NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Students Can't Uuse Scientific Reasoning

May 5, 1997

Although American students have some understanding of basic scientific facts and principles, few can actually apply the information to design experiments or clearly explain their reasoning. Such was the conclusion of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, an on-going survey which is designed to provide an in-depth look at what students know in grades four, eight and 12.

The latest test was revised to require students to perform at least one hands-on experiment, as well as answer questions. Comparing students' performance this go-around with those of previous years was not possible, since the test was revised; however, officials called the results "discouraging."

Here are some of the findings:

  • Private school students generally outperformed those in public schools -- except for 12th graders, whose performance was about the same.
  • In experiment after experiment, educators reported, high school seniors could follow instructions to perform a task, but only about one-quarter wrote instructions clear enough to enable someone else to follow them successfully.
  • In most instances, students left out pertinent details or key information.
  • The test found no differences in scientific ability between boys and girls in grades four and eight -- but by grade 12, boys did significantly better.

The test was administered to students in 40 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and in Department of Defense schools.

  • Among eighth-graders, students in Maine, North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin and Minnesota led the list of 19 states in which they outperformed the national average.
  • Students in Missouri, Virginia, Washington state and Rhode Island were among those in 11 states bunched around the national average.
  • Students in Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Delaware were among those in 14 states who were below average.

Sources: Tamara Henry, "Shallow Science," USA Today, May 5, 1997, and Peter Applebome, "Pupils Know but Cannot Apply Scientific Facts," New York Times, May 4, 1997.


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