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What Does the NAEP Science Assessment Measure?

Science Content
Science Practices
Comparison of the 1996–2005 and 2015 Frameworks


The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science assessment was designed to measure students' knowledge of three broad content areas: Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth and Space Sciences; and four science practices: Identifying Science Principles, Using Science Principles, Using Scientific Inquiry, and Using Technological Design. These four practices describe how students use their science knowledge by measuring what they are able to do with the science content.

The content of the NAEP science assessment is guided by the NAEP science frameworkClick to open pdf.. It provides the theoretical basis for the assessment and describes the types of questions that should be included and how they should be designed and scored. As with all NAEP frameworks, the science framework was developed under the guidance of the National Assessment Governing Board with input from hundreds of individuals across the United States, including some of the nation’s leading scientists, science educators, policymakers, and assessment experts.

In 2009, a new framework was introduced that replaced the one used for the 1996, 2000, and 2005 science assessments. The 2009, 2011, and 2015 assessments were developed using the same framework, allowing the results from the three assessment years to be compared. A variety of factors made it necessary to create a new framework: the publication of National Science Education Standards1 and Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy2, advances in both science and cognitive research, the growth in national and international science assessments, advances in innovative assessment approaches, and the need to incorporate accommodations so that the widest possible range of students can be fairly assessed.

The assessment resulting from the 2009 framework started a new NAEP science trend line so results from 2009, 2011, and 2015 cannot be compared with results of previous science assessments. Whenever changes are made to a framework, efforts are made to maintain the trend lines that permit the reporting of changes in student achievement over time. If, however, the nature of the changes made to an assessment are such that the results would not be comparable to earlier assessments, a new trend line is started. See a comparison of the two frameworks.


Science Content

The framework organizes science content into the following three broad areas reflecting the science curriculum students are generally exposed to across the K-12 curriculum.

  • Physical Science includes concepts related to properties and changes of matter, forms of energy, energy transfer and conservation, position and motion of objects, and forces affecting motion.
  • Life Science includes concepts related to the functioning of living systems including organization and development, matter and energy transformations, interdependence, heredity and reproduction, and evolution and diversity.
  • Earth and Space Sciences includes concepts related to objects in the universe, the history of the Earth, properties of Earth materials, tectonics, energy in Earth systems, climate and weather, and biogeochemical cycles.

Science Practices

Science comprises both content areas and practices, which are described below. The four science practices describe how students use their scientific knowledge by measureing what they are able to do with the science content. Although the framework distinguishes content from practice, the two are closely linked in assessment as in science.

  • Identifying Science Principles focuses on students' ability to recognize, recall, define, relate, and represent basic science principles in each of the three content areas.
  • Using Science Principles focuses on the importance of science knowledge in making accurate predictions about and explaining observations of the natural world.
  • Using Scientific Inquiry focuses on designing, critiquing, and evaluating scientific investigations; identifying patterns in data; and using empirical evidence to validate or criticize conclusions.
  • Using Technological Design focuses on the systematic process of applying science knowledge and skills to propose or critique solutions to real world problems, identify trade-offs, and anticipate effects of technological design decisions.

Because of differences in curricular emphasis, the proportion of the assessment devoted to each content area and science practice varies by grade. See the amount of assessment time specified by the framework and devoted in the assessment to each of the three components for grades 4, 8, and 12 in the 2015 assessment.

Subscales based on science content (i.e., Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth and Space Sciences) are created at each grade. Subscales are not created based on science practices.


Comparison of the 1996–2005 and 2015 Frameworks

1996–2005 Science Framework2015 Science Framework
1 National Research Council (1996). National Science Education Standards. Coordinating Council for Education, National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
2 American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Organized into Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth Science
  • Framework employed three types of themes: systems, models, and patterns of change
  • Assessment asked questions about the nature of science
  • Organized into Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth and Space Sciences
  • Framework employs crosscutting content among Life, Physical, and Earth and Space Sciences
Science Practices
  • Knowing and doing dimension organized into conceptual understanding, scientific investigation, and practical reasoning
  • Science practices assessed were largely experience based
  • Assessment included items on practical reasoning (i.e., applying science to suggest effective solutions to everyday problems)
  • Forty-five percent of the assessment focused on conceptual understanding
  • Science practices dimension organized into Identifying Science Principles, Using Science principles, Using Scientific Inquiry, and Using Technological Design
  • Nature of science treated within science practices, particularly Using Science principles and Using Scientific Inquiry
  • Science practices assessed take into account extant research and the cognitive complexity of the items
  • Assessment includes questions on technological design (i.e., the systematic process of applying science knowledge and skills to solve problems in a real-world context)
  • Sixty percent of assessment focuses on conceptual understanding (Identifying and Using Science principles)
  • Learning progressions (i.e., connected sequences of science performances across grade spans) are included
Assessment Items
  • Assessment included both paper-and-pencil and hands-on performance tasks.
  • No illustrative items to convey science knowledge or practices in the framework; only a few suggested ideas for items provided in the specifications
  • Assessment uses the history of science and the relationship between science and technology as contexts for questions
  • Assessment includes paper-and-pencil questions, hands-on performance tasks, and interactive computer tasks
  • Illustrative items that convey science knowledge and practices are included in both the framework and the specifications
  • Framework and specifications include guidelines for assessing students with disabilities and English learners


Last updated 11 May 2021 (FW)