Science Assessment Shows that Hands-On Learning is a Must

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released results from its 2015 science assessment, which included physical, life, Earth, and space sciences. The assessment also measured how well students implement science practices, like using scientific principles and engaging in scientific inquiry. The last time NAEP did this assessment was in 2009.

Younger students performed better than older ones with average scores  improving four points for fourth- and eighth-grade students. Scores for 12th grade did not change. Only 22% of 12th-graders performed at or above the Proficient achievement level; that compares with 38% of fourth-graders and 34% of eighth-graders. Science scores for almost all racial and ethnic groups also showed gains.

Hands-on Experience

There were also teacher and student surveys included in the assessment. Clearly, emphasizing science in and outside of the classroom is tied to student performance. Not surprisingly students with more exposure to science scored better on the 2015 science assessment than students with less exposure: Eighth-graders who participate in hands-on activities or investigations in science class every day or almost every day, as reported by their teachers, scored 12 points higher than students who never or hardly ever engage in these activities.

Students with access to school-provided scientific tools–such as telescopes, microscopes and thermometers–also scored higher. Eighth-graders whose teachers reported the highest level of access to these tools scored 16 points higher than eighth-graders whose teachers reported no access. Twelfth-graders who reported having access to such tools scored 37 points higher than 12th-graders without access.

To me these are clear markers to ways to improve student performance. As teachers implement the new science standards, more students, especially fourth- and eighth-graders, will be exposed to hands-on activities and investigative problem solving. Daily science is part of the middle school curriculum. As teachers adjust to the new flexibility under ESSA, hopefully elementary school students will get to do so much more than just math and reading.

Adobe Survey on Gen Z

Adobe recently published the results of a survey focused on Gen Z students (1,000 plus students 11-17 nationwide) and their teachers. Lots of interesting and sometime fund stuff here, including the predictable gap between what teachers are doing and the way students perceive it. But both teachers and students agree that Gen Z learns best through hands-on experience and solving real-world problems. Teachers would like to offer more hands-on, opportunities, but see their current curriculum as a constraint. Science seems to offer the perfect opportunity to engage students more deeply using hands-on, real-world experiences.

But hands-on is moot in classrooms without the basic tools of the discipline. It’s beyond me how there can be a high school science department that does not have ready access to the basic tools of science instruction.

To make matters worse, these same students likely have access to fewer specialized classes and are taught by newer, less-qualified teachers. We can anguish all we want about not producing enough scientists to meet future demands; but until we address these basic inequities, we aren’t going anywhere.

Anne Wujcik

This column was written by Ann Wujcik, editor of EdNet Insight. A version of this article originally appeared in EdNet News Alerts, a property of School Leaders Now’s parent company, MDR.