Assessment

Proficiency Eludes U.S. Students on Science NAEP

January 25, 2011 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Most American students are not performing at a level deemed “proficient” in science, results issued today for a revamped national assessment show, with 12th graders posting the weakest scores compared with their elementary and middle-level peers. Only one in five high school seniors scored at least proficient on the exam.

Meanwhile, 34 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders were deemed proficient or better in science on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.”

Because of recent changes to update the framework guiding the NAEP in science, the new findings are not considered comparable to the results last reported from 2005.

“The 30,000-foot result is that we’re not doing all that well in science,” said Alan Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, and a former director and chief executive officer of the New York Hall of Science. “We’re shortchanging [our children].”

The results come at a time of strong and growing concerns about the lackluster academic performance overall of U.S. students in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Many experts, as well as political leaders, including President Barack Obama, argue that strengthening education in the STEM fields is critical to ensuring continued economic leadership by the United States in the world.

Stuck in the Basics

Large percentages of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders fell below basic on the latest administration of the national assessment in science

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

The new data also arrive about a month after the United States got its latest results from a prominent international assessment, which show American 15-year-olds performing about average among leading nations in science, and below average in math. In science, the U.S. score on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, fell short of the averages posted by more than a dozen participating nations, including South Korea, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. (“U.S. Rises to International Average in Science,” Dec. 7, 2010.)

Mr. Friedman said he was especially alarmed to see so many children performing below the “basic” level, which represents partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for proficient academic work in science. The figure was highest at the 12th grade, where 40 percent were below basic, compared with 37 percent of 8th graders and 28 percent of 4th graders.

“That’s also distressing,” he said. “That means that a double-digit percentage of our students are just nowhere: They’re uncomfortable with science, they don’t understand it, they can’t do it, and they probably don’t like it.”

Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va., also highlighted the high rates of students who did not reach even basic.

“When you look at those numbers, I don’t know anybody who would say that that’s what they would want to be striving for,” he said.

Stepping back, Mr. Eberle said of the overall NAEP results: “There’s not much here to celebrate.”

‘Applied Science’ Priority

The science framework, which describes the knowledge and skills to be measured on NAEP, was recently updated to reflect new advances in science and research on science learning, as well as components drawn from prominent international assessments, according to materials released with the report. The assessment seeks to measure students’ knowledge and abilities in physical science, life science, and earth and space sciences.

Mr. Friedman from the National Assessment Governing Board said one critical element of the new framework is “a big shift toward problem-solving and inquiry and applied science.”

The changes mean a greater emphasis on “what can you actually do with your knowledge, and not just how many words and equations have you stored in your brain,” he said.

Because of the significance of the changes, the trend line for the science exam has been broken, so the results are not comparable to recent years.

“We try to maintain the trend, but every once in a while, the changes really require [it to be broken],” said Mr. Friedman.

The 2009 assessment was given to 156,000 4th graders, 151,000 8th graders, and 11,100 seniors. Results are also available for nearly all states at the 4th and 8th grade level. No state-level scores are available for the 12th grade because the sample was too small.

The top performers at the 4th grade level were New Hampshire, North Dakota, Virginia, and Kentucky.

At the 8th grade, the leaders were Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Mr. Eberle noted that the state results also reveal some trouble spots, such as Mississippi. Fifty-nine percent of its 8th graders scored below basic. And in California, 52 percent were below that level. By contrast, in Massachusetts and Minnesota, two strong performers, about one-quarter of students fell below basic.

Achievement Gap

Also, the new NAEP data once again reinforce findings about the persistent achievement gaps among U.S. students based on race, ethnicity, and income level. These were evident at all three grade levels tested.

At the 4th grade, for example, 47 percent of white students scored proficient or above, compared with 11 percent of African-American and 14 percent of Hispanic students. Meanwhile, only 15 percent of 4th graders eligible for a free lunch and 25 percent for a reduced-price lunch scored proficient or higher on the exam, compared with 48 percent of 8th graders ineligible for either.

Another issue Mr. Friedman highlighted in an interview was that hardly any American students reached the “advanced” level on NAEP, which represents what the report calls “superior performance.”

Only 1 percent of 4th and 12th graders earned an advanced score, and 2 percent at the 8th grade.

“I find that really a matter of great concern,” he said. “Now it’s true that advanced indicates a high level of mastery and is difficult to attain,” he added. “But the fact that only one or two students out of 100 reach this level is disappointing and dangerous for our future.”

Results from the recent PISA assessment also sparked concern about whether the United States is producing enough top-performers. (“High Achievers Scarce in Math, Science in U.S.,” Jan. 12, 2011.)

With 9.2 percent of American students meeting the two highest levels on PISA, the United States was about average among the 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, trailing more than one-third of those countries, including Finland, Germany, Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Proficiency Eludes U.S. Students on Science NAEP

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Assessment State Test Results Are In. Are They Useless?
While states, districts, and schools pore over data from spring 2021 tests, experts urge caution over how to interpret and use the results.
9 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2016 file photo, a sign is seen at the entrance to a hall for a college test preparation class in Bethesda, Md. The $380 million test coaching industry is facing competition from free or low-cost alternatives in what their founders hope will make the process of applying to college more equitable. Such innovations are also raising questions about the relevance and the fairness of relying on standardized tests in admissions process.
A sign is posted at the entrance to a hall for a test-preparation class. Assessment experts say educators should use data from spring 2021 tests with caution.
Alex Brandon/AP
Assessment Data Young Adolescents' Scores Trended to Historic Lows on National Tests. And That's Before COVID Hit
The past decade saw unprecedented declines in the National Assessment of Educational Progress's longitudinal study.
3 min read
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Assessment Whitepaper
Proven Techniques for Assessing Students with Technology
Dr. Doug Fisher’s proven assessment techniques help your students become active learners and increase their chances for higher learning g...
Content provided by Achieve3000
Assessment Long a Testing Bastion, Florida Plans to End 'Outdated' Year-End Exams
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state will shift to "progress monitoring" starting in the 2022-23 school year.
5 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he believes a new testing regimen is needed to replace the Florida Standards Assessment, which has been given since 2015.
Marta Lavandier/AP