Virginia and Maryland students showed a better understanding in science than many of their peers nationwide, but in both states two-thirds of students scored at or below basic levels.
The figures are part of the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) report, which shows discouraging trends in students’ scientific knowledge.
“If our graduates know less about science than their predecessors four years ago, then our hopes for a strong 21st-century work force are declining just when we need it to improve,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said yesterday.
Nationally, almost half of high school seniors did not understand basic science, according to the report, which also found that high school scores worsened significantly between 1996 and 2000.
The NAEP 2000 study involved some 47,000 public and private school students in grades four, eight and 12. Scores of an additional 180,000 students from public schools were used for state-by-state results. Students were tested on their knowledge of Earth science (the solar system, rocks and weather); physical science (the nature of matter, forms of energy and motion); and life science (biology, cells, life cycles and ecology).
Only 33 percent of Virginia’s fourth-graders and 31 percent of its eighth-graders scored at the proficient and advanced levels, while 67 percent of its fourth-graders and 69 percent of its eighth-graders scored at the basic and below-basic levels.
In Maryland, 26 percent of the fourth-graders and 28 percent of the eighth-graders tested scored at the proficient and advanced levels with 74 percent of fourth graders and 71 percent of eighth graders scored at the basic and below-basic levels.
The District, along with 10 states, this year opted not to participate in the NAEP science tests, which are voluntary. School districts use the scores as a yardstick to measure their performance against that of other states.
Despite the large number of Virginia students with only a basic grasp of science, state education officials said they were making strides.
“Overall, there’s still room for improvement to where we stand now,” said Kirk T. Schroder, president of Virginia’s Board of Education. “But we’re still doing very well compared to other states. We could do more, but at the same time we’re making progress.”
Scores for the NAEP tests ranged from 0 to 300, with scores of 138-145 considered “basic” knowledge, 170-178 “proficient” knowledge, and 204 and higher “advanced” knowledge.
Virginia fourth-graders scored 156 points while eighth-graders scored 152 points up from 149 in 1996. Maryland fourth-graders scored 146 points while eight-graders scored 149 points five points more than 1996.
Despite efforts to improve science education after 1996, when the first NAEP science assessment was taken, fourth- and eighth-graders’ skills were unchanged: The national average this year rose from 148 to 149 points for eighth-graders and was 148 points for fourth-graders.
The most disturbing data were from high school students their average science score of 150 in 1996 fell to 147 in 2000.
In 2000, 47 percent of seniors had “below basic” science scores, while 34 percent scored in the basic knowledge category and 18 percent scored in the proficient or advanced science categories.
This was worse than in 1996, when 43 percent of seniors’ scores were “below basic,” 36 percent were basic and 21 percent were proficient or advanced.
NAEP is not designed to explain why scores changed, said Gary W. Phillips, acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP.
However, he said, data indicated:
m Students performed better if their teachers had a science major.
m Students who took classes in Earth, integrated, physical or general science did better than students who didn’t study science or only took life science.
m Using a computer especially for downloading and analyzing data and doing simulations increased science scores, while watching television six hours or more a day was linked to low scores.
Most students can learn core ideas and skills in science, but teaching will have to “eliminate a lot of needless detail and repetition,” said George D. Nelson, a NASA astronaut and leader of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Students “know how to think,” he added, “but they have to be helped to use that kind of thinking in terms of science. Science is a very creative process.”
Ellen Sorokin contributed to this report.