The Nation’s Science Report Card: Perspectives from the Board on Science Education

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2009 Science Report Card released last Tuesday, the United States received an overall grade of “needs improvement.” The test, which measures science proficiency, was administered to 4th, 8th, and 12th graders and underscores one of the major focal points of President Obama’s State of the Union address: the need to improve science education in the United States. Four in ten 12th grade students did not perform even at a basic level of science understanding, and only about a fifth were judged to be proficient in science, with just 1% performing at an advanced level. Furthermore, there is still a strong gap in the achievement of students based on ethnicity, educational attainment of parents and caregivers, and family income. The National Research Council’s Board on Science Education has produced a number of reports that discuss research and provide practical guidance to improve science education. We asked Tom Keller, Senior Program Officer with the board, for his thoughts.

“There has not been such momentum in science education in this country since the 1960s, and in contrast to the times when the nation responded to the Sputnik shock, we now know much more about effective science learning and teaching. Foundational work has been and is underway in the National Academies’ Board on Science Education (BOSE) that summarizes the enormous progress we have made through learning and education research over the last 20 years. BOSE published two seminal studies and their derivative products in two major areas of science learning: K-8 in schools, and the whole area of out-of-school or informal science learning. The report on learning science in K-8 classrooms, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8, and the associated practitioner volume Ready, Set SCIENCE!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms have become important resources for classroom-based science teaching. The two reports on learning science in informal environments, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits, and its practitioner volume Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments are beginning to influence how museums, science centers, zoos and aquariums, and other institutions of informal learning think about their products for their public. Taking Science to School cites the research evidence and builds the case for the teaching and learning of more rigorous content than has been the usual. And proficiency has been defined as encompassing four strands of scientific proficiency – understanding scientific explanations, generating scientific evidence, reflecting on scientific knowledge and participating productively in science. Science is not just a body of facts; it is what you know, how you use that knowledge and how that knowledge helps you understand the world. The reports on informal learning expanded on these four strands of science proficiency by acknowledging more specifically the role of interest and motivation, and by addressing the crucial role of identity as a science learner.

“A number of factors are converging, leading to an unprecedented effort in science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. Just recently, the Carnegie Corporation and the Institute for Advanced Studies released the Opportunity Equation, which lays out a framework for aligning the entire science education enterprise. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association led the creation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in English language arts and mathematics. The president initiated the Race to the Top education reform efforts, Educate to Innovate, and Change the Equation. The President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology and the National Science Board each put forth their reports on K-12 science education. The National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council is currently finalizing a framework for next generation science standards and is working in a unique partnership with AAAS, NSTA, and Achieve on the framework and standards.”

National Research Council publications can certainly inform discussions and promote science education to move us from a “needs improvement” category to “clearly outstanding,” though it will take effort throughout the entire education system to get us there.

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