US kids’ scientific proficiency brought into question

Newly published test scores suggest most school students are falling short of proficiency in science study, with a high proportion failing to reach even a basic level.

The figures, which cover tests in 2009, come from the National Assessment of Educational Assessment Progress, which is also known by the catchier brand name “The Nation’s Report Card.” It’s not a test of all students, but rather 156,500 fourth-graders, 15,100 eighth-graders and a surprisingly low 11,100 twelfth-graders.

The selection process involved picking schools that best represented the national, state and local demographics, and then picking students at random from these schools. Students with disabilities or other special educational needs were given special conditions (such as additional time) along the lines of what they would receive on a state exam basis.

The results led to students being graded as achieving a basic, proficient or advanced level for their age group. Among fourth graders, 72% reached at least the basic grade, 34% reached at least proficient, and 1% reached the advanced level. That left 28% that failed to reach the basic grade.

Among eighth-graders, 27% failed to reach basic, 63% reached at least basic, 30% reached at least proficient, and 2% reached advanced.

In the twelfth-grade, 40% failed to reach basic, 60% reached at least basic, 21% reached at least proficient, and 1% reached advanced.

The report also provided a host of demographic breakdowns, and let’s just say anyone hoping to see stereotypes shattered is out of luck. White, Asian and Pacific Islander children did better than Hispanic and African American children; boys generally outperformed girls; and as for Mississippi, the less said the better.

And while there’s no single easy answer for improving children’s performance, being in a private rather than public school, having rich and well-educated parents, and not living in an inner city all help produce better results.

Although there have been similar assessments in the past, officials have stressed that the way the testing was organized means results are not directly comparable. For example, these tests put less emphasis on simply remembering facts and more on using science knowledge and skills to solve problems.

The Associated Press notes the results have prompted debate about educational priorities. One theory is that the added emphasis on literacy and numeracy of the No Child Left Behind program may have detracted from the attention paid to subjects such as science. The counter argument is that without basic reading and mathematical skills, children would struggle to cope with science study in the first place.

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