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DNA? Atoms? What Science Students Know, and Don't Know

A new website offers insights into which scientific concepts most U.S. students are knowledgeable about, as well as where a lot of them need to bone up, from atoms and DNA to how mountains form.

Unveiled yesterday by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the site presents detailed information on how a national sample of middle and high school students answered more than 600 multiple-choice questions, as well as an analysis of their correct and incorrect responses. It also allows educators to administer the test to their own students.

The AAAS says in a press release that identifying the misconceptions students hold and how pervasive they are is not typically part of the analysis of test results from state assessments, as well as national and international tests, but that this is vital information for educators to improve instruction.

In addition, the prominent science body says the newly developed test questions seek to counter the notion that multiple-choice questions are "useful only for testing recall of memorized definitions and trivial facts."

"As a result of our efforts, many of the test questions included in the new website measure not only knowledge of factual information, but they also probe a student's ability to explain real-world phenomena, reason logically through problem situations, or identify the reasons why a claim is true," George DeBoer, the deputy director of the AAAS' Project 2061, says in the press release.

Below is a quick sampler of what the analysis found, with the percentages indicating how many students got the correct answer.

Some things most students know:

• DNA is the molecule that contains the genetic information that is passed from parents to offspring. (95 percent)

• The lungs both take in oxygen molecules and eliminate carbon dioxide molecules. (75 percent)

• Matter is made up of atoms. (64 percent)

Some things a lot of students don't know:

• The different cell types (skin, muscle, cartilage, etc.) found in a given individual's body contain different DNA. (42 percent)

• Mountains form by the piling up of pieces of rock. (48 percent)

• Earth's plates are located deep within the earth and are not exposed at the earth's surface. (51 percent)

The AAAS website is organized to quickly give users a picture of what students know and the misconceptions they have, the press release explains, with information broken down by specific scientific concepts. For example, there are 20 questions probing the idea that genetic information is encoded in DNA molecules.

"This is extremely valuable information for teachers and curriculum developers to have, said DeBoer, "because it shows them where instruction needs to be targeted."

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