The nation’s 2011 report card in 8th-grade science was released today, and the news is, well, so-so. On the on the one hand, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science went up in 16 states and down in none since 2009. They went up for each ethnic or racial group except Asians and Pacific Islanders, and they went up for low-income students. On the other hand, they remain much lower than they should be, they didn’t go up very much, and yawning achievement gaps still separate Black, Hispanic and American Indian students from white students.
In contrast to what you might hear, our students are actually doing better in science than they probably ever have. The real story here is that they are not improving fast enough to meet the growing demand for knowledge and skills, and much of the rest of the world is passing us by.
Here’s a brief rundown of major results:
- The “average scale score” for all students crept up from 150 to 152 out of a 300-point scale. To put that into greater context, the cutoff for “Basic” performance on NAEP is 141, and the cutoff for “Proficient” performance is 170.
- Thirty-two percent of all students were “Proficient” in science, and two percent reached the “Advanced” level. In every state, fewer than half of students were Proficient. The states that came closest were Massachusetts, Montana, and North Dakota.
Students of color made the largest gains, narrowing achievement gaps slightly.
- Black students gained three points, moving from 126 to 129.
- American Indian/Alaska native students gained four points, moving from 137 to 141.
- Hispanic students gained the most, an impressive five points, moving from 132 to 137.
The news about low-income students was both cheering and disquieting:
- On the plus side, students who are eligible for free lunch or lunch at a reduced price—a common measure of low income—gained for points, moving from 134 to 137.
- On the negative side, the percentage of students in these categories moved from 40 to 45 percent. Let that sink in for a minute.
Students who do hands-on science projects, or who often work together in groups, scored higher:
- Students who (according to their teachers) did “hands on activities or investigations in science” “every day or almost every day” scored 156 on average. Those who “never or hardly ever” did such activities scored 140.
- Students who (according to their teachers) worked with other students on a science activity or project “every day or almost every day” scored 154 on average, compared with 147 for students who “never or hardly ever” did so.
These findings about hands-on and group work are compelling, but treat them with caution. As far as we can tell, the analysis does not control for factors such as students’ family income.
All told, we are making improvements in science, but the moral of the story here isn't that slow and steady wins the race. We have to pick up the pace of improvement if we're ever going to prepare our young people for a world that may fast pass us by.