Students struggle with science

Most American students aren’t “proficient” in science, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress  (NAEP) report, known as the Nation’s Report Card, released today. Only 34 percent in fourth grade, 30 percent in eighth and 21 percent in 12th grade scored proficient or higher; one percent of high school seniors have the advanced science knowledge and skills that lead to careers in science and technology.

Seventy-two percent of fourth graders, 63 percent of eighth graders, and 60 percent of 12th graders performed at or above the basic level.

Alarming numbers of students are scoring below basic, said Alan Friedman, a member of the board that runs the exam. Forty percent of students in twelfth grade lack even basic skills.

“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.”

The science exam was redesigned in 2009 to stress students’ understanding of science concepts and their ability to apply scientific knowledge and solve problems.  Students are tested in physical science, life science, and earth and space sciences. Because of the redesign, NAEP didn’t try to chart trend lines, but Friedman said students’ science mastery is not improving.

Basic students can:

  • Explain the benefit of an adaptation for an organism (grade 4).
  • Relate oxygen level to atmospheric conditions at higher elevations (grade 8).
  • Solve a design problem related to the electric force between objects (grade 12).

Proficient students can:

  • Recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object (grade 4).
  • Relate characteristics of air masses to global regions (grade 8).
  • Evaluate two methods to help control an invasive species (grade 12).

Advanced students can:

  • Design an investigation to compare types of bird food (grade 4).
  • Predict the Sun’s position in the sky (grade 8).
  • Recognize a nuclear fission reaction (grade 12).

The 2009 PISA results placed U.S. students in the middle of the pack with  Poland, France, and Portugal, well below students in Shanghai, Finland, Hong Kong and Canada.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the U.S. can’t continue as an international science leader without educating more students to higher levels. President Obama has called for recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers over the next two years. Of course, many schools are laying off teachers — usually by seniority rather than ability to teach math, physics and chemistry.

Asian and white students did much better than blacks and Hispanics, AP notes.

The results also show a stark achievement gap, with only 10 percent of black students proficient in science in the fourth grade, compared to 46 percent of whites. At the high school level, results were even more bleak, with 71 percent of black students scoring below the basic knowledge level, and just 4 percent proficient.

Fifty-eight percent of Hispanic 12th-grade students scored below basic, as did 21 percent of whites.

Boys outscored girls.

Most states in the south and southwest (plus California and Nevada) scored below the national average.

No Child Left Behind has pushed schools to emphasize math and reading over other subjects, Friedman said.

Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust disagreed, saying schools with high reading and math scores also have high science scores.

“Yes, we have to be intentional about science education, and we have to ensure that all schools have working science labs, but you can’t introduce a kid to a science lab and expect them to do well if they can’t read the text,” she said.

Students with wobbly math skills aren’t likely to go far in science either.

Go here for sample questions.

And here’s Ed Sector’s handy NAEP Explainer.

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