Rare Skills

20 06 2012

Science Mag:

U.S. Students Know What, But Not Why

The first-ever use of interactive computer tasks on a national science assessment suggests that most U.S. students struggle with the reasoning skills needed to investigate multiple variables, make strategic decisions, and explain experimental results.

Paper-and-pencil exams measure how well students can critique and analyze studies. But interactive tasks also require students to design investigations and test assumptions by conducting an experiment, analyzing results, and making tweaks for a new experiment. Those real-world skills were measured for the first time on the science component of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that was given in 2009 to a representative sample of students in grades four, eight, and 12.

“Before this, we’ve never been able to know if students really could do this or not,” says Alan Friedman, a member of National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. The overall scores on the 2009 science test were released in January 2011, and today’s announcement focuses on the results from the portion of the test involving interactive computer tasks.

What the vast majority of students can do, the data show, is make straightforward analyses. More than three-quarters of fourth grade students, for example, could determine which plants were sun-loving and which preferred the shade when using a simulated greenhouse to determine the ideal amount of sunlight for the growth of mystery plants. When asked about the ideal fertilizer levels for plant growth, however, only one-third of the students were able to perform the required experiment, which featured nine possible fertilizer levels and only six trays. Fewer than half the students were able to use supporting evidence to write an accurate explanation of the results. Similar patterns emerged for students in grades 8 and 12.

IOW, a skill set that only a minority of adults possess can only be found in a minority of fourth and eighth graders and high school seniors.

You don’t say.

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