More than 40 percent of high school seniors lack a basic understanding of science and an equally “disturbing proportion” of younger students don’t understand the subject either, the National Assessment Governing Board said today in a report card on the nation’s schools.
Forty-three percent of high school seniors had a below-grade level knowledge of science, the board said. Only 39 percent of eighth-graders had a basic understanding of the subject appropriate to their level; for fourth-graders, it was 33 percent.
Only 3 percent of students at all of those grades performed at what was considered an advanced level.
Mark Musick, board chairman, said the science test results reflected a pattern appearing in other national subject tests.
“Most students have a grasp of basic factual knowledge and procedures, but a disturbing proportion … are below that basic level,” he said.
The board was created by Congress to monitor the progress of American students in five major subjects - science, math, reading, U.S. history and geography.
The results announced today by the group were based on science tests administered last year to 130,000 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders. Those results were released earlier this year but were incomplete at the time because they lacked standards to determine what scores should be considered basic, proficient or advanced.
Fred Johnson, president of the National Science Teachers Association, said the science figures painted a disappointing, but realistic, snapshot of the state of U.S. schooling in the sciences.
“The achievement results show us very clearly that the students of this nation are not where they should be if we expect them to grow into scientifically literate adults,” he said.
Johnson said educators could do more to change the trend by providing their science teachers with additional opportunities to improve and update their professional skills throughout their career.
The science test differed from past subject tests because it required hands-on experiments and more written explanation of answers. Twenty percent of questions were multiple choice, about one-fourth their usual share, and the test took 90 minutes instead of an hour to complete.
Test results were broken out by state, race, sex, poverty level and for public and private schools.
Students in the Northeast and Central states outperformed those in the West and Southeast. Whites outperformed blacks and Hispanics.
Boys slightly outperformed girls in the 12th grade, but not in the earlier grades, suggesting as other tests have done that the gender gap on science achievement is narrowing.
xxxx SAMPLE QUESTIONS Examples of questions on the 1996 national science test administered by the National Assessment Governing Board. All of the following questions fall in the “basic” knowledge category; students at the “basic” level are likely to provide a correct answer to them. FOURTH GRADE: Q. Many things are made of metal, such as pots, pans, tools and wire. Give two reasons why metals are used to make many different things. Score: One point for each property of metal the student lists. EIGHTH GRADE: Q. A certain organism has many cells, each containing a nucleus. If the organism makes its own food, it would be classified as: a) a bacterium b) a fungus c) a plant d) an animal Answer: C TWELFTH GRADE: Q. Some students were studying water in the environment. They filled one sample jar with ocean water and another sample jar with fresh water from the lake. The labels on the jars fell off and the water in both jars looked the same. Describe a test, other than tasting or smelling the water, that the students could do to determine which jar held the ocean water and which jar held the lake water. Explain how the test would work. Score: Three points if student lists a method and its results; two points if a method and results are listed with minimal detail or a flawed method; one point if student lists a method with no details; no points if student provides an inconclusive method.