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‘Nation’s Report Card’ Shows Eighth Graders Struggling With Science

Less than a third of the nation’s eighth graders were proficient in science on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the Nation’s Report Card,” according to new results released Thursday.

The national average score rose to 152 from 150 in 2009. The assessment is graded on a 300-point scale.

NAEP is given periodically to a representative sampling of students nationwide, in grades four, eight and 12, with separate assessments in reading, writing, mathematics, science, the arts, civics, economics, geography and history.

While there was overall improvement, significant gaps persist among minorities and students from low-income households. Additionally, among all students, boys had an average score of 152 with girls five points behind at 147.

White and Asian students scored higher than other racial or ethnic groups. Black students narrowed the gap with their white peers by one percentage point since 2009. But Hispanic students saw the most improvement in their scores, narrowing the gap by five percentage points despite the overall score for white students increasing.

Another encouraging trend was that 16 states saw their average student scores improve, and no state scored lower in 2011 than in 2009.

“I’m always hopeful when there’s no backsliding,” said Shirley Malcom, head of the education and human resources directorate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. “But I’m really concerned that there’s not more improvement, particularly among minority groups and the gender gap.”

One interesting finding among this year’s results was that students who participated in hands-on activities in class scored higher than their peers who had little or no access to such activities. While there could be additional factors driving up those students’ scores, the findings are worth noting, said Hector Ibarra, a middle school science teacher and member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP administration.

Ibarra, who teaches at the Belin Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa, said that the NAEP results should be used to improve the quality of students’ classroom experiences.

Hands-on instruction needs to be more than just “cookbook” recipes where students are “told what to do,” Ibarra said. There also needs to be an element of inquiry so that students are challenged to take charge of their own learning and find solutions.
“The question we need to ask is, “Are we creating a learning environment that truly challenges students’ skills and boosts achievement,” said Ibarra in a conference call Thursday with other NAGB officials to announce the science results.

As for the persistent gender gap on the NAEP science assessment, the source is not biological, said Alice Popejoy, a public policy fellow with the Association for Women in Science, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.
Students receiving free and reduced-price school meals scored on average 27 percentage points below their more affluent peers, a chasm much wider than the  five-point disparity between boys and girls. That’s further evidence that “achievement is based not on biological or inherent ability, but rather on societal and environmental conditioning, including educational inequities,” Popejoy said.

“It’s a social stereotype to say boys are better at math and science than girls,” Popejoy said. “The good news is that we do have the ability to change that perception.”

There’s no shortage of efforts at the K-12 level, particularly in middle school, to interest girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) classes. But the attrition rate is significant for women already working in those fields, which means a shortage of role models to inspire younger learners, Popejoy said. As a long-term strategy, addressing the issues of why so many women leave the STEM workforce could help eventually help boost lagging achievement by girls, she said.

To be sure, science education is getting significant attention from policymakers these days. The Carnegie Corporation of New York recently launched a major campaign to add 100,000 highly qualified and highly effective STEM teachers to the nation’s public school classrooms over the next 10 years. And a national push is underway to implement “Next Generation Science Standards,” with 26 states currently working collaboratively on a draft framework. That’s something that’s long overdue, according to the nonprofit science education advocacy group Change the Equation, which released a study in December that highlighted the vast gaps in expectations among states for student science knowledge.

I asked Malcom of the AAAS what she would like to see happen in the nation’s public schools in the two-year interim before the next crop of eighth-graders is expected to know how many hydrogen atoms are in a molecule of water (the answer is two, by the way).

“The best case scenario is we will get acceptance of the new standards, a ramp-up in terms of teacher professional development, and a real commitment to improving the way science is taught so that we incorporate inquiry, technology and focus on populations that have not been served well,” Malcom said. “If we can do those things, then maybe we’ll being to see movement (in the NAEP scores) that is meaningful. That would mean a real improvement in terms of conceptual understanding by all students.”



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