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FYI Number 143: November 30, 2001

National Survey of Student Performance in Science

A newly-released survey of U.S. student achievement in science shows little change in performance over 1996 in grades four and eight, and a slight decline in performance by twelfth-graders. This new report provides results of the Department of Education's 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in science, including both national and state results for samples of U.S. students in grades four, eight, and twelve. The report, entitled "The Nation's Report Card: Science 2000," was released on November 20.

Commenting on the NAEP results, Education Secretary Rod Paige said,

"At first glance, the scores look flat. Our students are not learning science any better. On second glance, you notice that while fourth- and eighth-grade scores are flat, twelfth- grade scores have declined. The decline is not huge, but it is statistically significant, and morally significant as well. After all, twelfth grade scores are the scores that really matter. If our graduates know less about science than their predecessors four years ago, then our hopes for a strong 21st century workforce are dimming just when we need them most."

With the input of scientists and educators, the National Assessment Governing Board (the oversight body for the NAEP) has defined three levels of student performance - Basic, Proficient, and Advanced - for each of the three grade levels, with the belief that all students should perform at the Proficient level or above. The 2000 national survey shows that 29 percent of fourth-graders, 32 percent of eighth-graders, and 18 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the level of Proficient in science. At each grade, over 30 percent of students did not perform at even the Basic level.

This science assessment was first conducted in 1996, and again in 2000. For the 2000 survey, 47,000 students from the three grades, in public and private schools, were surveyed for the national assessment. A separate sample of 180,000 public-school students from 45 states and jurisdictions, in grades four and eight only, was used to assess participating states, and compare state scores to a national average.

The science assessment was divided into two main areas: Fields of Science (earth, physical, and life sciences) and Ways of Knowing and Doing Science (conceptual understanding, scientific investigation, and practical reasoning). Students were given both multiple-choice and constructed-response questions, and approximately half the students also received hands-on tasks involving experimentation. The 2000 national assessment breaks out student performance at the three proficiency levels as follows:

Of the fourth-graders, 34 percent of students in the assessment performed below the Basic level and 37 percent performed at the Basic level. The percentage of fourth-graders performing at the Proficient level was 26 percent, and the percentage performing at the Advanced level was 4 percent. In 1996, the percentages of students performing at each level were: below Basic: 33 percent; Basic: 38 percent; Proficient: 26 percent; and Advanced: 3 percent.

In eighth grade, 39 percent of students performed below the Basic level and 29 percent were assessed at the Basic level. The percentage of students performing at the Proficient level was 28 percent, while 4 percent were considered Advanced. In 1996, the percentages of eighth-graders performing at each level were: below Basic: 39 percent; Basic: 32 percent; Proficient: 26 percent; and Advanced: 3 percent.

The percentage of twelfth-graders performing below the Basic level was 47 percent. The percentage performing at the Basic level was 34 percent; while 16 percent were considered Proficient, and 2 percent were considered Advanced. In 1996, the percentages of students performing at each level were: below Basic: 43 percent; Basic: 36 percent; Proficient: 19 percent; and Advanced: 3 percent.

Performance of public-school students in grades four and eight was also assessed for most states and some U.S. jurisdictions. At the fourth-grade level, of the 44 states and jurisdictions included, 20 scored higher than the national average, 11 scored at the national average, and 13 scored below. Massachusetts had the highest average score for fourth-graders. At the eighth- grade level, of the 42 states and jurisdictions included, 18 scored higher than the national average, 11 scored at the average, and 13 scored below. For eighth-graders, the state with the highest average score was Montana.

Data was collected for subgroups of students based on race or ethnicity, and gender. According to the report, the achievement levels of the racial/ethnic subgroups generally varied little between 1996 and 2000; for students testing at or above the Basic or Proficient levels, the only statistically significant change was a decline in the percent of white twelfth-graders testing at or above the Basic level. Gender differences showing boys outperforming girls in grades four and eight widened between 1996 and 2000, while there was no statistically significant gender gap at the twelfth-grade level. The report also looked at such factors as teachers' undergraduate major, computer use in classrooms, and science courses taken by the students.

The report, "The Nation's Report Card: Science 2000," and accompanying materials can be found at http://www.nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/science/results/.

The NAEP assessments in reading and math may contribute to progress on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization. Leaders of the House-Senate conference committee have been working through the fall to resolve differences in the two versions of this bill (now both referred to as H.R. 1). Reportedly, a tentative resolution to one sticking point will be to use biennial NAEP surveys to calibrate and compare the results of statewide fourth- and eighth-grade assessments in reading and math. The full 39-member conference committee was scheduled to meet this week to vote on some ESEA issues, and key conferees remain determined to complete the bill this year. Appropriators are delaying the FY 2002 Labor-HHS- Education appropriations bill partly in hopes of seeing the outcome of the ESEA reauthorization bill, but may have to move forward without final guidance from ESEA.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3094

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