Less than half of students at science competency

January 27, 2011 at 9:46 am 6 comments

I don’t know which is scariest:

  • (A) That only 27% of Georgia’s 4th graders are at competency for science learning.
  • (B) That the national average is only 32%.
  • or (C) That the definition of science competency is pretty amazingly low.

For a 4th grader, an example of skills demonstrated at “Proficiency” is “Recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object.”  Really?  Most 4th graders don’t know that?

In a conference call on today’s release of national 2009 science scores of grades 4 and 8 and 12, members of the governing board of the the National Assessment of Educational Progress decried the one percent of students scoring at the top level. There was also concern over the growing number of students scoring below the most basic levels.

At the two grade levels where Georgia students’ test results were released, less than one-third are demonstrating solid academic performance and competency in science.

In Georgia, 27 percent of fourth graders performed at or above the proficient level on science, compared to the national average of 32 percent. In eighth grade,  27 percent performed at or above proficient, compared to 29 percent nationally. Twelfth grade scores were not released by state.

via NAEP science: Less than half of students at competency | Get Schooled.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  January 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Two thoughts

    (a) what would be the actual percentages if they established a realistic threshold for “scientific competency”. Studies that have been done on adults in US and UK indicate it would be more like 95% not competent.

    (b) a smart 4th grader will know about balloons and blimps and will answer the gravity question “wrongly”, because he doesn’t yet understand how gravity on a confined gas or fluid can produce upward forces to float objects.

    Similarly, it is highly likely that they asked questions where the official answers are not in accord with science. For example, the State of California 5th grade science standards says that “all matter in the universe is made from atoms” — and science has no such theory.

    But “in school” a child who is able to remember the wrong answer and give will be marked correct!

    I’m guessing that they didn’t do a great job of forming the questions and in allowing the children to answer in the strongest forms they have.



    • 2. Mark Miller  |  January 30, 2011 at 4:37 pm

      I got to wondering today if there’s a certain amount of “what people *care* to know” in typical science education, as opposed to really sticking to wondering what reality really is. A line from Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series, I think, illustrates the difference between these two perspectives pretty well:

      “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the Universe.”

      Several years ago I heard about a complaint from a former science teacher about standardized tests in the school system. She used the example of the question, “What is the basis of the food chain in the ocean?” The “correct” answer was the Sun. Never mind the fumerals found on the ocean floor, where there is no sunlight, and the ecosystems found around them. I got to thinking, though, that perhaps one reason there’s this forced answer is out of a societal concern that people know that we need to care about the food chain that’s based at the ocean’s surface, re. pollution, our food, etc., as opposed to knowing about a part of the ocean that “most people” don’t care about (but perhaps should). If this is in fact what’s going on, I think it’s misguided, because people can miss the flip-side of the issue, thinking “algae is good” (the basis for the “correct” answer), and get the misimpression that “more is better,” which is not so.

      What also entered my mind in a very clear way is that “what people care to know” thinking *permeates* CS education. This would perhaps provide a standpoint from which we can say this is not good.

  • 3. Mike Byrne  |  January 27, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    I didn’t find (a) remotely surprising. (b) I found both surprising and distressing, and I have to admit I’m particularly surprised that Georgia was within 5% of the national average. Maybe things have changed, but my impression of Georgia when I lived there is that generally OTP, Georgia is more or less Mississippi. I guess the 27% could be 10% OTP mixed with 44% ITP or something like that.

    I can’t comment on (c) because the linked site is all Flash. Boo. (Flash is a pestilence upon the land… err, web.) However, Alan’s supposition about the problem(s) there seems quite plausible.

    I particularly like Alan’s specific example because not only is the CA standard incorrect, it is in fact the opposite of many current theories in physics. Such theories posit that most of the matter in the universe is dark matter, which is not made of traditional atoms at all.

    • 4. Alan Kay  |  January 27, 2011 at 2:35 pm

      Hi Mike

      Here’s the URL

      Retrieved today, standard P.1b:

      “P.1.b: Students know all matter is made of atoms, which may combine to form molecules.”

      This standard was first constructed in the 80s under the committee headed by Glenn Seaborg. When the two scientists on the committee protested, they were told that the standards were being taken from the textbooks, and they were not to altered!

      (I was told this by one of the scientists many years later at a meeting at the National Academies where I gave a talk that mentioned this standard as an example.)

      And that was many years ago. Many people have protested this and other such standards, but there it is.

      Part of my talk asked what could “Students know …” (which is prepended to every standard) possibly mean?

      My conclusion was they could not possibly mean “know” in any modern scientific sense of the term. But they probably meant “know” in the sense of having accepted a catechism and committed it to memory and can regurge it when asked.

      We have to realize that the NAEP has many of these same epistemological difficulties (as in fact does the NCTM, but that’s another set of gritted teeth).

      It is also worth looking at the National Standards for Science to see some sentences that would surprise any trained scientist. Why? Because these are written by staffers not scientists.

      Part of the problem is the POGO problem: the scientific community really hasn’t stepped up to the actual problems and its own responsibilities for helping to deal with it.



  • 5. H. Chad Lane  |  January 27, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    I couldn’t agree more that far too few in the the scientific community are helping to increase these competency numbers.

    Two things come to mind. The first is Cliff Stolls’ TED talk “On Everything”. He teaches 8th grade science four times a week and thinks we all should. If more of us did, I think these competency scores would improve, and (about as importantly) might even improve the ability of scientists to communicate with everyone.

    The second is Lewis Black’s commentary on the education crisis.. It is so fantastic I don’t want to spoil it… forward to 4:15 for the best part. The U.S. isn’t near the bottom in everything!

  • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  January 27, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    I blogged on the NAEP science results also:


    I have a link there to the PDF version of the report: much more usable than the FLASH one.


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