Voices: What does "The Nation's Report Card" tell us about science education?

by Ann Benbow
Friday, January 20, 2012

In President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech in January, he emphasized the need for more scientists, mathematicians and engineers in the U.S. workforce. But the latest national assessment of science education in the U.S. appears to offer little hope for our next generation of scientists. Still, the results provide some insight on the state of science education in this country — information that we can use to improve our schools.

In late January 2011, the U.S. Department of Education released “The Nation’s Report Card,” the results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). A congressionally authorized program of the U.S. Department of Education, NAEP periodically measures student learning in reading, mathematics and science to give a “snapshot” of student performance.

The 2009 science NAEP test was administered to a representative sample of more than 300,000 fourth- and eighth-graders and more than 11,000 high school seniors in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. Department of Defense schools abroad. The tests assessed three content categories — physical science, life science, and earth and space science — as well as students' proficiency in science practices, such as identifying and using science principles, using scientific inquiry and using technological design. NAEP scores are sorted into three levels of student understanding of science concepts: basic (partial understanding), proficient (thorough understanding) and advanced (superior understanding).

Nationally, less than 2 percent of students ranked as advanced. And by 12th grade, 40 percent of students did not even register as having basic science knowledge. Here is the breakdown.

Fourth grade: 1% advanced; 34% at or above proficient; 72% at or above basic; 28% below basic
Eighth grade: 2% advanced; 30% at or above proficient; 63% at or above basic; 37% below basic.
12th grade: 1% advanced; 21% at or above proficient; 60% at or above basic; 40% below basic.

NAEP results were also broken down by state, gender, racial/ethnic groups, school location, socioeconomic level, English-as-a-second-language students and those with disabilities. Boys scored higher than girls at all three grade levels. Students in urban schools in fourth and eighth grades scored lower than students of that age in non-urban schools. And white students in fourth and eighth grades scored higher than every other racial/ethnic group.

Although NAEP is just a snapshot of science performance in the U.S. — it does not represent the entire student population every year — the results do pose reasons for concern.

First, the assessment raises many questions: Why did so few students score as advanced? Is there a mismatch between the NAEP standards and the science standards of many states? Why are there disparities between the sexes and among ethnicities? What can we do to close those gaps? The science education community and policymakers alike must investigate the complex factors that contribute to disparities in student performance and determine what educational policies, practices and resources can address these inequalities.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize how we can use these test results to influence how science is taught in the U.S. This latest assessment is particularly significant because the 2009 NAEP science standards were newly developed to reflect research on student learning and assessment practices, as well as the most recent scientific findings. Therefore, 2009 represented a deliberate break from previous NAEP science testing and a new baseline year for NAEP science assessment.

As a result of the new standards, assessment items tended to be cross-cutting: Students were required to pull together information from more than one field of science to generate their responses and to explain their reasoning. This intellectual exercise, which is at the heart of scientific inquiry, can influence how science is taught at the K-12 level. It moves students from memorization and step-by-step laboratory activities to asking testable questions and generating explanations about the natural world. It will be exciting to see what happens in the next science NAEP at all grade levels in 2015 — to observe the new trends in content understanding and proficiency in science practices from the baseline 2009 data, and to see if states respond by including NAEP-style items in their own student assessments.

The assessment structure can also influence when different science topics are taught at the various grade levels. The proportions of questions at each grade level for the three content areas (physical science, life science, and earth and space science) were justified as reflecting the science curriculum that students are generally exposed to at those ages. For fourth-graders, there were an equal number of questions for each of these content areas. However, the percentage of earth and space items was disproportionately higher than the other two content areas in eighth grade (40 percent earth and space science, compared to 30 percent each of the physical and life sciences); and lower at 12th grade (only 25 percent earth and space science as compared to 37.5 percent each for life and physical sciences).

This over- and under-emphasis of earth and space science on the NAEP assessment at the middle and high school levels could fuel school district arguments for eliminating earth science courses from high school science programs and confining them to the middle school level. The ramifications could be devastating: Promising high school students might disengage from earth science at precisely the stage when they start to consider what they might study in college. It is possible that this problem could be remedied and reversed if NAEP maintained equal numbers of items in the three content areas across the grade levels.

Although the NAEP results might seem discouraging to those of us in the science education world — we’d obviously like to have higher levels of proficient and advanced students — having this baseline gives us a better place from which to work. As President Obama said in January, real education is a joint effort between school, home and community. The science education community must take a lead role in helping to educate the next generations so that we can continue to compete in science and engineering worldwide.

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