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Gender, Ethnic Gaps Revealed in Science Assessment

The results are in for the latest National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in science, and those results are grim, especially at the 12th grade, where 40 percent of students failed to attain even a "basic" level of proficiency. The test, conducted in 2009, also revealed an enormous gap between the lowest- and highest-performing ethnic groups, as well as smaller but still significant gaps in achievement between males and females.

New Test, New Baseline: Overall Results
The latest NAEP science report for grades 4, 8, and 12 sets a baseline for future national science assessments. With significant changes to the test, the results are not comparable with previous assessments, so no year-over-year trends emerge, either positive or negative. Further, there won't be another test across all three grade levels until 2015, according to the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which sets policy for NAEP. So educators and policymakers will have to wait five or six more years for those results to be made public before any conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness of policy actions that result from the 2009 report.

But what can be taken away from the latest "Nation's Report Card," as NAEP is sometimes called, is a snapshot showing widespread failure in the United States to meet even basic science proficiency at every grade level, as determined by NAEP's designers. (The test is overseen by the United States Department of Education and administered by the National Center for Education Statistics.)

At grade 4, a score of 224 or higher was "advanced"; 167 or higher represented "proficient"; and 131 or higher was considered "basic." Fourth-graders had the strongest showing overall of all three grade levels, with 72 percent achieving basic level or better. Thirty-three percent scored in the proficient range; and 1 percent scored in the advanced range.

At grade 8, a score of 141 was basic, 170 proficient, and 215 advanced. Overall, only 63 percent of students were at or above basic level. Twenty-eight percent scored in the proficient range, and 2 percent scored in the advanced range.

At grade 12, like at grade 8, a score of 141 was basic, 170 proficient, and 215 advanced. Just 60 percent scored at or above basic, with 20 percent in the proficient range and 1 percent at advanced.

In a statement, Francis Eberle, executive director for the National Science Teacher's Association (NSTA), characterized the results as "completely unacceptable."

"The National Science Teachers Association is concerned with the low student scores in science reflected in the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)," he said in the NSTA's written statement. "Far too many of the students tested fell below the proficiency level. This is completely unacceptable. Our nation can not afford to have a scientifically illiterate workforce."

He said the way forward to improve results is to hire quality science teachers and to dedicate adequate resources to science education.

You can read more about Eberle's reactions to today's report in a Q&A THE Journal conducted with him. That interview can be accessed here.

Achievement Gaps: Grade 4
In addition to the overall poor performance, NAEP Science 2009 revealed a number of glaring achievement gaps among ethnic, gender, and economic groups.

At grade 4, among the ethnic groups defined in the report, white students received the highest average scale scores (163), followed by students classified as Asian/Pacific Islander (160). American Indian/Alaska Native students trailed white students by 28 points; Hispanic students trailed by 32 points; and black students trailed by 36 points. A full 87 percent of white students and 81 percent of Asian students at grade 4 scored at the basic level or greater, while only 57 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native and 53 percent of Hispanic students scored in the basic range or higher. Among black students, 47 percent achieved basic proficiency.

A student's financial situation also correlated strongly with achievement.

  • Those eligible for free lunches scored 132 on average, with 54 percent achieving basic proficiency or better;
  • Those eligible for reduced-price lunches fared better, with an average scale score of 145 and the percentage of students scoring at least in the basic range at 69 percent; and
  • Those not eligible for free or reduced-price lunches scored 163 points on average, and 86 percent achieved at least basic proficiency.

The gender gap at grade 4 was far less pronounced than some of the other achievement gaps. The average scale score for male fourth graders was 151, for females 149.

Achievement Gaps: Grade 8
The story was similar at grade 8 in terms of ethnicity and economic situation. White students in grade 8 came out on top with an average scale score of 162 and 78 percent at or above basic proficiency. Asian students followed at an average of 160, with 73 percent at basic proficiency or higher. With every other ethnic group, the share of students who achieved basic proficiency or better was less than half, with American Indian/Alaska Native students at 48 percent, Hispanic students at 43 percent, and black students at just 33 percent.

At grade 8, economics seemed to have a more significant impact on achievement than at grade 4. Among those eligible for free lunches, 41 percent achieved basic proficiency or better; among those qualifying for reduced-price lunches, 57 percent achieved basic proficiency or better; and among those not eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, 76 percent scored in the basic range or better.

In the eighth grade, the gender gap grew two points, with boys scoring 152 on average and girls scoring 148.

Achievement Gaps: Grade 12
At the 12th-grade level, there were even more pronounced gaps in achievement. Asian students scored highest on average, at 164, with 73 percent scoring at or above basic proficiency. White students trailed by six points on average on the scale, with 72 percent achieving basic proficiency or better. American Indian/Alaska Native students fared better in 12th grade than in eighth, with 53 percent scoring at or above basic proficiency and with an average scale score of 144.

Hispanic students trailed Asian students by 30 points, at 134, with just 42 percent achieving basic proficiency or better. And black students trailed Asian students by 39 points on average, with just 29 percent achieving basic proficiency or better.

The report did not cover economic results for students in grade 12, where, according to the authors, "free or reduced-price school lunch may be underreported."

The complete NAEP Science 2009 report is available online now with state breakdowns, further demographic breakdowns, sample questions, and additional data. Further information can be found here.

In addition, several events are taking place Tuesday to coincide with the release of the results:

  • A online announcement will be hosted by NAGB here. It will begin at 11 a.m. EST.
  • An online Q&A hosted by the U.S. Department of Education will be held at 2 p.m. EST. It will be moderated by Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for the assessment division of NCES. It can be accessed here.
  • A Webinar held today by the NSTA to address the results. Registration details can be accessed here. The Webinar will begin at 6:30 p.m. EST.
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