Report: U.S. science students run simple experiments, but can't explain results
Students competed at the Google Science Fair last year -- but in schools, many struggle to explain experiment results.
June 19th, 2012
12:23 PM ET

Report: U.S. science students run simple experiments, but can't explain results

By Sally Holland, CNN

Washington (CNN)  - American students can successfully conduct simple science experiments at school, but aren't able to explain the results, a new report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows.

Results released today reveal that America's fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders struggled when investigations had more variables to manipulate or required strategic decision-making while collecting data. Many weren't able to explain why certain results were correct.

It's the first time the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card, measured how students performed on hands-on and interactive computer tasks like a professional scientist might. While traditional standardized tests grade students on what they know, people in the workforce are measured on how they apply what they've learned in school. This analysis moves away from "paper and pencil" tests and should allow for a different type of analysis by education experts.

The testing involved more than 2,000 students from public and private schools in fourth, eighth and 12th grades during the 2009 school year. In one task, 12th grade students were asked to determine the best location to build a town based on the quality of the water supply.  The results show 75% of students could perform tests on water samples and tabulate data, but only 11% could "provide a valid final recommendation by supporting their conclusions with details from the data," according to the report.

"It’s tragic that our students are only grasping the basics and not doing the higher-level analysis and providing written explanations needed to succeed in higher education and compete in a global economy," NAEP chairman David Driscoll said in a statement.

The Nation's Report Card results reflect the experiences of K-12 teachers, said Patricia Marstellar, director of Emory University’s Center for Science Education, but she sees reason to be optimistic. Problem-based learning requires the support and education of teachers, school boards, administrators, education professors and others; measuring how students succeed and struggle at it might help solidify hands-on learning in the curriculum, despite the obstacles.

"It’s moving away from, 'Which of the following are mammals?' the little memorization questions, to something that really does address how science is done," said Marstellar, an Emory biology faculty member. "This is a way, way better way to investigate whether students are learning what we think they need to learn to be active citizens and scientifically literate.

"Real world problems are messy. Research is messy. Having a real investigation, where you design something and you iterate, 'What else could be going on? What else could I do?' That’s where you learn something."

The report, "Science in Action: Hands-On and Interactive Computer Tasks from the 2009 Science Assessment," found that female students scored higher than their male counterparts on the hands-on on tasks, but male students scored high on the more traditional "paper and pencil" tests.  No gender gap was found for interactive computer tasks.

CNN's Jamie Gumbrecht contributed to this story.

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Filed under: Issues • Science • STEM • Testing
soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Jenn Rayl

    Totally diluted gene pool – LOL

    June 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  2. SillyMan

    This is a direct result of the over reliance of our brand of standardized testing. I have no actual problem with standardized testing in theory, but the current SAT (and ACT) tests mostly memorization, or knowledge, and not the application of such.

    June 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  3. Randi Honkonen

    It's clear the quality of education is slipping in the States – the majority of Americans (65.2%) believe educational standards have gotten worse in the past 10 years. Even more noticeable than the drop in science/analytical skills are fundamentals like writing, grammar, spelling and knowledge of historical events. These basics top the list of suffering subjects in our schools.

    June 20, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • SillyMan

      The majority of Americans think reality TV is a pretty neat idea. What's you point?

      June 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  4. USminority

    I doubt the teachers would fair much better.

    June 19, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  5. BrianM

    The report stated that more than 2000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12 took the test. What is the actual number? Did they test 700 students from each class? Was this one school system? How many schools in all were involved? Were 2000 students from across the US randomly tested? What was the breakdown of private vs public schools? There are roughly 56 million students enrolled in pre-K through 12th grade. I do not have enough information to draw the same conclusion as the author(s). If I ask 10 6th graders to find Cyprus on a map and none of them can, do I conclude that 6th graders do not understand geography?

    June 19, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Burt Way

      Great questions? We will get answers???

      June 19, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • catherz

      Brian and Burt –
      I covered the same story for Science and can answer some of your questions. 🙂

      They sampled 2000 students in each grade–for grades 4, 8, and 12–so 6000 students total. It was a random sample of a nationally representative sample. In other words, they looked at the demographics for the nation's students with respect to ethnicity, reduced lunch, rural and urban, etc. Then they randomly invited schools to participate such that it would reflect the national demographics. Of course, some schools declined. So they had a minimum cutoff that they used, such as 80% but that may not be the exact %, such that if not at least that percentage of schools accepted the invitation, they started over with a new randomized group to ask and then see again if they can reach the cutoff.

      And if you're interested, I posted a link to the test items that were used, as the students saw them, and some other related supplements over in my story on this topic:

      June 20, 2012 at 4:38 am |
      • BrianM

        Thanks for filling in the missing pieces. I am going to have a look at your article, as I am very interested in this topic.

        June 20, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  6. FaintNFounders

    It was faith in science that got America off track in the first place. This is welcome news, imho, and the less our impressionable youth turn away from their Living God, to Satan's trickery and lies, the better.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Jared

      AAhahahahaAHAHAH ... troll.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Darwin

      Yes! Halleluja, let's go back to the "good old days" when disease was blamed on demons, or punishment for sins, or Jews poisoning the wells, and everyone lived in fear of God's wrath. What wonderful days those were!

      June 19, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • JudgeDB

      Says the idiot using a computer, the Internet, and who knows what medications to keep someone with such minimal brain capacity alive. Whackos like you sure love to take advantage of scientific advancement while claiming how evil it is. Make up your primitive mind already!

      June 19, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • CarlosI

      The purpose of science is to answer the question, "Why?". Religion has never been able to answer that question. The only answer they have is faith. That's like leaving a removable brain tumor to prayer.

      June 19, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
      • Davey

        No, the purpose of science is to provide the "How?" The "Why?" is debated in your philosophy and religion classes?

        June 19, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  7. Jessica

    These posts prove Science isn't the only subject not being taught well in school. What happened to English grammar?

    June 19, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  8. kamarasune

    The system is designed to shock any free thought right out of a kid. They know good and well what a good working educational system looks like and you can bet that the private schools employee those tools....

    June 19, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  9. brown


    Your FINISHED America! Your apathy is finally catching up to you. The 21st century belongs to Asia.

    Learn to kneel.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Khloe Kardasian

      Can I get some of what your smoking, Lamar and I would really appreciate it

      June 19, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Cindy Maddy

      At least some of us know the difference between "you", "your" and "you're".

      June 19, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Jessica

      @brown – that would be "you're", not "your"

      Oh the irony of trying to point out failure, but only looking ignorant yourself!

      June 19, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Archived

      I totally read that in the Kim Jong Il voice from Team America.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  10. David

    We do not teach in this country anymore, we only learn to memorize for tests. I know lots of teachers and they hate the way it is going they want to teach.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  11. Eddie

    I got the answer cut education and start a war. and give the money to the rich yea.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Bregsman

      My thoughts exactly! But hey, at least we subsidize the most profitable companies in history (aka oil). "We don't need no education."

      June 19, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • dave

      I another ignorant (uneducated) comment from the left.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  12. RZ70

    The only thing that is tragic is that we have become so focus on standardized testing that schools can only teach 'facts' anymore (please be kind... I am not trolling for a debate on anything off subject like whether books should be censored). Maybe if schools taught critical thinking or problem solving or basic observation we'd be able to come up with more than just drones who fill out circles on pieces of paper.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Shawn

      I don't think you are wrong necessarily but I think it is a mistake to blame the education system. The fact that American schools teach "facts" is nothing new. Our basic method of education has not changed a great deal over the past couple decades. I think the way we parent is vastly different and the more likely cause of this problem. Kids today are not growing up to be inventive, creative thinkers. Partly because we don't teach it (I don't think we ever did, at least I don't remember it that way), but more so because we don't parent it. Kids are not given enough freedom these days to explore their creativity. The current generation of kids watch a lot of tv, play a lot of video games and spend a lot of time being "entertained" by adults. As a kid growing up in the 70's we had to entertain ourselves. If we wanted to play ball we first needed to be creative and make a ball out of old socks and duct tape. We had to invent games and think of ways to occupy our time. That was our reality day-to-day. The day-to-day activities of today's kids are monitored, planned and coordinated by adults.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
      • CarlosI

        Well said Shawm. Kids today can't even add or subtract without a calculator.

        June 19, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Brittany

      The schools do the best they can. This isn't a problem of schools failing to teach students well; this is a problem of the government ransacking education and trying to run it like some sort of business. Creativity is shrugged off. Fine Arts programs are being cut. Classrooms are growing and teachers are being laid off in droves. Math and Science, which can be made interesting with a good teacher, is being ruined by standards, and if Science isn't being ruined by standards, it's being ruined by idiotic people who would rather have the Bible taught as absolute truth (and these idiots are even in charge of education in some cases).

      June 20, 2012 at 8:55 am |