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Students Learning Science:

A Report on Policies and Practices in U.S. Schools

August 1998

Authors: Christine Y. O'Sullivan, Andrew R. Weiss, and Janice M. Askew

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The 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science continues a 27-year mandate to report what students in grades 4, 8, and 12 know and can do in various subject areas. This report is intended primarily for policy makers, school administrators, and educators concerned with state or school-level policies. It presents results relating to teachers' academic preparation and professional development, the amount of emphasis science instruction receives in schools, student course-taking, and the availability of school resources that support science learning. The results are presented using the students as the unit of analysis. Scale scores are reported on a 300-point NAEP scale whereas the achievement level results are expressed as percentages of students at or above the Proficient level in accordance with standards developed by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB).

What's New About The Science Assessment?

  • The NAEP 1996 science assessment was the first science assessment given using a framework developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) under the auspices of the NAGB. The framework provides for an assessment of knowledge and skills in three major science domains - earth science, physical science, and life science.

  • The assessment included hands-on tasks that probed students' abilities to use materials to make observations, perform investigations, evaluate experimental results, and apply problem-solving skills. Also included were multiple-choice questions that assessed students' knowledge of important facts and concepts and probed their analytical reasoning skills, and constructed-response questions that explored students' abilities to explain, integrate, apply, reason about, plan, design, evaluate, and communicate scientific information.

Who is Teaching Science to the Nation's Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students?

  • Approximately three-fifths of students in grades 4 and 8 were taught by teachers who reported that their highest degree was a bachelor's degree.

  • At the fourth and eighth grades, 16 and 62 percent, respectively, of the nations' students were taught by teachers who reported holding an undergraduate or graduate major or minor in science or science education.

  • Approximately one-quarter of grade 4 public school students and three-quarters of grade 8 public school students had teachers who reported that they were certified in the area of science.

  • Teachers of approximately 46 percent of fourth and eighth graders reported having 11 or more years of science teaching experience.

What Emphasis Does Science Receive?

  • According to school administrators, 87 percent of fourth-grade students and 99 percent of eighth-grade students received instruction in science three or more times a week.

  • Twenty-six percent of twelfth graders reported taking six or seven semesters of science and 29 percent reported taking eight or more semesters of science from grades 9 through 12.

What Science Courses Are Our Nation's Students Taking?

  • Between 40 and 50 percent of grade 8 students were taught by teachers who reported spending a lot of time teaching earth science and physical science. Nineteen percent of students had teachers who indicated that they had spent a lot of time teaching life science.

  • At grade 12, 53 percent of students reported having taken earth and space science, 96 percent biology, 74 percent chemistry, and 41 percent physics.

  • Male students who reported having taken biology, chemistry, and physics outperformed female students who reported having taken these same courses.

  • In general, students who reported having taken chemistry and physics among their science courses performed at a higher level than students who reported not having taken them.

  • Fifty-four percent of grade 12 students reported that they were currently taking a science course, whereas 46 percent reported that they were not currently taking one.

Do Schools Have the Resources They Need to Support Science Learning?

  • Nationally, teachers of 59 percent of fourth graders and 65 percent of eighth graders reported receiving all or most of the resources they needed.

  • Teachers of approximately 15 percent of students in grades 4 and 8 reported having no access to computers.

  • Teachers of approximately 53 percent of students in grade 4 and 38 percent of students in grade 8 reported having access to one or more computers in the classroom.

  • Forty-five percent of fourth graders and 40 percent of eighth graders had teachers who reported having a curriculum specialist available in science.

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NCES 98-493 Ordering information

Last updated 14 March 2001 (RH)

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