More dismal science test results

Once again, California students have done stunningly worse than their eighth grade peers in other states on Science 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a biennial test of knowledge in science.

The results were announced earlier this month on the same day as the release of the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, which the National Research Council and states have been developing. Many California science educators are counting on the new standards, which focus on an in-depth understanding of science concepts, to jump-start improvement in science in California. Count Elizabeth Stage, the director of the Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science center at UC Berkeley, among the optimists, but only, she adds, if the state makes science a priority, with more time spent on  it and training for teachers in how it should be taught.

Partial state by state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient and advanced. Source: NAEP (click to enlarge).
Partial state-by-state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient, and advanced. Source: NAEP. (Click twice to enlarge)

There’s a lot of room for improvement. Nationwide, 32 percent of students tested proficient or above on the NAEP science test of physical, life, and Earth and space sciences. In California, 21 percent tested proficient, including one percent advanced, and 47 percent were far below basic. California’s average score of 140 on a scale of 300 – on the upper end of the below-basic band – put it on par with Arizona and perennially poor performers from the Deep South – Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana – at the bottom. Only Washington, D.C., which took the test for the first time this year, did a lot worse.

The national average was 152, two points higher than in 2009. Massachusetts, often compared with California for its rigorous standards in general, had a score of 160 ­ – the upper end of the basic band, with 40 percent of its students proficient and 4 percent advanced.

Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP (Click to enlarge)
Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP. (Click to enlarge)

White students in California scored 159, compared with 163 nationwide, and Asians averaged 158, one point below the national average. But Hispanics in California scored only 128, compared with 137 nationwide, with only 11 percent proficient or advanced. For African Americans, the scores were 124 in California (8 percent proficient) and 129 nationwide.

Dave Gordon, superintendent of Sacramento County and a former member of the NAEP board of governors, called California’s distance behind the rest of the nation “shocking.” He said the low score reflects that science is not being taught enough in elementary grades, where disproportionate time is spent on math and English language arts, which are tested annually (science is tested only in fifth and eighth grades in California). And science isn’t being taught engagingly, with hands-on lessons, Gordon said.

There appears to be a connection. Students of teachers who reported they did hands-on projects nearly every day scored significantly higher (156 points) than those who reported they did it only once or twice a month (149). A survey of California teachers and principals last year by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd confirms Gordon’s impressions; 85 percent of elementary teachers said they had no training in science in the past three years, and 40 percent said they taught it less than an hour each week.

Sixteen of 47 states that took NAEP in 2011 made what NAEP termed significant increases – anywhere from two- to six-point gains on the 300-point scale. Although California’s score also increased three points, from 137 in 2009, NAEP didn’t consider this significantly higher because of the number of test takers relative to the size of the state.

There was some good news nationwide and in California, in narrowing the achievement gap. Hispanic students’ scores rose five points nationwide and four points in California, reducing the big disparities between them and white students from 30 points two years ago to 26 points in 2011 nationwide and 31 points in California. The 36-point gap between African American and white students in California and 35-point gap nationwide failed to narrow.

More than multiple choice

NAEP Science was given to 122,000 eighth graders in 7, 292 schools in 47 states. It used a matrix sampling method, with each student answering only sections of the test. It tested students in physical science and life science (30 percent each), with 40 percent Earth and space sciences. The NAEP test isn’t aligned with California standards or those of any state. It measures the knowledge that a group of scientists and educators agree that all students in eighth grade should know. While California’s science test is all multiple choice, NAEP includes some short-answer questions that require students to analyze a problem or set of data and explain the reasoning behind an answer.

72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly (click to enlarge)
72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly. (Click to enlarge)

NAEP science results shouldn’t be compared with California’s content standards tests, in part because the NAEP board sets a higher expectation for reaching proficiency. NAEP defines “basic” as partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade, while “proficient” represents “solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challeng­ing subject matter.”

Even the description of “basic” knowledge in the Earth and space sciences section sounds rigorous, however: Students “should be able to describe a Sun-centered model of the solar system that illustrates how gravity keeps the objects in regular motion; describe how fossils and rock formations can be used as evidence to infer events in Earth’s history; relate major geologic events, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain building to the movement of lithospheric plates; use weather data to identify major weather events; and describe the processes of the water cycle including changes in the physical state of water.”

By comparison, students who test proficient “should be able to explain how gravity accounts for the visible patterns of motion of the Earth, Sun, and Moon; explain how fossils and rock formations are used for relative dating; use models of Earth’s interior to explain lithospheric plate movement; explain the formation of Earth materials using the properties of rocks and soils; identify recurring patterns of weather phenomena; and predict surface and groundwater movement in different regions of the world.”

California eighth graders take and are tested in physical science. They’re supposed to learn Earth science in sixth grade and life science in seventh grade. So students are partly being tested in NAEP on two-year-old knowledge ­ – one reason cited for California’s poor performance. But both Gordon and Stage say that’s a minor factor.

Stage says that California science standards require an extensive knowledge of facts; with little time to teach science each week, that’s what teachers focus on and not a conceptual framework or scientific investigations and experimentation.

The Next Generation Science Standards teach science in a more integrated way, encouraging students to see common practices between life science and engineering and technology. It stresses what creators call “crosscutting concepts” – a way of linking different areas of science through similar lines of inquiry, such as cause and effect, patterns, and scale. These sound abstract, but the standards stress making them explicit.

Stage points to a distinction between second grade California and New Generation standards dealing with motion of objects. California requires that students know “the way to change how something is moving is by giving it a push or a pull.” The Next  Generation standards would expect students to “analyze data to determine the relationship between friction and the warming of objects” by rubbing two objects together or “develop and share a design solution to reduce friction between two objects,” perhaps by lubricating wheels on a skateboard – something kids can relate to.

The Next Generation standard is an /“accessible way to understand the relationship between energy and experience and it’s a really good example of an engineering practice,” Stage said.

California is expected to adopt the new standards sometime next year. It has no plans – or money, for now – to design a new set of science assessments, but Stage hopes that California will join other states in creating one.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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