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'Advanced' Students a Rarity in Science, NAEP Data Show

Today, we got a dose of good news/bad news on U.S. achievement in science. The positive development was that average scores inched up for 8th graders, and the achievement gap narrowed for Hispanic and African American students. The downside? Most 8th graders still failed to reach the "proficient" level on the nation's report card.

Since my colleague Sarah D. Sparks did a great job with the big picture on the NAEP science results, I'm going to dive into one slice of the findings that probably will get little, if any, attention. And that is how few U.S. students scored at the highest level, "advanced," on the science exam.

How few? Just 2 percent of the 8th graders tested reached that level. (That figure is unchanged from 2009.) This is presumably worrisome for a country concerned about remaining competitive on the global stage. The numbers are especially striking for some states. In Mississippi and the District of Columbia the advanced figure rounds to zero. Another 28 states had a meager 1 percent reach the advanced level.

The high-flyer of the bunch was Massachusetts (surprise, surprise), which still had just 4 percent of students scoring advanced. Even if that figure doesn't sound very high, it's certainly a strong contrast to "round to zero" or 1 percent. Colorado, meanwhile, was the sole state to have 3 percent score at the advanced level.

I had hoped to provide an historical perspective going back a decade or so. Unfortunately, the results are not considered comparable because of changes to the science NAEP starting in 2009. Even so, with all appropriate caveats assumed, twice as many U.S. 8th graders—4 percent—reached the advanced level on the 2000 science exam.

So, what does advanced mean, anyway?

The short answer is that it represents "superior performance," according to the new NAEP report. The longer answer depends on what dimension is assessed. Here's an excerpt of the definition for "science practices:"

Students performing at the advanced level should be able to demonstrate relationships among different representations of science principles. They should be able to explain and predict observations of phenomena at multiple scales, from microscopic to macroscopic and local to global, and develop alternative explanations of observations, using evidence to support their thinking...

It goes on a bit longer, but you get the idea.

In reviewing the results for high-achievers I'm reminded of a 2010 report from the National Science Board. It sounded an alarm about the need to better identify and develop the next generation of "STEM innovators" in the United States, and included a call to cast a wider net to seize on all types of talent and reach underrepresented minorities and students from low-income families.

"Currently, far too many of America's best and brightest young men and women go unrecognized and underdeveloped, and, thus fail to reach their full potential," said the 2010 report from the board, which sets policy for the National Science Foundation and serves as an advisory body to the White House and Congress. "This represents a loss for both the individual and society."

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