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Girls Have Edge With Hands-On Science Tasks, NAEP Suggests

Although girls trail boys in science achievement based on some measures, including recent NAEP and Advanced Placement data, here's an interesting plot twist: When it comes to applying their science knowledge through hands-on activities, girls may have, well, the upper hand.

That's based on data in a special NAEP report released last week, which went beyond the main paper-and-pencil test. It focused on students' ability to perform scientific investigations, draw valid conclusions, and explain their results.

The result? Even though boys, on average, scored higher than girls on the traditional paper-and-pencil NAEP, the reverse was true for the hands-on science tasks, where girls had a slight edge. There was no gender gap on a separate set of interactive computer tasks, however.

The data were derived from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science, which included the administration of two types of activity-based tasks to some students: hands-on tasks where students used materials and lab equipment to perform science experiments, and interactive computer tasks that asked students to solve scientific problems in a computer-based environment.

Here are the results by grade level. The figures represent the average percent correct score for the hands-on tasks by gender. All these gender differences were statistically significant, the NAEP report said.

• Grade 4
Males: 45 percent
Females: 49 percent

• Grade 8
Males: 43 percent
Females: 45 percent

• Grade 12
Males: 39 percent
Females: 41 percent

These findings caught my eye because I recently blogged about a variety of data suggesting that boys outpace females in science achievement (and often math) in the United States, whether on AP tests, NAEP, as well as the global TIMSS and PISA. To be clear, these differences are generally much smaller than the chronic achievement gaps by race/ethnicity and poverty, but nonetheless it was striking to see the gaps across a variety of assessments.

Gender aside, the new NAEP science report suggests some reason for concern about the overall ability of U.S. students to demonstrate science learning in action. (Check out my colleague Nora Fleming's recent EdWeek story about the results.)

Most students at grades 4, 8, and 12 were "successful on the parts of investigations that involved limited sets of data and making straightforward observations based on that data," the report said. But many encountered difficulty when asked to deal with a larger set of variables or tasks that involved "strategic decisionmaking to collect appropriate data." In addition, the proportion of students able to draw the right conclusions in experiments was much higher than the proportion able to provide an explanation or justification for their answer based on the findings.

For instance, 71 percent of 4th graders could accurately select how volume changes when ice melts, but only 15 percent could explain why that happened using evidence from the experiment.

David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, expressed some alarm about the report's overall findings across grade levels.

"Science is fundamental to education because it is through scientific inquiry that students understand how to solve problems and ultimately how to learn," he said in a press release. "So it's tragic that our students are only grasping the basics and not doing the higher-level analysis and providing written explanations needed to succeed in higher education and compete in the global economy."

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