Students Show Modest Gains in Science

There was some good news from the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science assessment: Eighth graders made gains, the achievement gap narrowed, and support for hands-on science projects was strengthened. But researchers say there is still a lot of progress to be made.

A representative sample of 122,000 eighth-graders participated in the 2011 NAEP science assessment, known as the Nation’s Report Card. The assessment is designed to measure students’ knowledge and abilities in the areas of physical science, life science, and Earth and space sciences.

Eighth-grade performance in science showed improvement, increasing from 150 in 2009 to 152 in 2011. The percentages of students performing at or above the Basic and Proficient levels were also higher in 2011 than in 2009.

Ethnic minority gaps narrowed as well. Hispanic students made the largest gain, to 137 from 132, while the average score for black students increased to 129 from 126. For whites, the average went to 163 from 162.

“The gains are encouraging, but the racial and gender gaps show a cause for concern ,” said David P. Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. “In order to compete in globally competitive and expanding fields like technology and medicine, we must make sure we give our students the tools necessary to excel in an important subject area. ”

The results of the assessment also showed support for moving away from lectures and text book science lessons. For the NAEP Science 2011 assessment, teachers were asked how frequently their students did hands-on science activities. Students whose teachers reported that they performed such projects every day or almost every day scored higher on average than students who performed them less frequently.

Educator David Fitts says this comes as no surprise. “Many of us have been trying to get people to understand this concept for years.”

Many science teachers do understand the concept and regularly incorporate innovative hands-on activities into their lessons.

“My students making their own personal rotisseries to cook hotdogs in by using solar energy,” says Donna Lloyd, an educator from Pennsylvania. “For our wind energy unit, they create the best blade design out of balsa wood and test them using a fan and multimeter.”

Hands-on science activities are at the foundation of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum. The National Education Association believes future prosperity is tied to innovation spurred on by all students’ engagement in STEM.

NAEP, which is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics within the U.S. Department of Education, is the only continuing and nationally representative assessment of what students in the United States know and can do in certain subjects.

“This year is the first year we have had all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense schools participate in the science assessment. We commend them for recognizing that monitoring student achievement via this voluntary program is a key to delivering a world- class educational system,” said Driscoll. “And as we measure our national progress, we are establishing benchmarks that allow us to compare NAEP results internationally.”