Fewer than half of students proficient in science


The exam tests knowledge and understanding of physical, life, Earth, and space sciences. Examples of skills students need to demonstrate to perform at the advanced level include designing an investigation to compare types of bird food in fourth grade; predicting the sun’s position in the sky in eighth grade; and recognizing a nuclear fission reaction for those in 12th grade.

Overall, 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders, and 21 percent of 12th-graders scored at the proficient level or above. Seventy-two percent of fourth-graders, 63 percent of eighth-graders, and 60 percent of 12th-graders showed a basic level or above of science knowledge and skills.

“I’m at least as concerned, maybe even more, about the large number who fall at the low end,” Friedman said. “Advanced is advanced. But basic is really basic. It doesn’t even mean a complete understanding of the most simple fundamentals.”

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The results also indicated there are significant differences in science education between states.

Twenty-four states had scores that were higher than the national average at fourth grade, and 25 had higher scores at eighth grade. The achievement gap was also more notable in certain states. In Mississippi, for example, 68 percent of black fourth grade students scored below basic, and just 4 percent were proficient.

The test was given to more than 150,000 students in both fourth and eighth grade, and a nationally representative sample of 11,100 high school seniors. The last time it was given was in 2005, but the test was significantly updated in 2009, making a comparison between years unreliable.

Results from the 2005 exam also were concerning: Only 29 percent of fourth and eighth-grade students scored proficient or better, as did just 18 percent of 12th-graders tested.

Friedman said the 2009 exam tested students more on how well they understand and know how to apply scientific knowledge, rather than memorization of scientific terms and formulas.

He and others said that while there are too many differences between the 2005 and 2009 exams to make a comparison, the overall trend is one of stagnation. He pointed to the Programme for International Student Assessment, a key international assessment, which shows U.S. students trailing many other nations in science.

The 2009 PISA results placed U.S. students within the same range of countries including Poland, France, and Portugal. The average U.S. score was 502, far below the average score of 575 for students in Shanghai, China.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the NAEP results show students aren’t learning at a rate that will maintain the United States’ role as an international science leader. He said President Barack Obama has called for an “all hands on deck” approach and set a goal of recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers over the next two years.

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