We’ve long rued the state of American science education—and crammed worrisome evidence from national and international assessments (as well as our own evaluations of states’ science standards) into the ears of all who will listen. This follow-up report to the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) science test has us concerned all over again, both with what it says and with how its findings may be interpreted. It examines (for the first time) students’ ability to perform hands-on and interactive computer-based science tasks. Three key trends emerged: The majority of pupils could make straightforward observations of data (e.g., 75 percent of twelfth graders could test a water sample and note whether it met EPA standards). Yet they struggled when investigations contained multiple variables or required strategic decision making to gather appropriate data (e.g., just 24 percent of eighth graders could manipulate metal bars to determine which were magnets). Finally, though students could often arrive at the correct conclusion, they struggled to provide evidence for their answer. (Seventy-one percent of fourth graders could accurately choose how volume changes when ice melts into water but only 15 percent could explain why that happened using evidence from the experiment.) These stumbles have already elicited grumbles among reporters, government officials, and others. Their argument: These data are proof that we’re forcing too much content (presented via rote memorization), which is hindering students’ ability to reason. But, as esteemed biologist Paul Gross wrote earlier this week, “there is no reasoning, scientific or otherwise, in the absence of knowledge.” Yes, hands-on activities are a critical component of science education. But so is learning the content. Thankfully, the NAEP activities are designed to measure content knowledge, too.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Science in Action: Hands-On and Interactive Computer Tasks from the 2009 Science Assessment (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, June 2012).

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