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State Science Expectations 'All Over the Map,' Study Finds

A student in New Hampshire or Rhode Island is likely to have a much tougher time achieving academic "proficiency" in science than another in Virginia or Tennessee, a new analysis suggests. But don't blame it on the schools. The reason is that states around the nation set the bar for science proficiency at widely varying levels, concludes the report issued today by the business coalition Change the Equation, in collaboration with the American Institutes for Research.

Billed as the first-ever national analysis of how states define proficiency on science assessments, the report finds that states have established "radically different targets" for what their 8th graders should know and be able to do in science. And in many instances, what a state has deemed a "proficient" score is equivalent to below "basic" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science.

"At a time when the demand for robust skills and knowledge in science has gone global, 'proficiency' may have more to do with where you live than what you have learned," the report says. "This hodgepodge undercuts a major reason why we have tests in the first place: to provide reliable information on how well we're preparing students for the challenges of the global economy."

As some readers may know, such analyses in reading and math have been going on for some time now, and generally have reached the same conclusion, including a study issued this summer by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The new study, looking at 37 states in which relevant data were available, compared the passing scores states set on their 2009 8th-grade science tests by measuring them against the 2009 NAEP in science. The researchers took each state's passing score and mapped it onto the 300-point NAEP scale, allowing them to equate states' standards for "basic," "proficient," and "advanced" with scores on the NAEP scale.

In 15 of the 37 states examined—from Virginia and North Carolina to Connecticut, Texas, and California—the state bar for proficiency was actually below the NAEP threshold for basic. New Hampshire and Rhode Island were the only states that had a higher proficiency threshold than NAEP, while in Massachusetts it was about the same.

I should caution that some experts have long suggested that NAEP's definition of proficiency is overly stringent. I've also been told that NAEP is quite different from many state assessments, complicating such comparisons.

Leaving those matters aside, it seems clear from the new study that states do not agree on what level of science learning is needed. And it suggests that parents in many states may be getting a distorted view of student achievement.

The new report—"All Over the Map: Comparing States' Expectations for Student Performance in Science"—is part of an ongoing effort by the group Change the Equation, a coalition of more than 110 corporate CEOs, to report on the condition of STEM learning in the United States. Earlier this year, the group released a set of state-by-state STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) "Vital Signs" reports. At that time, the group also sent letters to all the nation's governors calling for higher proficiency standards in science and mathematics so that American students will be better prepared to compete globally.

It's worth reminding readers here that a major effort is currently under way to develop a set of common standards in science, which could be an important first step toward creating more aligned, and more rigorous, expectations for students around the nation.

The new study also sought to put state proficiency standards in context by comparing them with the findings of a 2009 study by ACT. It notes that while two-thirds of the states examined reported that most of their 8th graders were proficient in science, the ACT report found that only 8 percent of U.S. 8th graders were on track to do well in introductory college science courses.

"Setting a low bar in science breeds complacency and takes our eye off the ball," the report says. "If we lull parents, teachers, schools, and communities into believing their children are doing just fine in science, thank you very much, we deprive them of information and the sense of urgency they need to improve the quality of teaching and learning."

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