NAEP science: gaining ground, but a long way to go

Eighth-graders in 2011 did better in science than their counterparts did two years before. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science assessment improved for every racial, ethnic and income group and achievement gaps are narrower. That’s the good news. But there’s still a long road ahead to proficiency, especially for Black, Latino and low-income middle-schoolers. 

NAEP overhauled the science assessment in 2009, so it’s not possible to compare current performance to tests administered before then. But between 2009 and 2011, overall scores increased 2 points which is pretty good for a relatively short period of time. However, while nearly two thirds (65 percent) performed at the basic level or better, only a third (32 percent) met proficiency. As Jim Hull argues in his paper on NAEP performance levels, “proficient” is an aspirational level and basic should not be interpreted as weak. Even so, we should aspire to have more than one third of students proficient.

The lion’s share of the gains were produced by traditionally under-performing groups of students. The proportion of Black and Hispanic eighth-graders moving from below basic to basic and better — 4 and 5 percentage points respectively — was greater than for their White classmates, who improved by 2 points.  Likewise, low-income students gained more than more affluent students, even though both groups did better. This is the pattern we hope for and is necessary to closing achievement gaps:  everyone improves and the low-performing groups improve the most.

But make no mistake, those gaps still loom large. Eighty percent of White eighth-graders scored at basic or above compared to 37 percent of Black and 48 percent of Hispanic students. This means that most Black and Hispanic students are not even at the basic level in science.  Low-income students are in a similar place.

So although we’re moving the right direction, we need to find ways to accelerate these gains. Fortunately, NAEP gives us some insights into what to do.  NAEP analysts found that eighth-graders who were assigned hands-on science activities at least once or twice weekly performed significantly higher than their classmates who did them once or twice a month or less.  Likewise, students who frequently collaborated on science projects did better than those who did so rarely or never.

You can find the full report and your state results here. — Patte Barth

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