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Explaining Results of Science Experiments Proves Challenging for Students

June 20, 2012

When testing fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-grade students on their ability to conduct science experiments and thoughtfully explain the results, investigators made three key discoveries that policymakers say may be troubling for future workforce needs. The National Center for Education Statistics Science in Action report found that when using limited data sets, students could make straightforward observations on the data. However, most struggled to explain the results and were challenged by parts of investigations that contained more variables to manipulate or involved strategic decisionmaking.

More than 2,000 students participated in interactive computer task assessments and updated hands-on tasks that involved more open-ended scenarios. These activity-based tasks were administered for the first time as part of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science assessment. NAEP reported that such tasks require a deeper level of planning, analysis and synthesis thus allowing researchers to understand not only what students know, but how well they are able to reason through complex problems and apply science to real world situations. Topics included predicting how seeds travel, determining what materials make up four metal bars in magnetic properties, and determining what type of plant pigments certain organisms contain.

Researchers made the following three key discoveries from student performances across the tasks:

  • Students were successful in conducting experiments with limited sets of data and making straightforward observations of that data;
  • Students were challenged by investigations that contained more variables to manipulate or involved strategic decision making to collect appropriate data; and,
  • The percentage of students who could select correct conclusions from an investigation was higher than for those students who could select correct conclusions and also explain their results.

The report also looked at results by gender, race and income level when testing students. Findings indicate female students in all three grades scored higher than males on hands-on tasks while males scored higher on traditional paper-and-pencil science assessment. No gender gap existed in interactive computer tasks, however. White and Asian/Pacific Islander students in all three grades scored higher than Black and Hispanic peers in both hands-on and interactive computer tasks and there was an achievement gap at grades 4 and 8 between students from higher- and lower- income families in both tasks.

While science was heavily integrated in daily schoolwork for fourth- and eighth- graders, only about half of twelfth graders reported that they were enrolled in a science course and only 28 percent were writing reports on science projects at least once a week.

The results could be troubling for policymakers and educators working to ensure a competitive U.S. workforce. David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, expressed concern that students are only grasping the basics and not doing the higher-level analysis needed to succeed in higher education and compete globally.

The Nation's Report Card Science in Action: Hands-On and Interactive Computer Tasks from the 2009 Science Assessment is available at: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2009/2012468.pdf.

stem, education, k-12