Student Performance, Assessment in Science

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Publication date: 
31 May 2006

While U.S. fourth-graders have made some progress in science proficiency in recent years, eighth-graders' performance has stagnated, and the average score for 12th-graders has declined since 1996. These are some of the results of the latest national assessment of student performance in science, released on May 23.

In related news, a new bill introduced in the House by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) would hold states accountable for student performance in science as well as reading and math.


The findings on students' science performance come from the 2005 "Nation's Report Card" (, which provides the results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science. Such national assessments are conducted periodically by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, in science, mathematics, reading, writing, and other subjects. The performance of a representative sample of fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade students is compared to a framework of what students should know at those grade levels. Thirty-seven states participated in the 2005 science assessment.

The science framework assesses student performance in the areas of Earth science, physical science, and life science. Both multiple-choice and constructed-response questions were used, and some students were also assessed on conducting actual experiments, recording observations, and reaching conclusions. Sample questions are provided at Below are comparisons of the 1996, 2000, and 2005 student performance level results:


Percent Scoring At or Above Basic Level:
1996 - 63%
2000 - 63%
2005 - 68%

Percent Scoring At or Above Proficient Level:
1996 - 28%
2000 - 27%
2005 - 29%


Percent Scoring At or Above Basic Level:
1996 - 60%
2000 - 59%
2005 - 59%

Percent Scoring At or Above Proficient Level:
1996 - 29%
2000 - 30%
2005 - 29%


Percent Scoring At or Above Basic Level:
1996 - 57%
2000 - 52%
2005 - 54%

Percent Scoring At or Above Proficient Level:
1996 - 21%
2000 - 18%
2005 - 18%

In addition, the report card looks at results by gender, race/ethnicity, national school lunch recipients, parents' educational level, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Among fourth-graders, the gap between white and black student scores narrowed between 1996 and 2005, as did the gap between white and Hispanic students.

Among both eighth- and 12th-graders, the performance gaps between white and black students, and between white and Hispanic students, remained about the same between 1996 and 2005.

Males continued to outperform females in all three grades. Since 1996, the gap widened for fourth-graders, remained about the same for eighth-graders, and narrowed for 12th-graders.


While the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act calls for states to begin conducting science assessments during the 2007-2008 school year, it does not hold states accountable for the results. Under NCLB, states are required to test student proficiency in science at least once during grades 3-5, grades 6-9, and grades 10-12. On May 22, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-) introduced the Science Accountability Act (H.R. 5442). This bill would require states to assess student proficiency in science annually in grades 3-8, starting in the 2009-2010 school year, to match the NCLB requirements for reading and math assessments. It would also incorporate the science assessments into the NCLB accountability system.

Current cosponsors of the Science Accountability Act include Rush Holt (-NJ), Judy Biggert (R-IL), Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), Luis Fortuno (R-PR), and Patrick Tiberi (R-OH). Ehlers has circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter seeking additional cosponsors. The bill has been referred to the House Education and the Workforce Committee, but it seems unlikely that the committee will act on it this year. The No Child Left Behind Act will be up for reauthorization at the end of FY 2007, and it is more likely that provisions such as those in Ehlers' bill will be considered during the NCLB reauthorization.

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