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Posted at 2:01 PM ET, 02/26/2011

Why NAEP science scores were so low

By Valerie Strauss

What is surprising about the newly released science scores in the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the nation’s report card, is that anybody is surprised that they were, on average, so low.

First some basics on the test and the results:

Who: national and state samples of 156,500 fourth-graders and 151,100 eighth-graders, and a national sample of 11,100 12th-graders.

What: questions designed to measure their knowledge and abilities in physical science, life science, and Earth and space sciences.


* 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above the proficient level, demonstrating competency on challenging subject matter.

* 72 percent of fourth-graders, 63 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of 12fth-graders performed at or above the basic level in science in 2009, demonstrating partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work in the subject.

* Top states at the fourth-grade level: New Hampshire, North Dakota, Virginia and Kentucky.

* Top states at the eighth-grade level: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. (There were no state results for 12th grade.)

* Low performers: Mississippi, where 59 percent of eighth-graders scored below basic, and California, where 52 percent were at that level.

* Results varied for students of different racial and ethnic groups. In grades 4 and 8, white students had higher average scores than other racial and ethnic groups, and Asian-Pacific Islander students scored higher than black, Hispanic, and American Indian-Alaska native students. In grade 12, there was no significant difference in scores for white and Asian/Pacific Islander students, and both groups scored higher on average than other racial and ethnic groups.

* Male students scored higher on average than female students in all three grades.

* Scores differed based on the location of the schools. In grades 4 and 8, students attending schools in cities scored lower on average than students in schools in other locations. In grade 12, the average score for students in city schools was lower than that for students in suburban schools but was not significantly different from the scores for students in towns and rural areas.

Some folks in the education world reacted with surprise that so many students scored so low. The Baltimore Sun quoted Alan Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, the organization that Congress authorized to run NAEP, as saying: "In Baltimore, 80 percent [of eighth-graders] didn’t meet basic, so it is all pretty disappointing.”

And Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a District-based coalition of the nation’s largest urban public schools systems, was quoted as saying: “In general, it is clear that the nation’s and the states’ science scores are much lower than anyone would have expected, and [Baltimore's] scores are even lower.”

Why better results were expected is a real question.

Over the past decade, the accountability system of No Child Left Behind has pushed schools to focus on reading and math because those were the subjects on which students were tested and the results used to grade schools and teachers. That results in less time for other subjects, including science.

No Child Left Behind did require that science be annually assessed in various grades starting in 2007-08, but the entire testing regime came under criticism when it became obvious that states were lowering standards to ensure higher test scores.

Over the past decade, schools have cut funding for teacher training and resources for science classes. Although some programs have recognized that science learning demands a hands-on approach, many teachers don’t get enough material support to do that well. States have science standards, but many are not well drawn, and a significant percentage of science teachers have no training in the field.

Considering all of this, what would have been surprising is if the NAEP science scores weren’t low.

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 26, 2011; 2:01 PM ET
Categories:  Science, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  naep, naep science scores, no child left behind, standardized tests  
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As it is with all subjects, but Math/Science particularly, the unique skill set of math/science knowledge coupled with being 'good with children/adolescents/teens' is unique, far beyond what municipalities are prepared to pay for or support. How many science nerds you know are good with people, much less children? It may be a stereotype, but do you know many of them?

I suspect this dismal science performance far predated NCLB, too; NCLB has only shone its 'ugly light' on the problem, which is probably NCLB's primary redeeming value.

Posted by: pdexiii | February 26, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, do you know what happened to DC's scores? My child sat for this test, yet another in an unending string of standardized exams that suck the joy out of learning in children.

Seriously, where are the scores? What happened? I know OSSE isn't going to answer my questions, but do you know?

Was the data so bad that they decided to suppress it?

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | February 26, 2011 4:34 PM | Report abuse


The report only reported 4th and 8th grade results for the 47 states that had adequate participation. Alaska, DC, Kansas, Nebraska and Vermont (or maybe N.H.--I can't remember) did not have adequate participation.

Posted by: gardyloo | February 26, 2011 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Frankly, the whole test score discussion needs some reconsideration...

Posted by: speakingofeducation | February 26, 2011 10:28 PM | Report abuse

As long as our focus is on what students CAN'T do instead of what they CAN, scores will be lousy. Our focus should be on students' strengths... put the $$ into pushing kids in their areas of strength instead of trying to make them all the same. "Purpose-driven" education. Help them find what they were put on Earth to do!

Posted by: rlm1 | February 27, 2011 8:49 AM | Report abuse

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