Thursday, January 27, 2011

New Science NAEP underlines challenges

Earlier this week, the new NAEP Science results came out, reporting that fewer than a third of American students in grades 4, 8, and 12 are proficient in science. What should we make of these results? Noyce Foundation trustee Alan Friedman and former director of the New York Hall of Science, provides some insights.

"Looking at the results, I was rather dismayed at the relatively lackluster performance at the top of the achievement levels, especially at the critical twelfth-grade level." Only 1-2% of students tested achieved at the highest, Advanced, level, and Friedman worries that this bodes ill for our national drive to increase preparation for science and engineering careers.

Friedman does, however, point out some positives. For one thing, the new science NAEP (NAEP stands for National Assessment of Educational Progress) is a good test. It goes "far beyond rote memorization," asking students to critique experiments and even to answer computer-based questions that explore students' ability to analyze data or design their own experiments. These more in-depth questions have not yet been scored, but over time they should show how well students are able to apply what they learn in science.

Second, Friedman, a lifelong champion of hands-on, applied science learning, sees evidence to support his view that this kind of learning benefits students. As he points out, "It’s not just about learning facts in a classroom. It’s doing activities where you put your understanding of science principles into action.... Fourth-graders who were in classrooms that engaged in hands-on science activities once a week or more, for example. . . scored 7 points higher on NAEP than their peers who were in classrooms that engaged in science activities less frequently. The pattern was most dramatic in California, where the score difference between those two groups in the fourth grade was 15 points." This big difference may reflect the fact that in the wake of No Child Left Behind, science instruction has become rare event in California elementary schools - averaging less than thirty minutes a week in one Bay Area study.

Involvement in science outside of school can be just as important - maybe more so. Students in grades 8 and 12 who reported "do[ing] science related activities not for schoolwork" scored 5 to about 15 points higher than students who said they didn't do science outside of school. Now, this may just be a sign that those students who are interested in science do better in science. Still, it does suggest that providing science experiences outside of school is worhtwhile. That's one reason the Noyce Foundation is working to build a network of high-quality science experiences for young people outside of school, through 4-H, Techbridge, The After School Corporation (TASC), and others. Give kids a chance to do some real science or engineering, and they get interested, dig in, and learn.

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