Science Reasoning at Risk, NAEP Shows

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Science proficiency is about much more than the rote recitation of facts. A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows science students in fourth, eighth, and 12th grades struggle with higher order skills, as evidenced by their inability to use science learning for real-life problem solving. Moreover, black, Latino, and low-income students across all three grades demonstrated lower proficiency than their white or affluent peers. Under current science instruction norms, student learning is not reaching high levels.

Although hands-on tasks have been part of NAEP science assessments since the ’90s, the 2009 assessment incorporated new interactive computer and hands-on tasks to determine whether students could properly conduct experiments, reach legitimate conclusions, and explain their results. Students worked with lab equipment and other materials to perform actual experiments designed to gauge their ability to effectively plan, analyze, and synthesize tasks and information as they worked to reach conclusions they could deconstruct.

Test results show all is not well. Twelfth graders were tasked with siting a new town based on water quality. And while 75 percent could test water samples, record data, and determine whether pollutants in water samples exceeded EPA standards, only 11 percent could justify (with details from the data) their recommendation for where to locate the new town. For African-American students, the percentages were 50 percent and 3 percent, for Hispanic students, 59 percent and 6 percent. White students fared better at 84 percent and 13 percent. In general, students were more successful on straightforward observation and the use of smaller data sets, but less successful on navigating experiments with more variables, deciding which data were relevant, or explaining their conclusions, even correct ones.

Although the teachers of more than 90 percent of fourth and eighth graders reported having incorporated hands-on science activities at least monthly, and more than half reported featuring once-a-week projects, lackluster student performance suggests that this instruction is not enough. Evidently, to help students develop the higher order skills they need, teachers need better ways to teach students how to design and conduct hands-on investigations, how to collect and analyze data, how to draw conclusions from those data, and how to report their findings in writing.

The advent of the Common Core State Standards represents a new opportunity to promote instruction that goes beyond the basics and fosters higher order skills. The standards’ emphasis on dissecting nonfiction texts, including science texts, and supporting writing with examples from those texts, will challenge and develop students’ critical-thinking skills. Yet, to successfully implement the standards and to help teachers help their students acquire these life skills, teachers need adequate instructional supports. They are what students and teachers deserve.

—Anneliese M. Bruner