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Test results: Science neglected in urban schools

New national test results suggest that big city school districts, including New York City, have emphasized reading and math on which they are judged at the expense of the sciences.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which gives national science tests every few years, found 44 percent of 4th-graders and 56 percent of 8th-graders in big cities scored “below basic” on the most recent tests, meaning they have almost no familiarity with scientific concepts or knowledge of the rudiments of physical, life or earth science.

In New York City, the same percentage of 4th-graders, 44 percent, scored below basic while even more 8th-graders, 62 percent, showed no familiarity with scientific concepts. Just 18 percent of the city’s 4th-graders and 13 percent of 8th-graders met NAEP’s science proficiency benchmark.

By contrast, new New York State test results, reported Feb. 22, found far more students — 82 percent of city 4th-graders and 56 percent of 8th-graders — met proficiency standards in science. The stark contrast suggests that New York State has set a low proficiency bar for science, as it has for reading and math, telling the public that students are prepared to advance when they are in fact not mastering basic material.

But the national test results make “a compelling statement that we have a problem,” said Dr. Alan Friedman, vice chair of the NAEP assessment development committee.

In his 20 years as director of New York City’s Hall of Science in Queens, Friedman said, “I saw how many incredibly good teachers we have in New York City, not just in select science schools but in public schools all across the city.”

For that reason, he said, he expected the big cities would do better than the statewide averages on the same science test. Instead, he said, the urban districts scored below the state average on NAEP science.

What’s more, he said, “While these urban districts in general also performed less well as a whole in math and reading, they perform even further below, an even greater deficit, in science.” And “unfortunately,” he added, “New York City had the greatest discrepancy.”

This year’s national science tests cannot be compared with NAEP assessments in 1996, 2000 and 2005 because the national testing board changed the test “framework” to reflect new knowledge and to incorporate questions designed to assess students’ abilities to use scientific thinking and concepts.

A 4th-grade question, for example, asked students which type of grocery bag is best to protect the environment — paper, plastic or cloth. There was no right answer, but testers wanted to see if students could apply concepts of reuse, recycling, biodegradation and environmental protection. Forty-five percent of New York City’s 4th graders got full credit on that question, versus 47 percent of large-city test takers overall.

An 8th grade question presented an experiment designed to assess which of three sneakers provide the most friction on different types of turf. It then asked students to critique the experiment’s design. Testers looked for answers that pointed out that there was no control or that the experiment had too many variables. Forty-eight percent of the city’s students got full credit on that one, versus 50 percent of large-city test takers.

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