Lack of consistency across states creates patchwork of “proficiency” requirements and misleading information on how well students are being prepared for high school, college and careers
U.S. students risk falling behind in science education due to radically inconsistent state definitions of proficiency. While teachers and parents are being told that students are meeting the standard for eighth-grade proficiency set by their state, they may actually be performing at levels substantially below their international counterparts and go on to struggle in high school, college and careers.
A new report, “All Over the Map,” was released today by Change the Equation (CTEq), a network of more than 100 CEOs dedicated to creating widespread literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), at the National Governor Association’s STEM Summit in Durham, N.C. For the first time, researchers put state definitions of “proficiency” in eighth-grade science against a common measuring stick – the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade science test. NAEP is a project of the U.S. Department of Education that measures student knowledge and achievement nationally.
The results are startling. What one state may deem to be “proficient” may be classified as “basic” or well below grade level in another.
- Fifteen states have set the bar for “proficiency” below NAEP’s threshold for “basic” knowledge.
- Only four states have set the bar near or above NAEP’s bar for proficiency. - Louisiana, New Mexico and Mississippi have more rigorous performance standards for students than states like Connecticut, New York and Maryland that are generally thought to have high-quality, competitive schools.
“Nationally, we do not have a common understanding or agreement of what it means to be proficient in eighth-grade science,” said Linda Rosen, Ph.D., CEO of Change the Equation. “We’re sounding the alarm to say that without meaningful definitions of proficiency, parents and teachers are not getting an accurate picture of student progress. Students can be falling behind and may not know it until it is too late.”
Virginia has the lowest definition of “proficient,” followed by Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina, Iowa, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Oregon, South Carolina, California and Arizona. All have set their definitions for achievement below NAEP’s standard for “basic” science learning. Just four states—Louisiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire—are at or above NAEP’s standard for proficiency.
NAEP defines “basic” as “…partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade,” hardly the learning that students need to put them on a path to success in college-level science.
While parents, teachers and administrators believe that young people are learning, students may actually be in danger of falling behind in science. Two-thirds of the states studied in “All Over the Map” determined that most of their students are proficient in eighth-grade science. But ACT, which administers standardized tests to measure high school achievement and college entrance, found that only 13% of eighth-graders nationally were prepared for college science. And U.S. students are falling behind internationally. U.S. students rank significantly behind 12 other developed nations and significantly ahead of only nine on an international test of 15 year-olds’ achievement in science.
States should set their proficiency targets in science at a place that reflects the demands students will face in a competitive global marketplace. States are already coming together to develop Next Generation Science Standards, which will describe the content students should learn at every grade level. Such content standards are crucial, but they are only half the battle. States’ passing scores on tests that measure students’ mastery of those standards need to signal that students have a strong enough command of science to do well in high school and go on to succeed in college and careers.
“Raising the bar on measuring student achievement will take fortitude as some states see the percentage of proficient students plummet,” said CTEq Board of Directors Chair Craig R. Barrett, Ph.D., and retired CEO and Chairman of the Board of Intel. “Though it may be painful and initially unpopular, we are doing students a disservice if we set the bar low and give them a false sense of achievement that will hinder their learning and growth in school and beyond.”
Working with the respected American Institutes for Research (AIR), CTEq compared the passing scores that states set on their 2009 eighth-grade science tests required by federal law with the scale that NAEP established for its own test. “All Over the Map” examines 37 states for which data was available.
“All Over the Map” is part of CTEq’s “Vital Signs” project, which reports on the condition of STEM learning in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It measures state-by-state performance and digs deeper into the nation’s STEM education challenges.