NAEP reports state-level scores on science test

US fourth and eighth graders have made gains in science, on average, and large racial achievement gaps have narrowed slightly, according to the results of a national science test released today, the Washington Post reports.

You can examine the scores nationally, for Illinois, for Maryland, or any state, and see that girls made bigger improvements than boys on the science test nationwide, resulting in a slight narrowing of the gender gap for eighth graders and completely nullifying any statistically significant gap between fourth-grade girls and boys.

NPR questioned whether NAEP actually measures anything important.

Although US Secretary of Education John King was quoted as saying, “All of this means that more students are developing skills like thinking critically, making sense of information and evaluating evidence,” Carl Wieman, a Nobel Laureate who teaches in Stanford University’s physics department and Graduate School of Education, said he took a look at some of the sample questions used on the science test and found many of them to be shallow in that they asked for simple recall of terminology or facts.

Since both Maryland and Illinois have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, students in those states should be taught to think more deeply about science than simply recalling facts. Here’s a NAEP technical report on the NGSS. The NAEP questions aren’t as bad as those used by some states, though. “I’ve seen worse,” he told NPR. “A lot worse.”

For example, a sample item on the eighth-grade test asks students to draw and label a diagram showing each of the following: Earth, Mercury, Sun, Orbits.

In simple recall questions like that, “There is no concept at all of where a student might be able to use those facts or have any relevance in anyone’s life, which for me is kind of more meaningful measures of learning,” Mr Weiman said. If most of the questions on the test were like the samples, the test doesn’t measure the relevant aspects of science education.

Let me give you a quick explanation of why new standards need to be assessed. It’s a really short explanation: technology.

“OK Google,” I say into my phone. “What are the products of photosynthesis?”

A pleasant female voice replies, “According to reference.com, the main product of photosynthesis is glucose. Oxygen is mainly a byproduct of the process of photosynthesis. Six molecules of carbon dioxide and six molecules of water are needed to produce one molecule of glucose.”

My smartphone did a better job of answering the question than a straight-recall test, like the NAEP, would have done, even doing the stoichiometry a little. There’s no point in making students memorize the products of photosynthesis for a test anymore, and what our tests need to measure is how students can apply knowledge of these trivial factoids to make them relevant in someone’s life. That’s what science teachers are teaching.

Local results

Although the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, is intended for tracking the progress students make over time, even across decades, that purpose requires that the test remain essentially the same over time.

It is also able to examine performance of students at the state level and by certain subgroups of students within those states, but with those comparisons as well, the scores reflect the knowledge and skills that are incorporated into the questions that make up the test. As shown, that is mainly simple recall, which isn’t how US schools teach science anymore.

In Maryland, scores for eighth and fourth graders weren’t significantly different from the national average.

Illinois students scored below the national average on the eighth-grade science test in 2015, but the percentage of students who scored at or above the proficient level went back up a little bit, from 26 percent in 2011 to 28 percent in 2015, which was the percent at or above proficient in 2009. Fourth graders in Illinois didn’t score significantly different from the national average.

Participation in the NAEP was voluntary; scores weren’t reported for Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, or the District of Columbia.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.