Science Policy | Q&A

What the 'Nation's Report Card' Means for Science Education

The 'Nation's Report Card' shows "disappointing" results, according to National Science Teacher's Association's Francis Eberle.
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The latest science results from the "Nation's Report Card" have set a new baseline for student science achievement in the United States, and that baseline is low--"unacceptable," according to Francis Eberle, executive director for the National Science Teacher's Association (NSTA).

Just 60 percent of students in grade 12 and 63 percent in grade 8 achieved scores that placed them at "basic" proficiency or better. And when broken down by demographics, economically disadvantaged groups and historically underrepresented ethnic groups fared even worse. Among the findings:

  • At grade 8, a third of of black students (33 percent) and less than half of Hispanic (43 percent) and American Indian/Alaska Native students (48 percent) demonstrated at least basic proficiency in science;
  • At grade 12, just 29 percent of black students achieved basic proficiency or better, compared with 73 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students and 72 percent of white students; and
  • Among the economically disadvantaged in grade 8, just 41 percent of students who qualified for free lunches made it to basic proficiency or better.

In addition, at each grade level, girls scored lower than their male counterparts, with the gap in average scale scores widening at each grade level measured in the assessment: two points at grade 4, four points at grade 8, and six points at grade 12. (Additional details about the results can be found in our separate report here.)

The NSTA today referred to these results as "completely unacceptable" and issued a call to bolster resources for science education to avoid producing a "scientifically illiterate workforce."

"Unfortunately, over the last decade, schools have been forced to reduce funding for teacher training and science classroom resources and even eliminate positions to offset budget constraints. As a result, students are barely able to keep their heads above water in terms of their science education learning," Eberle wrote. "Even in these challenging economic times it is imperative that we develop and retain high quality science teachers and commit the necessary resources and funding to science teaching and learning. We should not become complacent and accept these NAEP scores as the new status quo, but instead focus on how we can continue to improve science education in the [United States]."

THE Journal had a chance to discuss some aspects of the exam with NSTA's Eberle, whose organization will be hosting a Webinar focusing on the NAEP Science 2009 results Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern.

David Nagel: How meaningful or accurate a measure of academic achievement is a fill-in-the-bubble/short answer test like NAEP?

Francis Eberle: NAEP is currently the only assessment that samples across the [United States]; hence it provides a valid snapshot of students across the nation as a whole and by states. This is unique for the [United States] and can provide some context to state by state tests that vary greatly.

Nagel: How much weight should this be given in policymaking and in what we direct science teachers to focus on in the classroom?

Eberle: This assessment is not appropriate to use at the classroom level because it is broader than one grade's curriculum. It is collected evidence of knowledge and how to use that knowledge over multiple grade spans. It would be almost, if not, impossible to teach to this test. On the other hand because it provides a snapshot it can be used by policymakers. In this case, if science education is important to this nation, then learning where we are is critical to making decisions about the future of this country.

Nagel: Are you comfortable with teachers redirecting their educational efforts to focus on improving scores on tests like these in the future?

Eberle: No, this test is not designed to collect classroom level information but rather an accumulation of knowledge, skills, and how students apply them.

Nagel: How can test scores be raised without negatively impacting subject areas not covered by NAEP or other standardized tests?

Eberle: If science educators focus on the national science education standards as their guide for what to teach and not teach they will be in a much better position to have students learn science.

Nagel: Just how bad are the results?

Eberle: They are very disappointing. Teachers can do better if they have the resources, training, and time to teach science. All of these have been reduced over the last eight or nine years through the NCLB law.

Nagel: NAEP describes "proficient" as demonstration of "competency over challenging subject matter." At grades 4 and 8, we see about a third of all students performing at that level. Do you think that's generous, or do you believe that many students really are competent with challenging science subject matter? And at all grades, we see anywhere from 60 percent to 72 percent of students performing at or above "basic" competency, which is defined as "partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at each grade." (I presume that's analogous to a "passing" competency.) How awful is that?

Eberle: The difference between basic and proficient is to do with memorizing knowledge and applying knowledge. This involves such skills as analyzing alternative explanations and patterns, identification of patterns. In a world where opinions are given as much credit as evidence-based ideas, students have to be able to discern what is the most likely response based on evidence not opinion. This is one quality of being scientifically literate.

Nagel: The NSTA's prepared statement doesn't cover the achievement gap results in this assessment. How significant is the gap in achievement between NAEP's defined ethnic groups?

Eberle: The results illustrate just how large the gaps are. The white/black gap is 36 points at fourth grade, 36 points at eighth grade, and 34 points in 12th grade. The white/Hispanic gap is 32 points in fourth, 30 points in eighth grade, and 25 points in 12th grade. These are stark examples of which students are learning science and those that are not.

Nagel: As with some other recent exams, you see Asian American/Pacific Islander students beginning to outperform white students, while black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska native students continue to lag. What are the implications?

Eberle: Our system of education is based on the idea that education is important for all. If we are missing that mark, students will grow up and continue to be disadvantaged because they lack a solid education. It is unacceptable for the [United States] to be educating some students and not others.

Nagel: The gender gap remains an issue, and you can see the trend continue in the 2009 NAEP as girls start to fall behind males at grade 8 and then further behind at grade 12. Does this imply that we will continue to see fewer women majoring in science disciplines at the college level for at least the next decade? And what do you think needs to be done about this?

Eberle: With current percentage of women in engineering bordering around 25 percent we are not even close to realizing the potential of women in engineering. The need for qualified people of either gender is critical, and for the [United States] to not have the equal participation of women is only going to add to our growing challenges in competing with the rest of the world.

You can hear more from Eberle tonight as the NSTA hosts a Webinar to discuss the findings of the NAEP Science 2009 assessment and the implications for the future. The free event will be held at 6:30 p.m. EST. Registration information can be found here. Further details about the results of the NAEP Science 2009 report can be found in our report here.