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If it wasn't for bad news, would there be any news at all?

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | May 26, 2021

Not, it seems, when it comes to NAEP.

On May 25, IES released the latest results of the NAEP science assessment. Those of you who have followed NAEP releases in reading and math, or who have seen my previous blogs about those results, could probably guess what the science scores look like.

In the world of student performance as reflected in NAEP, "no change in scores" is about the best news we get. And so it is with the latest science results: little change overall, with students at the bottom of the score distribution falling even further behind.

As with all NAEP releases, there are lots and lots of details, but here are some key numbers comparing the just-released 2019 science results with the previous 2015 assessment scores:

At the 25th percentile:

  • Grade 4: down 3 points from 132 to 129
  • Grade 8: down from 133 to 132, but not statistically significant
  • Grade 12: down from 126 to 125, but again not statistically significant

At the 10th percentile:

  • Grade 4: down 5 points from 108 to 103
  • Grade 8: down 3 points from 109 to 106
  • Grade 12: down from 103 to 100, but not statistically significant

Not all these declines are statistically significant—but the trend is crystal clear. As you know, I am particularly concerned about the percentage of students who fall below NAEP Basic.

As shown below, over a quarter of our nation's 4th graders are below basic in science (27%, worse than the 24% in 2015). Fully one third of 8th graders and 41% of 12th graders are below basic—I guess we can take some solace knowing that those numbers did not get worse between the two tests.

Below NAEP Basic
  Grade 4 Grade 8 Grade 12
All students 27% 33% 41%
Black 49% 58% 69%
Hispanic 39% 47% 56%
White 15% 20% 28%

These students will face a world where science is ever more integral to their day to day lives—and in which their careers, job prospects, and wages may hinge on a solid understanding of STEM (remember the S in STEM is science).

Maybe we have enough time to better educate the 49% of Black students in 4th grade who score below basic or the 58% of Black 8th graders who score below basic (ditto the 39% of Hispanic 4th graders or the 47% of Hispanic 8th graders)—but almost 70% of Black 12th graders and well over half of Hispanic 12th graders perform below basic. They are about to enter adulthood, college, the job market, or the military with, well, less than a basic understanding of science.

We can talk about the low percentages of students proficient in science or the miniscule percentages that are advanced. And those percentages should lead us to worry about how the nation will fare in the future as STEM becomes ever more important to our economy and to the position of the U.S. in the world economy.

But when so many of our students, especially Black and Hispanic ones, don't even reach the basic level of understanding of science (or math or reading), that leaves me truly worried. Every day, the psychometricians who work on NAEP dedicate themselves to accurately measuring student knowledge and placing it in the proper historical context. But after the data is collected and the scores released, the responsibility turns to us to feel the urgency of those results and translate that urgency into action. And it's clear that whatever we've been doing isn't working—particularly for the nation's lowest-achieving students.