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Improving performance on science assessments: how is reading related?

August 9, 2011

In a report created in March of 2010, the National Center for Education Statistics (Institute of Education Sciences), released the 2009 Nation’s Report Card.  The data, collected from the 2009 National Assessment for Educational Progress, was analyzed for the Detroit Public Schools 8th grades.  Scores for Science were assessed, and compared to scores for reading.  Before covering the actual results, it would help to first understand what the different reporting criteria mean and how they are evaluated.

There are three (3) levels /categories of achievement and performance measurements Basic, Proficient, or Advanced.  The types of science assessed involved 4 main themes – Science Content (Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences), and Science Practices. The score ranges for each of the performance categories are based upon the overall average score of points given out of the total possible value, expressed as a percentage. The criteria used is based upon progressively higher cognitive understanding and demonstrable communication of such understanding.  Assessments may be computer based or paper based, and may include real world problem solving, and even manipulatives.  Answers may be true-false, multiple choice, or essays, to show whether effective scientific thought can be communicated.  The key cognition as assessed, requires not just understanding of the science and the processes, but also a great deal on understanding how to interpret what is being asked, and then to choose the proper answer or formulate a response.

Detroit Public Schools 8th grade students, as assessed, performed at a level where 80% of the scores were considered below Basic levels of proficiency for science;  17% were considered to have demonstrated Basic levels of proficiency; 3% demonstrated Proficient level of performance.  The report indicates that a number rounded to 0% were considered to have demonstrated Advanced levels of performance.

After looking at a sample of questions taken from the proposed 2011 NAEP Science Framework, (published by the National Assessment Governing Board, Department of Education dated September 2010), I reviewed the Detroit Public Schools 8th grade Reading NAEP 2009 scores.  The results of the reading assessment (provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (Institute of Education Sciences – The Nation’s Report Card), indicate that 60% of Detroit Public School 8th grade students performed Below Basic levels of reading performance as assessed;  34% were reported as having Basic levels of Proficiency;  7% were reported as having demonstrated Proficient level of performance.  Statistically zero percent demonstrated Advanced level of performance.

Scientific Literacy and Communication Skills is a key component of many state science standards.  It is not enough to recall facts and figures, one must be able to analyze, interpret, draw conclusions, and communicate these findings as a core component of the scientific process.  Taken from the proposed 2011 framework, the proposal identifies key requirements to show how students can identify scientific principles.

Identifying Science Principles comprises the following general types of performance expectations:

  • Describe, measure, or classify observations (e.g., describe the position and motion of objects; measure temperature; classify relationships between organisms as being predator/prey, parasite/host, producer/consumer).
  • State or recognize correct science principles (e.g., mass is conserved when substances undergo changes of state; all organisms are composed of cells; the atmosphere is a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace gases that include water vapor).
  • Demonstrate relationships among closely related science principles (e.g., connect statements of Newton’s three laws of motion, relate energy transfer with the water cycle).
  • Demonstrate relationships among different representations of principles (e.g., verbal, symbolic, diagrammatic) and data patterns (e.g., tables, equations, graphs).

In order to be able to do the above referenced scientific processes, one must not only communicate the answer and findings , but also correctly interpret the exact meaning of each question and each possible answer.  If 60% of students taking the assessment have Below Basic Reading Performance, how can accurate understanding by the student of the questions asked be guaranteed?  If 94% of the Detroit Public Schools 8th grade students have a reading proficiency of Below basic or Basic levels, then any form of assessment that requires strong communication or literacy skills, is potentially set up to fail.

Unless either reading skills sets are increased for students, scaffolding of reading and literacy skills are undertaken, or the assessed methodology tweaked, the 2011 science NAEP framework, may have similar results as the 2009 results.  Much of science requires a high cognitive load for the ability to reason out not just what is the science going on in the assessed question, but also just exactly what does the questioning and answer choices mean too.  One wonders if failure in one mode of assessment (reading) automatically reduces the scores on other assessed performance indicators.  If so, any school district that wants to raise science assessment scores, could be best served by increasing literacy and reading skills.

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