- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

The "nation's report card," more formally known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, handed out grades in science recently for students who were in grades 4, 8 and 12 in 2000. It's the first science assessment since 1996.

The results aren't encouraging, but with NAEP scores that's old news even before it happens. Among fourth-graders, 29 percent are proficient or advanced in science "proficient" meaning, according to NAEP, performing at a level appropriate for the grade. In eighth grade, it's 32 percent, and in 12th grade, only 18 percent. And remember, by 12th grade a lot of kids have already dropped out, so the percentage among all 18-year-olds is certainly lower.

These are our new voters, the people who for the rest of their lives will be choosing among candidates at least partly because of their stands on global-warming treaties, or human cloning, or how evolution should be taught in the schools.

It cannot be a good thing that more than 80 percent of them don't know enough science to cast an informed vote.

I'm not worried that America will stop winning Nobel prizes, or lose the lead in technological innovation. We import people to do those things and are much the better for it, though having more homegrown top scientists would surely do us no harm either. The infrastructure for research and development in America, from university labs to venture capitalists eagerly hoping to find the "new new thing," ensures that plenty of people capable of the highest-level work will want to work here.

No, the problem is that nearly half of high-school seniors, 47 percent, fall in the category "below basic," more formally known as "clueless."

And that's 4 percentage points worse than 1996, despite all the time and effort and money that have been lavished on school reform in the past several years.

Very few categories show any statistically significant change, and those that do are mixed. For instance, comparing 1996's eighth-graders with those of 2000 showed a small tendency to move from the "basic" category to the two higher ones. But in 1996, 33 percent of fourth-graders were below basic, while for the same cohort sampled as eighth-graders in 2000 it was 39 percent.

The results suggest two tentative conclusions, neither heartening. One is that reform efforts are doing more to help the students who are already doing well, while those who were doing badly anyway are doing worse. Second is that the longer children are in school, the worse they do.

NAEP is a huge project, sampling 49,000 students nationwide and another 200,000 for assessments in 45 states and jurisdictions.

The NAEP Web site, nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard, includes a bank of more than 100 questions released from the 2000 test you might want to try.

One multiple-choice question for grade 4 asks, "How hot is it on the surface of the sun?" The choices are "not quite as hot as boiling water," "about as hot as fire," "about 100 degrees Fahrenheit" and "hotter than almost anything on Earth," which 76 percent chose correctly.

A constructed-response question for grade 8 asks students to explain why their shadow is sometimes longer than they are and sometimes shorter. Along with the question, you can see a guide to scoring, samples of student responses and a breakdown of answers to the question by achievement level, race/ethnicity, gender, parents' education and all the usual suspects. On this question, 47 percent of boys gave a complete answer, and 33 percent of girls.

Overall, males had higher scores than females at grades 4 and 8, but not 12 could that be another artifact of differential dropout rates?

In a series of questions, seniors are asked to discuss DNA, gene therapy and related subjects based on reading part of an article from a popular science magazine.

The test's three emphases are conceptual understanding, scientific investigation and practical reasoning the ability to apply scientific knowledge and scientific ways of thinking to everyday situations, which is what people need to do both in their private lives and in their roles as citizens.

Too few of them are prepared to do so successfully.

Linda Seebach is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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