Low Expectations and Poor Supports Contribute to Gaps and Weak Performance in Science

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Newly released data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show modest gains in science achievement among the nation’s middle school students. Achievement, however, still remains alarmingly low. And while Latino, African-American, and low-income students all have made meaningful gains, gaps between groups of students are unacceptably wide. These results, coupled with new research on science standards and instruction, underscore the need for higher expectations and better supports for both students and teachers.

In 2011, just 31 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in science, up from 29 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, low-income eighth-graders were almost three times less likely than more affluent students to be proficient in science. Among African-American students, 64 percent had below basic science performance as did 52 percent of Latino students, compared with 21 percent of their white peers.

Our students need high expectations and strong support to achieve at high levels. But the evidence shows that, in science, they’re getting neither. States’ expectations of what students should be able to do in science are far too low and disorganized. In 2009, only three states had set the proficiency benchmark on their own science assessments at or above that of the national assessment. Another 15 states accept as proficient levels of science performance that the national assessment considers below basic.

In addition to being too low, most states’ standards lack coherence and focus. For example, instead of introducing a handful of basic topics early on and building on those in later grades, states introduce too many topics and too much complexity in the early grades. And instead of building connections between earth science, chemistry, biology, and physics, they treat each discipline separately.

Compounding the problem of low expectations is a lack of support for science teachers. According to a recent study, more than 70 percent of middle school science teachers in California cite limited funds for science equipment as a moderate or major challenge to science instruction. More than half also say they lack the necessary professional development opportunities. Together, weak standards and lack of support for teachers rob students of the rigorous science instruction they need. Indeed, the same California study found that the vast majority of middle school science teachers in that state fail to “use a pattern of classroom practices that supports regular [student] engagement,” practices like designing and conducting hands-on investigations, conducting fieldwork, and collecting and analyzing data.

The NAEP results remind us of the consequences of low expectations and low support, and make clear just how much work remains to ensure that all students have access to the instruction, content, and opportunities necessary to succeed in science.

— Allison Horowitz