, but the nation needs to produce high-end talent, too.

“They’re the cream of the cream who are going to create the jobs for the rest of us,” Mr. Augustine said. “We have much more leverage with the upper group.”

Federal officials, in recent months, have occasionally spoken of the need for different strategies for improving the performance of low- and high-achieving students. President Bush’s proposed math and science initiative calls for a heavy investment in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, though the administration says it is also seeking to increase needy students’ access to those courses.

“We have two purposes I can see,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said at a House Committee on Science hearing on math and science education last month. “One is to basically educate the American people in a general sense, and the other is an education system that stimulates, in effect, the high achievers that might go on and discover the cures for cancer. … These are not necessarily the same goals.”

Several researchers and educators linked the NAEP gains among students at the basic level to the No Child Left Behind Act, which demands better performance across all student populations. So far, that law’s focus has been strongest on reading and math, the subjects tested annually in grades 3-8. A science-testing requirement takes effect in the 2007-08 academic year. The heavy reading and math thrust, some say, has improved students’ ability to read and grasp basic science, a factor at work in the higher 4th grade naep scores.

Demanding Courses

“If the kids can’t read, and they can’t do basic math, they’re going to have a hard time in science,” said Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. He also said the scores seemed to defy the assumption that the NCLB law’s reading and math emphasis was squeezing science out of the curriculum.

Some advocates for science education also argued that the poor NAEP results suggest that students are woefully unprepared for more demanding science in specific disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

Bernard V. Khoury, the executive officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers, in College Park, Md., said the poor scores reflect the fragmented way in which more rigorous science topics are taught in middle and high school. Unlike in some foreign countries, he said, which have curricula that mandate or encourage schools to combine at least some physics, chemistry, and biology lessons into courses at various grade levels, U.S. schools typically use a “layer cake” approach, with students studying science topics in isolation.

“Integrated science hasn’t really caught on here,” said Mr. Khoury, whose organization represents K-12 and postsecondary educators.

Business leaders and others have spoken of the need to lure more students into areas of physical science—physics, chemistry, and geology, generally—because those skills are needed in many of the most demanding fields. But NAEP showed that 8th and 12th grade scores in physical science have fallen since 1996; in 8th grade, those scores fell as marks in earth and life science rose.

Mr. Khoury said the physical-science scores were not a cause for alarm, though he noted the long-standing concern among scientists and business leaders about the number of students pursuing advanced colleges degrees in that area not keeping pace with biological sciences. “You want a balanced portfolio of skills in your workforce,” he said.

For science—especially demanding science—to be taught effectively, schools have to introduce students to topics gradually, and review them continually, a process American schools do not follow now, said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., a member of the House Science Committee. “Your brain has to [approach] it in a different way,” said Mr. Ehlers, who has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and has taught college in that subject. “It’s more difficult, and it takes longer. … I’m convinced you can’t learn physics in a crash course in 3½ weeks.”

Many experts say U.S. schools are hampered by the absence of a national curriculum in math and science, with students being taught a mishmash of topics in different states and schools. Mr. Ehlers said he does not favor a national curriculum, but believes the nation is doing students “a real disservice” in not at least developing model sequences for what science courses and topics should be taught at different grades.

“What we’re doing now,” he said, “is like trying to steer a loaded supertanker with a canoe paddle.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as NAEP Scores Show Few Budding Scientists


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