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Results are out today on the federal government's nationwide science exams, often dubbed the Nation's Report Card. It shows that science test scores for fourth and eighth-graders are up a bit, but scores for 12th-graders are flat. That got NPR's Eric Westervelt wondering about the bigger picture - how good is the test at assessing science knowledge?
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The test results out today are a mixed bag. But Education Secretary John King says he's encouraged that fourth and eighth-graders showed some progress and that achievement gaps narrowed in those grades between racial and ethnic groups.
JOHN KING: All of this means that more students are developing skills like thinking critically, making sense of information and evaluating evidence.
WESTERVELT: But really, how well can a multiple choice and short answer test assess a subject as complex as science? We reached out to scientists and educators, including Nobel laureate Carl Wieman who teaches both physics and education at Stanford University. He's a strong advocate for higher quality learning techniques in science, often called active learning, that limit lecture and textbook time in favor of small-group problem-solving coached by a teacher. After looking at the Nation's Report Card science sample questions, Wieman told me he's seen worse. But, he says, many of the questions are shallow. He's not convinced the tests meaningfully assess scientific thinking.
CARL WIEMAN: There's still a lot of them that are looking at just - did you memorize terminology? - did you memorize some facts? - where there's no concept at all of where a student might be able to use those facts, which, for me, is kind of more meaningful measures of learning.
WESTERVELT: Here's the thing - some schools are currently in the process of adopting new science standards. They're called Next Generation Science Standards. They're research-based and de-emphasize the classic lecture, textbook, lab and test model in favor of more active learning. Sixteen states, so far, have adopted them. Others have incorporated elements into their state standards. Wieman says the Nation's Report Card is missing a chance to better align its tests with those guidelines. David Evans, director of the National Science Teachers Association, agrees. His group has been instrumental in creating the new standards.
DAVID EVANS: Where students are confronted with a phenomena and asked to begin to develop their own questions and then engage in the practices of science in order to understand the scientific phenomena or core ideas that are behind it.
WESTERVELT: But how do you check students' progress in this new process? Evans concedes it's a huge challenge.
WESTERVELT: Until someone does, Evans says, states should try to create their own classroom-level assessments.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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