Simple Science Difficult for Urban Students to Grasp, NAEP Study Finds

By Sean Cavanagh — November 15, 2006 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: The original version of this article inaccurately characterized the percentage of 4th graders excluded by the Austin, Texas, school district from participation in an urban-trial version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science. The 9 percent of excluded students were from the overall sample of students tested in Austin, not from the smaller pool identified as being in special education or English-language learners.

Elementary students in 10 city school systems struggled to perform simple investigations, interpret basic graphs and diagrams, and understand scientific classifications and relationships, concludes a first-ever report on the science skills of students in large urban districts released today.

Urban students at the middle school level also lagged behind their peers nationwide in their ability to perform relatively straightforward scientific tasks, according to the study, based on the results of a special sampling of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Science Sense

Students in large urban districts don’t stack up to their peers nationwide on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science.

4th Grade
*Click image to see the full chart.


8th Grade
*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

The Trial Urban District Assessment shows that students in all 10 districts participating in the study scored below nationwide averages in both the 4th and 8th grades. The average national 4th grade score, for example, was 149, on a 300-point scale. Scores among the 10 districts reached only as high as 147, notched by the Austin, Texas, school system, with the Chicago and Los Angeles districts each scoring the lowest, with 126.

Broad variation occurred at the 8th grade level as well, though scores were low overall. Austin again achieved the top score, or 144 on the 300-point scale, and Atlanta the lowest, 117. All 10 districts, however, fell short of the nationwide student average mark of 147.

Michael Casserly, the executive officer of the Council of the Great City Schools, which helped arrange urban districts’ participation in the science NAEP, cautioned that those school systems faced numerous disadvantages in trying to raise test scores, such as poverty and having to serve a large number of English-language learners. He also noted that states test students on different topics, at different grade levels, than the science NAEP.

But Mr. Casserly also used the scores as a platform to advocate for the creation of national standards in science, which he also supports in reading and math.

“The nation cannot possibly think that it can raise its science performance and remain preeminent scientifically, with each state setting its own standards, its own definitions of proficiency, and its own measurement criteria,” Mr. Casserly said at a Washington news conference announcing the NAEP results. “It is the height of national folly to think that America can maintain any competitive edge in science the way we are now testing and teaching it.”

The scores of the students from the 10 urban districts were comparable with those of students from large-city school systems as a whole, the assessment found. Seven of the 10 participating districts performed at or near the same level as 4th graders in city systems nationally, according to the study. At the 8th grade level, six of the 10 urban districts at least equaled the science performance of the nation’s big-city systems, which were defined in the report as having populations of 250,000 or more.

NAEP, often called “the nation’s report card,” measures the academic progress of students at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade levels and in the core subject areas; scores are also broken out by racial and ethnic categories. All states, by federal law, are required to take part in NAEP in 4th and 8th grade reading and mathematics. The assessment is widely regarded as a valuable resource for researchers and policymakers because it offers a consistent way of judging the progress of students in different demographic categories across states.

The 10 participating districts in the urban science study were Atlanta; Austin; Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Houston: Los Angeles; New York City; and San Diego. All did so voluntarily. Between 1,000 and 2,000 students in each district took the science assessment at each grade.

Those same 10 districts, in addition to the District of Columbia, took part in a similar NAEP study of reading and math performance, released in December 2005. It showed that urban 4th and 8th graders were making headway in reading and math, but that most districts still lagged behind national averages in those subjects. As was the case with the science scores this year, the Charlotte and Austin districts fared well in reading and math on the NAEP urban study last year. (“‘Basic’ Level Tough Going for Urban Pupils,” Dec. 7, 2005.)

‘Interpret With Caution’

The 4th and 8th grade NAEP covered a range of topics in the earth, physical, and life sciences. The test breaks out student scores in three different categories of achievement: “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” A student scoring at or above the basic level in 4th grade, for instance, should have some of the knowledge and reasoning necessary to understand earth, physical, and life sciences at that grade level, the authors say. Those students should be able to carry out investigations on a basic level, interpret fairly simple graphs, and have a beginning understanding of energy, as well as scientific classifications and relationships, the report says. All the participating districts had lower percentages of 4th graders performing at the basic and proficient levels than the national average.

The latest NAEP results emerge as education officials, from school districts to the federal government, search for strategies to improve student performance in science and math. Worries about low student skills were reinforced last year when NAEP scores revealed that science achievement for students nationwide had essentially stagnated among 8th and 12th graders over the past five years, and had increased only slightly among 4th graders. Those improvements were limited mostly to students scoring at the lower levels of achievement. (“NAEP Scores Show Few Budding Scientists,” June 7, 2006.)

A report released in September by the National Research Council bemoaned the lack of student progress in science, despite at least 15 years of changes to standards, curriculum, and testing in that subject. The study concluded that U.S. schools, in contrast to those in higher-performing countries, pack their science lessons and curricula with far too many disconnected topics, leaving students confused about which ideas are most important, and with only a weak grasp of overriding principles. Schools, it recommended, should instead focus on developing students’ mastery of a smaller, core group of scientific topics, and gradually build a sophisticated understanding from that point.

Today, “topics receive repeated, shallow coverage, with little consistency,” the NRC report said, “which provides a fragile foundation for future knowledge growth.”

David W. Gordon, the superintendent of the Sacramento County, Calif., school system, said support for national standards has grown as business leaders and others have become increasingly worried about students lack of ability in math and science. National standards could be made more palatable if they were put forward as “benchmarks” or goals, for states and districts to meet, rather than as mandates crafted by the federal government, he said. Mr. Gordon is a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the NAEP.

“There’s a growing sense that science is science, and math is math,” no matter where it is taught, Mr. Gordon said. “It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to shoot for different standards across states and districts.”

In the NAEP urban-science study, scores may have been influenced by districts’ policies toward excluding students with disabilities and English-language learners from taking the tests and allowing test-takers special accommodations during the exams. The number of excluded students, and those allowed accommodations, varied greatly from district to district, the NAEP report reveals.

The Austin district, for instance, which had the highest 4th grade scores, excluded 9 percent of all the students tested at that grade level either because they were in special education or English-language learners. By comparison, the second-highest-scoring district at the 4th grade level, Charlotte, excluded only 3 percent of those students. The nation-wide average exclusion rate was 3 percent.

“Comparisons of achievement results across districts should be interpreted with caution if the exclusion rates vary widely,” the NAEP science study notes.

Similarly, the Houston school system, whose 4th grade scores tied for the 3rd-highest of the 10 urban districts, gave 19 percent of its test-takers special accommodations on the science NAEP. Atlanta, which scored lower than Houston at that grade level, gave far fewer students, only 5 percent, accommodations during the science exam. Nationwide, an average of 10 percent of students received accommodations. A typical accommodation is extra time to take the test.


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